Last Thursday, the Guardian reported on findings from Eco-Bot.Net that reveal the latest case of industry woke-washing, and specifically, “Indigenous-washing,” one of many ad campaigns from TC Energy that falsely present it as being widely supported by the Wet’suwet’en people who are fiercely protesting the company’s pipeline construction.
And it’s clearly used as a strategic weapon, as TC Energy is not merely touting their product but also ramping up ads in the wake of major news moments involving the arrest of land defenders at protests and in violent raids. (The law enforcement officials involved in these arrests have been formally accused of violating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.)
This tracks with standard industry behavior, disinfo researcher Geoffrey Supran told the Guardian. “The upticks in industry spending on ads directed at specific demographics and coinciding with protests appear to be classic examples of financially motivated, politically oriented, micro-targeted public affairs campaigns. There are no better predictors of fossil fuel industry ad spending than political action and media attention, and this data appears to be a case in point.”
The good news is that the years-long slog to hold the industry accountable for its false advertising took a step forward recently, when a judge ruled that Honolulu’s case should remain in state court, denying Big Oil’s request to move it to a federal court where the defendants thought they would get a more favorable hearing.
Elsewhere, Big Oil is facing similarly tough times in court. For example, ExxonMobil’s argument that these cases are an infringement on the company’s First Amendment right to free speech was shut down by a Texas court in late Feb. And then last week, Emily Sanders at ExxonKnews could barely contain her glee at how two Massachusetts Supreme Court justices scrutinized the company’s argument in a case brought by Mass AG Maura Healy. The justices compared Exxon to a tobacco company, which was the last thing its lawyers wanted to hear.
Much like the tobacco industry, the oil industry has engaged in a decades-long false advertising campaign. And not just the one to deceive the public about the serious risks posed by their product, but also to begin setting up this entire defense that climate disinfo is merely “free speech.”
Amy Westervelt uncovered the history at the Guardian, with “never before published internal documents from Mobil Oil reveal that company executives created the framework of corporate free speech back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The argument arose out of a situation, not unlike the one playing out today, with war driving up prices at the pump and oil companies wanting desperately to change the public’s perception of their industry.”
Westervelt traces the industry’s (false) advertising history building the corporate free speech argument through to its ultimate unleashing with the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which “which opened the floodgates on corporate spending” and “blurred the line between commercial speech – a marketing message from a company to the public – and political speech, which up until Citizens United was connected only to funding or speech backing a particular candidate or policy.”
And now they’re using that same defense in court, but as University of Oklahoma professor Robert Kerr told Westervelt, they face long odds because “it’s really deeply established even by some of the members of the current Supreme Court, that the First Amendment will never protect expression that is fraud.” So assuming this conservative-majority court sticks to the conservative legal deference to well-established precedent, it should be a losing gambit for ExxonMobil.
Unfortunately, Kerr added, “with this Court there seems to be a majority that wants to say, 'Yes' to almost any question the corporate interests raise.”