Fossil fuel companies are paying influencers on social media to flog climate-wrecking products

TikTok app on a mobile phone. Fossil fuel influencers have been promoting oil and gas products on the social media platform.
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Oil and gas companies are paying popular social media content-makers to publicise their climate-wrecking products. Young online celebrities best known for posting about video games, dogs, or holidays to millions of followers are also dropping in unexpected plugs for petrol stations, fuel rewards, and club cards. As such, we’ve reached a bizarre new frontier of late capitalism: fossil fuel influencers.

The climate disinformation monitor DeSmog said it had found more than 100 influencers, some of them in the UK, who had promoted fossil fuel companies. The outlet reported that:

The influencers have included a popular former BBC presenter, a polar explorer, and an exasperated father of five who needs a break and finds it in the form of BP’s rewards app.

The campaigns have been deployed across a number of social media platforms and are part of a global effort to give “millennials a reason to connect emotionally” with oil and gas firms, and to tackle their perception as “the bad guys”.

DeSmog also stated that Shell was making the most use of influencers. Their paid advocates included Dallas Campbell, best known for BBC pop science show Bang Goes the Theory. He presented interviews with two Shell executives as part of a five-part YouTube series.

Fossil fuel influencers

News agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) conducted separate research on fossil fuel influencers across multiple social media platforms. It found cases of such spots in India, Mexico, South Africa. and the US. Influencers were promoting major fossil fuel firms such as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies on platforms including Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch.

The revelations follow an increasing resurgence in climate disinformation on social media. For example, as the Canary has previously reported, since Musk took over Twitter, the platform has fomented an uptick in climate denial.

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One TikTok user that viewers have dubbed ‘The Petrol Princess’ said in a video:

Come with me to get some snacks at my family Shell gas station

The influencer usually models wigs for her 2.7m followers. Her account is tagged as a “paid partnership” in line with the platform’s rules. AFP also found videos promoting products for US oil giant ExxonMobil. This included a video of an influencer showing off the company’s rewards program. A wedding-themed influencer also produced another promotion for the scheme.

Seeking ‘social capital’

Analysts say companies are targeting young people on social media in a cynical attempt to shore up their oil and gas-based business. Professor of communication and information at Rutgers University Melissa Aronczyk has said that:

Many young people are well aware of the urgency of the climate crisis and take a dim view of fossil fuel companies

She therefore suggested that these firms are now seeking to “build up social capital” with such audiences.

In recent years, fossil fuel companies have doubled-down on targeting young people with their greenwashing messaging. In 2019, the Intercept highlighted how oil and gas corporations had been “youth-washing” their majority-fossil-fuel-oriented activities. Specifically, the news site detailed multiple oil majors’ efforts to co-opt Student Energy, a key youth climate organisation.

Meanwhile, fossil-fuel-funded free-market thinktank the Heartland Institute has even worked with a young German Youtuber. In 2020, the Washington Post described 19-year-old Naomi Seibt as “the anti-Greta”. Seibt has put out Youtube videos denouncing the science behind the climate crisis to her nearly 50,000 followers.

Graham Brookie of the Digital Forensic Research Lab – part of the nonprofit Atlantic Council, which works to expose disinformation – stated that Seibt’s campaign bears resemblance:

to a model we use called the 4d’s — dismiss the message, distort the facts, distract the audience, and express dismay at the whole thing.

Pitiful green efforts

When contacted for comment, Exxonmobil company media relations spokesperson Lauren Kight stated that:

ExxonMobil, like many companies, works with influencers to educate consumers about the full benefits of our fuel rewards program

A Shell spokesperson stated that the company used advertising and social media to promote its low-carbon products. However, it declined to provide examples. In addition, it wouldn’t comment on the paid partnerships for petrol products.

In a search of Shell renewable fuel-related hashtags, AFP found just a handful of Instagram posts promoting its electric car-charging application.

Of course, this is perhaps unsurprising given that renewables make up a tiny fraction of fossil fuel companies’ business. For example, the Canary recently reported on Greenpeace findings that European fossil fuel giants had funnelled only around 7% of their investments into renewables and low-carbon energy.

‘Ethically suspect’

Clean Creatives is a campaign to encourage PR and advertising professionals to abandon fossil fuel clients. Executive director Duncan Meisel suggested that the fossil fuel influencer ads were not strictly direct acts of greenwashing per se. Instead, he judged them:

more ethically suspect in other ways, because it’s encouraging more use of a product that is actively harming people.

Moreover, he said it was hard to gauge the scale of such advertising due to inconsistent labelling.

Instagram and TikTok demand users label branded content. In particular, content-makers must do so when companies have paid them or provided gifts. In addition, the sites have restrictions on advertising dangerous products. However, they do not list fossil fuels among these. Analysis published in 2021 by the thinktank InfluenceMap found that oil companies spent $10m on Facebook ads in a year.

Although endorsements by “third-party” personalities are a long-standing technique in advertising, Meisel and Aronczyk said fossil fuel firms’ bid to court influencers could backfire. Meisel said that:

Influencers that work with fossil fuel companies should expect their reputation to take a hit. Fossil fuel companies are the world’s biggest polluters, deeply disliked by young people – and for anyone who sees these videos, the unfollow button is never far away.

As ever, climate criminals hell-bent on profits will use any devious means to maintain their fossil fuel hegemony. Unsurprisingly, they’re not above manipulating young people on social media – whatever keeps the oil riches flowing.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.

Feature image via Solen Feyissa/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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