When Australia-based climate activist Belinda Noble tried to promote a Facebook post with the words ‘climate change’ on it, she was barred from doing so. On the social-media platform, paid boosting of political content is sometimes restricted depending on where the user is, or it might require a long authorisation process. In Noble’s case, her attempts have proved futile because the term ‘climate change’ has been regarded as political, forcing her to find creative ways to circumvent the issue.
Noble is the founder of Comms Declare, an Australian campaign that encourages marcomms agencies to pledge against working with fossil-fuel companies. And publicly posting science-backed facts around climate change is part of what her campaign is required to do. Yet, she laments, major fossil-fuel companies continually use major social-media platforms to further their “greenwashing efforts”.
“I can't promote any ad with the word ‘climate change’ in it," she says. "I have to jump through all sorts of hoops to order in order to advertise around that. But I can promote an ad that [promotes] coal or gas."
As an example, Noble mentions an “appalling” campaign from mining company Adani, which is behind a hugely divisive coal project in Queensland that climate campaigners and indigenous communities have been rallying against. Since the middle of last year, the company has been running a campaign called I-Can that focuses on actions children can take to combat climate change—these include consuming less fast fashion and eating less meat.
“Adani is about to open one of the biggest coal mines in Australian history, and they're starting to export coal through a brand-new coal mine," Noble says. "That [campaign] gets through on Facebook. But debate about climate change, or anything that mentions climate change [backed by] science and facts, does not get through. Climate change shouldn’t be political—it’s fact. And I think you should be able to talk about climate-related facts without it being politicised.”
Last year saw the launch of Eco-Bot.Net, an AI system built to expose climate change disinformation and corporate greenwashing on social media, especially during COP26. The system flags potential greenwashed content on social media, and after verification by its in-house team of journalists, the data is visualised online.
For example, in the US, the system found some 958 ads by fossil-fuel companies between January and October last year that contained climate misinformation for lobbying purposes. Collectively these posts raked in an estimated 20 million impressions on social media. Data also showed that Twitter and Facebook are the dominant platforms carrying greenwashed and misinformed content.
Are platforms complicit?
At a congressional hearing last year, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg admitted that climate misinformation was a “big issue”. A Bloomberg analysis pointed out that millions of climate change-denial ads continue to be approved on the platform despite increasing pressure from climate groups to more effectively regulate content.
As one way to silence critics, Facebook in 2020 launched its Climate Science Information Centre to provide facts and spotlight fact-checked content around the climate. This centre is available in more than 100 countries and is said to have had 75 million visits in the last year. In early 2022, the company says it started adding informational labels to some posts on climate change, directing users to the centre.
And in 2021, Facebook introduced its Climate Misinformation Grant, a US$1 million investment channeled towards organisations working to combat climate misinformation. The grant may be a commendable idea, but US$1 million is a tiny fraction of what the company continues to pocket from fossil-fuel companies. For example, in Australia alone, Shell spent up to AU$500,000 (US$362,000) on a month-long campaign promoting its net zero targets.
A spokesperson from Meta told Campaign Asia-Pacific that all climate-related ads it permits to run are included in its public ad library for everyone to see, which it claims provides “greater visibility for those ads than television or newspapers”.
Twitter, meanwhile, reviews ad content, including climate-change denial, under its Inappropriate Content and Quality policies. These policies prohibit content that the platform deems to be dangerous, misrepresentative, distasteful or misleading. And in June 2021, it introduced a climate change Topic for people to find credible climate-change information on Twitter.
A Twitter spokesperson tells Campaign-Asia Pacific that more can be done to elevate credible climate information: “Our teams are thinking about ways to best serve the global climate-crisis conversation, including through tools that surface and make reliable information and resources more readily available. And, through our sustainability work, we continue to evolve our approach to mitigating climate-crisis harms.”
However, data from Eco-Bot.Net shows that companies such as Alliance, Chevron and British Airways continue to plug greenwashed content on Twitter.
