Exxon Spends Millions on Facebook To Keep the Fossil Fuel Industry Alive


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Source: In These Times

In Jan­u­ary 2019, an out­fit called San­ta Bar­bara for Safe and Local Trans­port (SBSLT) began run­ning social media adver­tise­ments for select Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dents. SBSLT’s name and logo — show­cas­ing dis­tant green moun­tains, a sliv­er of blue ocean and a high­way slic­ing through them — could be mis­tak­en for that of a typ­i­cal grass­roots group or a gov­ern­men­tal high­way agency. In real­i­ty, SBSLT is part of a cam­paign by the giant oil cor­po­ra­tion Exxon Mobil to change pub­lic sen­ti­ment about its off­shore drilling in California’s Cen­tral Coast.

Exxon closed down its local off­shore oil plat­forms in 2015, after a bro­ken pipeline led to the cat­a­stroph­ic Refu­gio oil spill. With­out that pipeline, Exxon has no way to move the oil it pumps from its off­shore plat­forms. As a tem­po­rary replace­ment, the com­pa­ny wants to run oil trucks over­land to refiner­ies in cen­tral California.

Pub­lic sup­port is not on Exxon’s side — a fall 2019 poll found 51% of coun­ty res­i­dents oppose Exxon’s truck­ing plan (com­pared with 32% sup­port­ing), and sur­veys show a major­i­ty of Cal­i­for­ni­ans oppose more off­shore drilling — which might explain why SBSLT has paid for dozens of social media ads over the past two years. The ads have appeared on the screens of Cal­i­for­nia Face­book and Insta­gram users around 3 mil­lion times, and often fea­ture racial­ly diverse school chil­dren and cov­er­all-clad oil work­ers. The ads, of course, offer sup­port for Exxon’s over­land truck­ing plan.

The San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty Board of Super­vi­sors will decide Exxon’s local fate, like­ly next year, but the San­ta Bar­bara ad blitz is just one front in Exxon’s dig­i­tal pol­i­tick­ing onslaught — with bat­tles tak­ing place nation­wide. The strat­e­gy sug­gests Exxon is gird­ing for a pro­longed fight to secure its increas­ing­ly ten­u­ous ​social license” to oper­ate, despite the dire pre­dic­tions of how con­tin­ued fos­sil fuel busi­ness-as-usu­al is trans­form­ing the planet.

An In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion, sup­port­ed by a year-long fel­low­ship from the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing, exam­ined 11,622 Exxon social media ads con­tain­ing around 350 dis­tinct mes­sages that ran in the two-year peri­od from June 1, 2018, to May 31, 2020, and appeared on U.S. Face­book and Insta­gram users’ screens as many as 265 mil­lion times. Face­book (which owns Insta­gram) has allowed access to the ads it serves through its Ad Library since May 2018, cre­at­ed by Face­book after a num­ber of trans­paren­cy scan­dals. In These Times used Python scripts made pub­licly avail­able by Face­book Research to search and down­load Ad Library data, then devel­oped cus­tom scripts to ana­lyze and aggre­gate region­al and demo­graph­ic data. (The full method­ol­o­gy is pub­licly avail­able here.)

Exxon has spent more than any oth­er major cor­po­ra­tion on ​social issues, elec­tions, or pol­i­tics” Face­book ads (out­side of Face­book itself), and is the coun­try’s ninth-largest buy­er of such ads over­all: $15.6 mil­lion from May 7, 2018, to Octo­ber 8, 2020. Almost every oth­er top spender is an orga­ni­za­tion relat­ed to pres­i­den­tial cam­paign­ing. The top 100 pages are pri­mar­i­ly politi­cians, non­prof­its and oth­er mis­sion-dri­ven orga­ni­za­tions: The only major cor­po­ra­tion out­side of Exxon, Face­book and Insta­gram is Gold­man Sachs, which spent less than a quar­ter of Exxon’s total.

In These Times exam­ined about $10 mil­lion of that Exxon ad spend, a potent com­ple­ment to the more than $23 mil­lion Exxon report­ed­ly spent to direct­ly lob­by law­mak­ers in 2018 and 2019, and the $203 mil­lion it spent on tra­di­tion­al TV, radio, print and out­door ads from June 2018 to June 2020, accord­ing to data com­piled by Kan­tar Medi­a’s AdSpender.

Dig­i­tal adver­tis­ing is ​a very pow­er­ful tool to accel­er­ate a range of strate­gies and tac­tics that [Exxon] already ha[s],” says Edward Collins, direc­tor of cor­po­rate lob­by­ing at Influ­enceMap, a Lon­don-based orga­ni­za­tion that ana­lyzes and reports on how cor­po­ra­tions influ­ence cli­mate poli­cies. Through Face­book, Exxon can tar­get its ads to users relat­ed to a par­tic­u­lar region, demo­graph­ic or oth­er vari­able, com­mu­ni­cat­ing direct­ly with any Face­book user who fits the company’s pro­file of who might be eas­i­ly per­suad­ed. Using tech­niques typ­i­cal­ly seen from activist groups and polit­i­cal cam­paigns, the ads then ask view­ers to sign peti­tions, take sur­veys and con­tact law­mak­ers in sup­port of Exxon, on issues from frack­ing to trade.

In many ways, this type of ad cam­paign on social media is more akin to lob­by­ing or polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing than adver­tis­ing, and Exxon has worked with right-wing con­sult­ing firm Har­ris Media, a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor with Repub­li­can elec­toral cam­paigns. Some states do require social media cam­paigns to be report­ed as lob­by­ing efforts. Exxon tells In These Times it dis­clos­es all of its lob­by­ing activ­i­ties as required, but experts say incon­sis­tent laws and enforce­ment means those require­ments are gen­er­al­ly scant.

