Big Oil Spent Millions on Facebook Ads to Spread Fossil Fuel Propaganda

Fossil fuel companies have updated their messaging.

Environmental air Pollution dumping into the sky above

Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Facebook ads promoting the use of oil and gas were seen more than 431 million times during 2020, in the U.S. alone.

That’s the startling figure from a new analysis conducted by think-tank InfluenceMap, which found that oil and gas companies, industry associations, and advocacy groups spent almost $10 million to insert their messages into our newsfeeds last year. 

“What this shows is that the oil and gas industry is very much staying up to date and using the latest technologies,” InfluenceMap program manager Faye Holder tells Treehugger. “Social media allows a huge reach in terms of who is seeing these ads that you wouldn’t get probably with just a billboard or a print ad.” 

New Platform, New Message

InfluenceMap has spent the past six years studying how corporate lobbying impacts climate policy. In 2019, for example, they revealed that the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies had spent more than $1 billion in shareholder funds either lobbying against climate policy or running misleading ads since the Paris agreement was signed. The same year, they also found that 15 oil and gas companies and trade groups had spent $17 million on political ads directed at U.S. Facebook users since May 2018. However, this is the first “deep dive” that InfluenceMap has taken into big oil’s social media messaging, Holder says.

The think tank decided to do so in part because its employees kept seeing Facebook ads prompting them to join ExxonMobil or attend a BP conference. That led them to wonder, “‘If we’re seeing them, and we know that that ad is not really true, what does the average person at home see?’” Holder says.

To answer that question, the researchers turned to Facebook’s Ad Library, where the social media giant stores a record of all the ads currently running on its four platforms of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, as well as any past political or issue-based ads, which in the U.S. includes any ads related to the climate crisis. InfluenceMap looked at ads run by 25 oil-and-gas-related advertisers: the top 10 spending companies, the top 5 spending industry associations and 10 advocacy groups with industry ties that had spent more than $5,000 each in 2020.

What they found was the companies together had spent a total of $9,597,376 on political or issue ads in 2020. The top spender overall was ExxonMobil at $5,040,642, followed by the American Petroleum Institute at $2,965,254 and then OneAlaska at $329,684. Together, all of the companies ran 25,147 ads, which were seen more than 431 million times. However, Holder points out that their analysis was limited to one country and to 25 groups. 

“Realistically these ads are being seen by way more people than that,” she says. 

The analysis doesn’t just look at the number of ads, but also what they said. The report concludes that the ads contained four main messages: 

  1. “Climate Solutions”: These ads promoted the idea that fossil fuels could be part of the solution to the climate crisis, including the claim that natural gas is clean, green, or low-carbon. They represented 48% of the total and were viewed 122,248,437 times. 
  2. “Pragmatic Energy Mix”: These ads focused on the idea that oil and gas are affordable, reliable, or otherwise important for everyday needs. They represented 31% of the ads and were seen 174,545,645 times.
  3. “Community & Economy”: These ads argued that the oil and gas sector provides jobs and other economic benefits and gives back to the community through donations. They represented 22% of the total and were seen 134,626,737 times.
  4. “Patriotic Energy Mix”: These ads claimed that oil and gas are essential for U.S. energy independence and leadership. They represented 12% of the total and were seen 55,474,052 times.
Ads charts Influence Map

What all of these ads have in common, Holder notes, is they represent how the fossil fuel companies have updated their messaging, moving away from claiming that the climate crisis is a hoax. 

“It shows really that the industry is moving towards this more developed playbook that’s a lot subtler and more nuanced,” she says.

But while that playbook is more nuanced, it is still misleading. Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency say we must move rapidly away from fossil fuels if we are to limit global warming to the Paris agreement goal of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels. That means that ads promoting fossil fuel use still contradict the science on climate change, even if they no longer deny it is happening. 

Targeted Messaging 

The analysis didn’t just focus on what the ads said, but who they were seen by and when they were purchased. 

The ads were primarily viewed in oil and gas producing states, with Texas, Alaska, and California in the lead. They were seen by more men than women, with the exception of “climate solutions” ads, which were seen by more women than men. Further, the ads were most seen by people in the 25 to 34 age bracket, suggesting that the industry might be using social media to reach out to younger viewers. The researchers can’t know the advertisers’ intentions, of course, only the demographic data points provided by Facebook, “but there seems to be some kind of strategy going on in terms of who the ads are being shown to,” Holder says. 

Part of that strategy seems to have involved the 2020 election. Swing states Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio were fourth, fifth, and sixth for viewership. In addition, ad spending spiked when now President Joe Biden announced his $2 trillion climate plan and remained high until the November election when Facebook banned political advertising.  

Top 15 States Graphic

Facebook’s Role

The report also considered Facebook’s role in providing a platform for these pro-fossil fuel messages. 

“Despite its own commitment to mitigate climate change, Facebook continues to receive millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry every year to post ads promoting the use of fossil fuels,” the report authors wrote. 

Facebook might have the authority under its own rules to ban these ads altogether. Its advertising policy bans false or misleading information, and fossil fuel companies have been called out by international regulators for saying that natural gas is a green fuel. The United Kingdom’s advertising fairness authority, Holder points out, warned Equinor against making a similar claim in 2019.

“Despite Facebook’s public support for climate action, it continues to allow its platform to be used to spread fossil-fuel propaganda,” the report said. “Not only is Facebook inadequately enforcing its existing advertising policies, it’s clear that these policies are not keeping pace with the critical need for urgent climate action.”

Further, the report calls for greater transparency from social media companies. InfluenceMap was only able to assess ads that had been labeled as relating to social issues or politics. These ads are supposed to be tagged as such by the advertisers themselves and double-checked by Facebook. However, Holder says she saw similar ads run by companies like Shell and Chevron that had not been tagged and therefore were not saved and could not be considered for the study. This, she says, is a “limitation on our work and generally on anyone trying to hold Facebook to account on this.”

In response, Facebook says it has taken action against some groups running pro-fossil fuel ads. They say some improperly tagged ads have been rejected and the posters have faced restrictions as a result.

“While ads like these run across many platforms, including television, Facebook offers an extra layer of transparency by requiring them to be available to the public in our Ad Library for up to seven years after publication,” a company spokesperson tells Treehugger in an email. “We reject ads when one of our independent fact-checking partners rates them as false or misleading and take action against Pages, Groups, accounts, and websites that repeatedly share content rated as false. We also connect 300,000 people a day to reliable information through our Climate Science Information Center.” 

But this doesn’t answer the question of whether or not Facebook and similar companies should allow fossil fuel ads at all. 

Holder says ultimately this is up to the companies themselves. 

“Really it's a question for Facebook to answer around what their regulations are on this,” she says. “They are a company that has very publicly come out with climate commitments and is seen to be doing a lot. So the question is how does this align with those goals, both their own internal goals and wider goals of society’s net zero by 2050 target that they’ve also supported?” 

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