Coal protects ratepayers by holding down electricity prices when natural gas prices spike.— Friends of Coal-KY (@FriendsofCoalKY) June 14, 2021
Learn more: https://t.co/b9p4k5e8qY#CountOnCoal #ReliableEnergy #FriendsOfCoal #CoalTruth #ResilientEnergy pic.twitter.com/YJpKGoGM2S
We've announced plans to invest more capital to grow lower carbon energy businesses. We're tripling total capital invested to $10 billion through 2028, and setting growth targets for renewable fuels, hydrogen and carbon capture through 2030. Details: https://t.co/ktB7e5BorV $CVX pic.twitter.com/h91k5Mjpfj— Chevron (@Chevron) September 14, 2021
In the meantime, LinkedIn employs a set of Professional Community Policies to combat false or misleading information, which includes climate misinformation. A spokesperson tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that it takes a number of actions to protect members against the spread of misinformation, including automated techniques coupled with human reviews.
On the contrary, Duncan Meisel, founder of Clean Creatives, says that fossil-fuel companies tend to rely on LinkedIn to reach a more elite audience, or people who are more likely to be shareholders in a major corporation or part of a financial institution that would have a vote in an election.
Meisel says that social-media platforms’ relationship with fossil-fuel companies is tricky, and brings up a catch-22. While platforms are relying on fossil-fuel companies for their bottom line, users also rely on social-media platforms for news relating to the climate, or news related to companies complicit in climate change. And when users get on the platforms, they are welcomed by ads paid for by fossil-fuel companies that are designed to mislead.
“It really does undermine the core mission of the platforms in a way that is problematic and needs to be addressed,” says Meisel. “There’s a free-speech element that also comes into play when it comes to who should be allowed to post. But particularly when it comes to paid advertising, I don’t think there’s a free-speech argument to be made. If one thinks that it’s very important that ExxonMobil be allowed to spend US$10 million influencing a shareholder vote, I’d argue that they can interact with their shareholders in lots of ways. They don't need to use a paid platform to do that.”
What can agencies do?
Two agency leaders tell Campaign Asia-Pacific that the buck should stop with agencies when it comes to promoting greenwashed content on social media. Pete Lin, North Asia CEO at We Are Social, says that agencies play a big role in putting out ethical content, and it’s up to agencies to distinguish fact from “smoke and mirrors”. He adds that social-media users are increasingly sophisticated in detecting greenwashed content, so why should companies even “bother to pretend”?
“There’s an ethical line that you have to walk as the leader of an agency, because a lot of times if you try to push it too far, people will know it’s a diversion. Nobody would actually want to work for you or help you with that effort,” says Lin.
He adds that social-media platforms outside of China have not yet found a balance between free speech and misinformed content. People don’t want to be restricted on online platforms, but when they are given complete freedom, that exposes the platforms to become tools for subversive people who want to use it for bad purposes. Lin says China’s strict content model of “working with a system” is more mature than what’s being rolled out in the West, as he claims the Chinese system “weeds out righteousness”.
Andréanne Leclerc, Asia head of social and performance at Ogilvy, says that while the balance between freedom and control is certainly not easy, agency leaders should frequently refresh their teams about code of conduct on social media, identify areas where there are potential risks, and develop guidance for clients on dos and don’ts. At a macro level, education and collaboration between clients, agencies, platforms, organisations and governments is also critical.
“In my opinion, there are general ethical communication practices like being honest, socially responsible or using data appropriately which apply to social media," Leclerc says. "If we look at social media platforms some are seen as more ethical than others—better privacy, level of democracy, or surveillance."
On the other hand, a benefit of brands and companies using social media is it allows for direct and immediate feedback, which can act as a self-control measure on the part of brands.
“This [aspect] is encouraging as ESG communications require a two-way dialogue between brands, consumers and stakeholders. Also, consumers are increasingly holding brands accountable to what they say and do,” says Leclerc.
She adds that regulatory bodies also have a role to play: “A combination of tactics such as bots, a fact-checker team and a flagging system where people can flag content to be verified would be some of the measures platforms need to implement as part of their CSR.”