activism websites

How green trolling fights greenwash

Last month the Shell corporate Twitter account attempted a bit of social media engagement and posted a little poll. “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?” they asked, “#EnergyDebate”, with a variety of options to choose from.

It was a spectacular own goal, because of course Twitter responded in form. Some said they were willing to never buy Shell products again. Nationalising Shell was popular, or shutting it down entirely. Thousands of people replied to the poll, including Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

I expect Shell has a new social media manager.

A number of other companies have seen their social media accounts bite back recently, including oil companies and airlines. Mary Annaise Heglar calls this green trolling, and she has been actively encouraging it on her podcast and email newsletter, Hot Take. “I never want to see BP, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, or Total have an easy day on Twitter ever again” she writes.

Trolling is, by definition, being a pest on the internet. It is mean and malicious, and so I’m not sure that green trolling really qualifies, because it’s entirely justified. People are having a lot of fun with it, but it’s also speaking truth to power. Like divestment, it erodes the social licence to operate that the oil and gas giants trade on. And it’s refusing to let the fossil fuel companies run the narrative on climate change.

As climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe replied to Shell, their poll is a deflection. “What am I willing to do? Hold you accountable for 2% of cumulative global GHG emissions, equivalent to those of my entire home country of Canada. When you have a concrete plan to address that, I’d be happy to chat about what I’m doing to reduce my personal emissions.”

Shell happen to have more of a plan than most for reducing their emissions, but it counts for very little when they intend to continue extracting oil and gas. Not that you would know that from their Twitter feed, which puts their renewable energy investments front and centre. Given their enormous contribution to global climate change, it is downright insulting for them to throw it back to ordinary citizens and ask what they are going to do.

We know that Shell understood the dangers of climate change 25 years ago and chose not to act on that understanding. We know that BP deliberately encouraged the idea of personal carbon footprints as a way of deflecting attention away from more systemic solutions. So it is no secret that these companies have intended to manipulate public opinion in the past, and they pay large sums to advertising and PR companies to keep doing it today. The least we can do is call that out on the internet.

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