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Energy producers use Facebook, get their message out

 

By Hiroko Tabuchi

© The New York Times Co.

Soon after Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, released his $2 trillion climate plan last year that promised to escalate the use of clean energy in the United States, the world’s major oil and gas groups dialed up their presence on Facebook.

Overnight on Facebook’s U.S. platforms, 25 of the biggest oil and gas producers, industry lobby groups and advocacy organizations unleashed a surge in ads promoting fossil fuels, according to ad-spending data analyzed by InfluenceMap, a London-based watchdog that tracks corporate influence on climate policy.

By the following week, collective ad spending by companies such as Exxon Mobil — as well as powerful lobby groups such as the American Petroleum Institute — had risen more than 1,000%, from a seven-day rolling average of about $6,700 a day to more than $86,000 a day, according to the data, based on disclosures by Facebook and tallied by InfluenceMap. For the whole of 2020, 25,147 ads logged more than 431 million views, bringing Facebook almost $10 million in advertising revenue on those ads.

“Do you support America’s pipelines? We all depend on this critical infrastructure for affordable energy supplies!” said an ad run by Exxon starting July 15, 2020, the day after Biden’s climate announcement. “Natural gas is already clean, affordable and efficient — and it’s getting better every day,” said an ad by the American Petroleum Institute starting July 20.

Of the 25 companies and groups, Exxon and API were the largest users of paid ads on Facebook’s U.S. platforms in 2020, accounting for 62% of the total ads analyzed by InfluenceMap. The analysis found that ads were shown to more men than women overall, although there were some variations: Posts that focused on fossil fuels as part of the climate solution were shown to more women, while those that argued oil and gas were a pragmatic choice economically were shown to more men.

In a statement, Facebook pointed out that similar ads run on many platforms, including television, and that the social networking platform offered transparency by making its ad data available. (Many large traditional news organizations, including The New York Times, also accept oil company advertising.) “We reject ads when one of our independent factchecking partners rates them as false or misleading and take action against pages, groups, accounts and websites that repeatedly share content rated as false,” Facebook said.

An Exxon spokesperson, Todd Spitler, said the oil producer believed “that sound public policy is achieved when a variety of informed voices participate in the political process. For these reasons, Exxon Mobil exercises its right to support and participate in policy discussions.”

An API spokesperson, Megan Bloomgren, said the lobby group’s social media spending was “a fraction of the robust investments our companies are making every day into breakthrough technological research to shape a lower carbon future.”

The analysis comes as a big part of Biden’s climate vision, his $1 trillion infrastructure package, moves forward in Congress, with substantial investments aimed at addressing climate change. “While this research focused on 2020,” said Faye Holder, who wrote the InfluenceMap report, “the reality is, the oil and gas sector is continuing to use Facebook as a key tool.”

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