Harvard investigation reveals social media as the new frontier of climate deception and delay

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A new Harvard University investigation commissioned by Greenpeace Netherlands, reveals rampant use of greenwashing and tokenism by the largest car brands, airlines and oil and gas companies in Europe to exploit people’s concerns about the environment and spread disinformation online. 

The report, ‘Three shades of green(washing)’, is the most thorough assessment of recent greenwashing by fossil fuel interests on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube. 

Researchers used established social science methods to track brands’ social media activities and analyse images and text in the companies’ posts.

Greenpeace lead campaigner Amina Adebisi Odofin, said: “This report shows that many of these companies devote more online airtime to sports, good causes, and fashion than to their multibillion-dollar fossil-fuelled operations. This clear sports and woke-washing is boosting the sales of climate wrecking products, as well as fuelling international conflict and human rights abuses across the globe. If we are serious about tackling the climate crisis we need a ban on fossil advertising.”

Findings include that only one in five “green” car ads sold a product, the rest functioned primarily to present the brand as green. One-in-five oil, car, and airline company posts used sports, fashion, and social causes – collectively termed ‘misdirection’ – to distract attention away from firms’ core business roles and responsibilities.

Companies variously leveraged imagery of nature, female-presenting, non-binary-presenting non-caucasian-presenting people, youth, experts, sportspeople, and celebrities to strengthen their messages of greenwashing and misdirection.

Two-thirds (67%) of oil, car, and airline companies’ social media posts painted a “green innovation” sheen on their business operations, which the authors identify to represent a variety of types and extents of greenwashing.

Car brands were much more proactive on social media than airlines and oil companies, on average generating twice the output of airlines and quadruple that of oil and gas companies.

Only a negligible handful of posts made explicit reference to climate change, despite Europe’s record-hot summer.

Geoffrey Supran, Research Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and lead author of the research, said: “Social media is the new frontier of climate deception and delay. Our results show that, as Europe was experiencing its hottest summer on record, some of the companies most responsible for global heating stayed silent on social media about the climate crisis, opting instead to use language and imagery to strategically position themselves as green, innovative, charitable brands.”

The report confirms social media is the new frontier of climate disinformation and deception, allowing fossil fuel interests to engage in what the researchers call “strategic brand positioning”. This is an evolution of the public affairs tactics employed by the tobacco industry, which successfully blocked regulation of its deadly products for decades.

Earlier this month, the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, addressed world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, calling for stronger scrutiny on the fossil fuel industry’s “massive public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry” and compared it to the tobacco industry’s lobbyists and spin doctors who successfully blocked regulation of its deadly product for decades.

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Greenpeace and other 40 organisations are pushing a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) petition, calling for a new  tobacco-like law that bans fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in the European Union.  

Silvia Pastorelli, EU climate and energy campaigner, said: “One of our most startling findings is that European oil, auto, and airline industries are subtly yet systematically appropriating the beauty of nature in their social media content to ‘green’ their public image. Car brands in particular, are much more proactive on social media than airlines and oil companies. This means that carmakers play a much larger role in shaping the public narrative on climate, fossil fuels and energy transition. This pervasive and potent public affairs technique has been hiding in plain sight, and it demands greater scrutiny. This is a systematic greenwashing effort that must be addressed with a legal ban on all fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship across Europe, just as happened with tobacco.”

Last year, Greenpeace EU and other 40 organisations launched a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) petition calling for a new tobacco-like law that bans fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in the European Union. 

For the first time this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified the role of public relations and advertising in fuelling the climate crisis, while hundreds of scientists signed a letter calling on public relations and advertising agencies to stop working with fossil fuel companies and spreading climate disinformation.

Read the full report here.

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