Greenwashing isn’t new - it’s been a practice regularly used by corporations and businesses for decades to make sustainability claims to cover a questionable environmental record. Chevron has been one of the best. In the 1980s, Chevron commissioned an expensive PR campaign to convince the public of its environmental bonafides. Known as “People Do”, the campaign touted imagery of Chevron employees protecting bears, butterflies, sea turtles to keep consumers from thinking about their destructive practices. Of course, during this time, the company was also violating the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.
These days, oil and natural gas companies have taken to social platforms to uplift their “woke” brands, trying to improve their reputation with The Youths by producing flashy YouTube videos and Instagram pics for their own channels, and recruiting social media influencers to peddle their goods in sponsored posts. The strategy relies on unsupported, exaggerated or misleading claims to paint corporate action as being greener than it is.
But not everyone is keen to engage with the oil industry’s propaganda, and the two-way street of social media interaction has created a hero to match greenwashing’s villainy: greentrolling. The unsubtle art of telling polluters to delete their accounts is having something of a moment lately, describes the Washington Post’s Taylor Telford in a recent story.
On Twitter, Shell and other companies' poorly conceived engagement-baiting social media tricks, like polling the Twitterverse to see what us measly individuals are planning to do to reduce emissions, have gotten not quite the response the company might have hoped for — but exactly what they should expect: A snarky pile-on from youth leaders like Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin, activist groups, scientists, and even AOC. The New York Representative told Shell she is “willing to hold you accountable for lying about climate change for 30 years when you secretly knew the entire time that fossil fuels emissions would destroy our planet.
Mary Annaïse Heglar, podcaster and essayist, is “the self-proclaimed 'Godmother of Greentrolling' and co-host of the podcast 'Hot Take,'” started reporting Big Oil ads for promoting bodily harm, before commenting back on the asinine corporate PR content. As a sign of her impact, last summer, she got blocked by ExxonMobil on Twitter, and her heart “burst like the Grinch.” Now, she told Telford, it’s part of her routine, every day she “wake[s] up ad see if they said something stupid.”
Oil companies are obviously more worried about demand dropping, and the pressure is on these companies to significantly cut their production, than they are about some snarky tweets. And of course trolling isn’t quite as effective as the potential outcomes in the latest lawsuit against Exxon, Shell, BP, and API. And of course a Dutch court recently ordered Shell to cut its greenhouse gas emissions significantly faster than it had planned.
So greentrolling may just be a channel for yelling into the void, but with social media feeds packed with content about extreme weather and increased effects of climate change raging through much of the world, yelling at the very actors misleading the public and propping up a carbon-intensive and extractive economy is a cheap and easy way to make their ad spends less effective.
It’s also a great way to do something with all that pent up climate anxiety and existential dread, journalism student Elia Griffen wrote in the New School Free Press, calling it a “release valve.” And, we might add, it’s a great way to talk about climate change online, in a humorous way that might attract new non-climate-concerned audiences within your own networks, while also building solidarity with the activists out there also fighting the good fight.
As Heglar tweeted last week, “If you’re upset about the fire in the ocean, the fires on the West Coast, the hurricane in the Atlantic, the floods in Detroit, the heatwave, or—ya know—the casual events of this week, remember that @Chevron @bp_plc @shell @conocophillips @APIenergy @exxonmobil are all on Twitter”.