Coal company fakes social media campaign to pressure G20

Intro

After being reprimanded for misleading advertising in the UK recently, US coal giant Peabody Energy has been caught out again, this time for using what appears to be bought social media supporters to influence G20 energy policy. In February 2014 Peabody launched “Advanced Energy for Life”, an online campaign to promote coal as a so-called “solution” to energy poverty in the developing world. An analysis of the campaign’s Facebook and Twitter accounts has found an implausibly large and rapid growth of suspicious and unengaged supporters, which seems to have been timed for November’s G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia. At a G20 side event it was sponsoring Peabody claimed that the campaign “prompted 500,000 people to lobby G20 leaders on the issue of energy poverty”. Considering both its Twitter and Facebook following is highly suspect, the campaign is looking more like a callous attempt at survival at the expense of the world’s poor, most of whom live off the grid, and are better served by clean energy than dirty coal.

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  • RT @tcktcktck: .@PeabodyEnergy buys FB Likes for political campaign #PollutersPay …for friends http://t.co/6Kpkj4rmr5 http://t.co/9QIWgL0Xd2

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Key Points

  • Big polluters are getting desperate. US Coal giant Peabody Energy is buying Twitter and Facebook supporters to create fake support for a political campaign pressuring the G20. Analysis shows that the vast majority of supporters of the company’s “Advanced Energy For Life” campaign are very likely fake accounts, paid supporters, and otherwise sneaky additions. It is not a genuine grassroots campaign like the company pretends. Companies buying online followers to create the perception that they or their products are popular is a common, if useless and potentially embarrassing practice. However, claiming that fake Facebook ‘likes’ or Twitter followers bought directly or through advertising amount to a political campaign is remarkably deceptive.
  • The coal industry and its supporters in Government are afraid of the moral backlash as global warming accelerates and have adopted a fake moral cause: pretending the world’s poor might be helped by coal. The poor people Peabody uses in its public relations live off the grid and are adopting solar, and in some cases they are helped in this by coal companies other than Peabody. However, even coal companies choose to give them clean energy solutions – not coal. The only visible thing Peabody Energy does to help the poor people it relentlessly talks about in its publicity is spend money on its website and social media.

Background

Having not learned a lesson after being reprimanded for misleading advertising by the UK Advertising Regulator, US coal giant Peabody Energy is again sailing very close to the wind, after it claimed its “Advanced Energy for Life” (AEfL) campaign has prompted “500,000 people to lobby G20 leaders on the issue of energy poverty”.

Launched in February, 2014, AEfL seeks to promote coal as an “advanced energy” that will solve energy poverty in the developing world. By 500,000 people, the Company means its approximately 430,000 Facebook Likes and 124,000 Twitter followers. From very small initial numbers its supporters suddenly exploded in volume in recent months – conveniently in the lead up to the G20, where Peabody was sponsoring a side event.

At the event, Peabody said that “approximately a half-million citizens from 48 nations have urged G20 member nations to place greater focus on advancing policies to alleviate energy policy in the past eight weeks.”

They clearly mean “alleviate energy poverty.” However, typos aside anyone who takes some time to analyse its social media presence can plainly see that the vast, overwhelming majority of these supporters appear to be bogus.

To start with Twitter, on March 13 the AEfL Twitter account had 577 followers. This jumped to 5,028 a month later, then underwent jumps of 13,000, 85,000 and 21,000 on October 2, November 11, and 12 respectively. Its three month average reflects the surges. Peabody’s official Twitter account mirrors these unusual gains during the same period, and interestingly: the unusual growth for both accounts peaks on November 12 – the day Peabody hosted its event at the G20 summit – and start declining afterwards.

Peabody’s AEfL Facebook “Likes” in Google Wildfire for the past three months also show a similarly huge and unusual jump in support between August and November as its Twitter following. On August 31, the AEfL page had 24,537 likes, growing to 427,987 by November 13, when it, like the other accounts, suddenly stopped gaining consistently huge amounts of support.

The abnormally rapid increase during September and October 2014 is starkest when comparing it to Bjørn Lomborg’s Facebook page over the same period.  Lomborg frequently writes articles and op-eds which share some of the views expressed in the AEfL campaign, and he was a presenter at the Peabody event at the Brisbane G20.

