8 Jul 2021

Revealed: Facebook received millions for ads promoting fossil fuel

Washington Correspondent

The fossil fuel industry has spent millions of dollars promoting gas on Facebook and paying influencers on Instagram to champion it, Channel 4 News can reveal. 

More than $9.5 million was spent on 25,147 adverts by oil and gas companies, with many of them promoting what fossil fuel companies claim are the climate benefits of natural gas.

One former Facebook director said the platform was being used to “propagate misinformation” and “propaganda” that is threatening attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said they reject adverts if one of their “independent fact-checking partners” consider them as “false or misleading” and they take action against accounts that “repeatedly share content rated false”.

‘Manipulating the truth’

InfluenceMap is an independent think tank that provides data and analysis on how business and finance are affecting the climate crisis.

They analysed 25,147 “social issue, election and political adverts” produced by the oil and gas industry and calculated that the cumulative spend for the ads covered in the study was  $9,597,376.

The sample contained 6,782 advertisements promoting natural gas as a green or low-carbon form of energy supply.

InfluenceMap also found that 4,854 of these adverts were posted by the American Petroleum Institute (API) trade body and they promoted “gas as a climate solution”.

The API spent $647,123 on these adverts, which were seen more than 54 million times.

According to Facebook’s own community guidelines, the platform prohibits ads containing misleading information.

But, the claim that natural gas is a green or clean energy source is challenged by climate scientists.

They say the rising production of natural gas is emerging as one of the biggest drivers of climate change, and that plans for industry expansion could hobble efforts to stabilize the Earth’s climate.

Fossil fuel companies argue that gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal and claim this is what makes it a cleaner energy source.

Faye Holder, a programme manager at the think tank InfluenceMap, said: “They’re taking scientific statements that have a degree of truth and manipulating them to kind of promote their own interests, which is a continued use of fossil fuels in this case.”

Speaking of Facebook’s action on tackling climate misinformation on its platforms, she added: “They have a choice to make as to whether they continue to accept money from an industry that is promoting messages that are misaligned from the science or actually listen to the science and act on it as they publicly claim that they’ll do.”

Oil and gas companies are also paying influencers on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, to promote the benefits of gas stoves, this programme has learnt.

Channel 4 News previously revealed how fossil fuel companies held a private dinner last year with the then UK trade minister where they pushed for a “compromise” on gas at the upcoming COP26 UN climate conference, which the UK is hosting in November.

‘Wild West’

Bill Weihl is the former director of sustainability at Facebook and he now campaigns on climate issues with the Climate Voice organisation.

Speaking about the groups that are paying for adverts promoting the benefits of gas, he said: “It is part of their attempt to greenwash themselves and to shift the public debate to make sure natural gas continues to be part of the solution. And I think that’s a real problem.”

He added: “I do think that what we have now is a little bit too much of the Wild West and not enough regulation, and not enough moderation or flagging or other ways to prevent these platforms being used as one of the most effective propaganda platforms ever.”

Mr Weihl said: “I think when it comes to how their platform is used to propagate misinformation (and) propaganda, I don’t think they are paying close enough attention or doing what we collectively need them to do.

“And those ads and what they’re proposing are not consistent at all with what we need to do to decarbonize the pace we need to go.”

Tackling misinformation

In a statement, a spokesperson for Facebook told this programme: “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 false.

“We also connect 300,000 people a day to reliable information through our Climate Science Information Center.”

In a statement to Channel 4 News, API senior vice president of communications Megan Bloomgren said: “Our work to inform the debate around climate and energy policymaking is grounded in and validated by government studies and independent analyses.

“Our energy literacy posts on social media are a fraction of the robust investments our companies are making every day into breakthrough technological research to shape a lower carbon future – efforts like methane capture, hydrogen, carbon sequestration and others.”

Meanwhile, American Gas Association, which also promoted some of the adverts, said natural gas had helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US.