Despite being promoted by the AEfL campaign, talking on the same topics, and at the same events, Lomborg’s followers increased only very slightly over September, October and November. AEfL’s follower numbers exploded during the same period. By 17th November, the AEfL Facebook page had amassed 429,096 likes, while Lomborg’s Facebook page had only increased to 13,087 likes.

The quality of followers for AEfL and both their and the company’s social interaction is also a key sign of fake or bought support. For Twitter, the fact that the AEfL campaign only tweets once a day and does not interact with its Tweeps or other users makes its huge and sudden follower gains all the more suspect.

On Facebook, when there is community engagement it is similarly full of off topic interactions, attacks from Peabody critics, or simply garbage, demonstrating again the dearth of real people connecting with the campaign.

The fact that Peabody also has nothing but tumbleweeds rolling through its tumbler posts, and only 17 Google+ followers again underlines the likely false support for its Facebook and Twitter accounts. If the campaign support growth was truly organic, there would be more interest and interaction on other social platforms.

Its Youtube channel is a different story again, but while it does have a few videos with large view counts, there is once again no consistency, with huge discrepancies between views and comments. Most videos having only a handful of views, but even the apparently popular ones only have a small amount of comments, which are overwhelmingly irrelevant, off topic, and from mostly now-deleted accounts.

But why would it fake social support in such a ham-fisted way? Especially since Peabody’s AEfL PR is managed by global giant Burson-Marsteller, infamous for (but not limited to) its handling of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, its work for governments with questionable human rights records, for Exxon after the Valdez spill, and for its work for Big Tobacco. Perhaps they thought no one would bother checking.

Companies buying likes or twitter followers to create the perception that they or their products are popular is a common, if useless and potentially embarrassing practice. However, the huge numbers of followers Peabody has gained appear to be bought to give the AEfL campaign credibility for lobbying, and the company social license to talk about poverty issues.

In reality, the only money Peabody appears to spend on the rural poor is what it spends talking about them on its website and social media channels. It spends $0 directly helping poor people, where other coal companies do help (ironically, others like Rio Tinto help by deploying renewable energy).

Peabody’s arguments for coal’s ability to help the rural poor in India, Africa and elsewhere need the kind of political and PR support because it is trying to buy with AEfL because they do not hold up to scrutiny.

No amount of grassroot astroturfing can hide the fact that renewables, not coal, provide the fastest, most effective, and most affordable way to help the rural poor in developing nations. Burning more pollutants like coal will only worsen the health, extreme weather, sea level rise, and economic impacts on the rural poor.

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Key quotes

  • “The alliance of Big PR and Big Tobacco bought the cigarette companies several extra decades in which to reinvent themselves and adapt to new conditions.  During that time, countless millions became addicted to nicotine and many died of smoking-related illness. Big Coal’s prognosis may be worse than that of the cigarette companies, but in the meantime the impact of campaigns like Advanced Energy for Life could rival or even surpass Big Tobacco’s PR efforts for its effect on human welfare.” Journalists Dan Zegart and Kevin Grandia.
  • “We do not question the climate changing. It has been changing for as long as man has recorded history. [It’s a] modelled crisis. What we would say is that there is still far more understanding that is required for any type of impacts of C02 on carbon concerns. Climate concerns are a threat to the extent that they lead to policies that hurt people.” Senior vice-president of corporate communications at Peabody Energy, Vic Svec.
  • “Notwithstanding the fact that “clean coal” had a meaning within the energy sector, we considered that without further information, and particularly when followed by another reference to “clean, modern energy”, consumers were likely to interpret the word ”clean” as an absolute claim meaning that “clean coal” processes did not produce CO2 or other emissions. We therefore concluded that the ad was misleading.” UK Advertising Standards Authority ruling.

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Tweets

  • MT @DrRimmer: Peabody coal fakes social media campaign to pressure #G20 http://t.co/bNnMS0L8ev One for the @acccgovau and consumer law.
  • MT @AYCC: .@PeabodyEnergy fakes “#LightsOnProject” campaign to pressure #G20 leaders http://t.co/xY5wfKihEk #Coal http://t.co/nKEyPIDusQ
  • MT @BobBurtonoz: Great read “Has @Peabody been fibbing about its G20 #coal supporters?” http://t.co/4EguI3nfdP Answer: looks like a loud yes
  • MT @AYCC: What do the Coal Lobby + TAbbott have in common? Both buy friends on social media #atleasttheyhaveeachother http://t.co/jyISY39Flp