The oil and gas indus­try is THE engine that pow­ers America’s econ­o­my. Take action against inef­fec­tive, unnec­es­sary regulations!”

The U.S. Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or is close to releas­ing the next iter­a­tion of its five-year off­shore leas­ing plan. Open­ing these addi­tion­al areas to drilling will enable the U.S. to access a greater por­tion of its sig­nif­i­cant ener­gy resource potential.”

Amer­i­ca’s resur­gent ener­gy indus­try has achieved some­thing few thought pos­si­ble a decade ago — we are the world’s #1 ener­gy pro­duc­er! SIGN YOUR NAME: Sup­port Amer­i­ca’s strong ener­gy industry!

SUR­VEY: The ener­gy indus­try has been the back­bone of Amer­i­ca for decades. Do you think it’s impor­tant to keep our Amer­i­can ener­gy indus­try strong? Sign your name today!”

Pipelines sup­port more than 500,000 jobs in the Unit­ed States. Defend them!”

Many of the Face­book and Insta­gram ads exam­ined for this sto­ry include calls to action, such as a sur­vey or peti­tion. One of Exxon’s biggest cam­paigns, for exam­ple, told Face­book users to con­tact their law­mak­ers to sup­port the Unit­ed States-Mex­i­co-Cana­da Agree­ment, the suc­ces­sor to the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (com­mon­ly known as NAF­TA) that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump rat­i­fied ear­li­er this year. Through the new agree­ment, the oil indus­try suc­cess­ful­ly lob­bied for spe­cial pro­tec­tion allow­ing it to cir­cum­vent Mexico’s court sys­tem and use inter­na­tion­al arbi­tra­tion in the event of an invest­ment dis­pute. The cam­paign even had its own form let­ter to email to law­mak­ers. Exxon spent as much as $1.3 mil­lion on the cam­paign ads, appear­ing on users’ screens as many as 21.4 mil­lion times.

Because Face­book only pub­licly reports ad impres­sions — the num­ber of times an ad appears, includ­ing mul­ti­ple views by the same per­son — it is unclear how many peo­ple actu­al­ly act­ed on the cam­paign. Face­book also only offers a range of spend­ing and impres­sions for each ad, rather than an exact amount. For exam­ple, on Dec. 20, 2019, Exxon pub­lished a series of ads with the text, ​Pipelines sup­port more than 500,000 jobs in the Unit­ed States. Defend them!” For each indi­vid­ual post, Face­book pro­vides a range for spend­ing (for instance, $300 to $399) and impres­sions (for instance, 7,000 to 8,000). (The low­er range is not report­ed on some ads, so this arti­cle presents the upper range unless oth­er­wise noted.)

Even if peo­ple do not click an ad or sign a peti­tion, Collins says, the ads ​are prob­a­bly still hav­ing an impact, espe­cial­ly if you are see­ing it more than a few times — it’s like any oth­er adver­tise­ment, after all.”

When users do click, they are often sent to one of Exxon’s dig­i­tal orga­niz­ing web­sites. Exxchange​.com, for exam­ple, is Exxon’s ​advo­ca­cy com­mu­ni­ty por­tal” com­plete with its own app for smart­phones. Before reach­ing a promised peti­tion, how­ev­er, users must offer up their per­son­al con­tact infor­ma­tion, build­ing Exxon’s data­base of supporters.

Exxon declined to com­ment on how many peo­ple have signed up — Exxon says only that the Exxchange is ​made up of ener­gy sup­port­ers across the coun­try” and ​its broad mem­ber­ship is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits of oil and nat­ur­al gas in local com­mu­ni­ties across the nation.” But an ad that ran twice in March 2019 pro­vides a clue. The ads are thank-yous for join­ing the Exxchange, sug­gest­ing they were served pri­mar­i­ly to Exxchange mem­bers. Accord­ing to Face­book data, the ads record­ed 40,000 impres­sions, and more than 85% of those who saw the ad were old­er than 55.

Nation­Builder is a non­par­ti­san dig­i­tal cam­paign start­up com­pa­ny whose plat­form is the go-to tech­nol­o­gy for con­ser­v­a­tive and Repub­li­can caus­es, includ­ing the 2016 Trump cam­paign — and Exxchange.

Nation­Builder (and sim­i­lar com­pa­nies favored by lib­er­al caus­es) makes it quick and inex­pen­sive for polit­i­cal cam­paigns to map detailed intel­li­gence about, and main­tain close con­tact with, sup­port­ers. These dig­i­tal tools have trans­formed fundrais­ing and get-out-the-vote efforts by giv­ing orga­niz­ers tar­get­ed infor­ma­tion about reg­is­tered vot­ers in every state. Accord­ing to Exxon, the oil com­pa­ny ​is just one of a num­ber of cor­po­ra­tions, asso­ci­a­tions and non­prof­its that uti­lize dig­i­tal grass­roots advo­ca­cy as a nec­es­sary com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool.”

The Exxchange web­site is built on Nation­Builder and was devel­oped by an employ­ee of Har­ris Media. That com­pa­ny is run by Repub­li­can con­sul­tant Vin­cent Har­ris, once dubbed in Bloomberg as ​the man who invent­ed the Repub­li­can Inter­net.” Har­ris pre­sides over Har­ris Media in Austin, which devel­ops dig­i­tal cam­paigns from video to ghost tweets and text mes­sages for clients. Har­ris emerged as an online savant dur­ing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2012 pri­ma­ry race and has since con­tin­ued his work with some of the most con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans in the coun­try, includ­ing (briefly) the Trump 2016 campaign.

Har­ris’ clients have includ­ed Secure Amer­i­ca Now, which calls itself a non­par­ti­san group ded­i­cat­ed to bring­ing ​crit­i­cal secu­ri­ty issues to the fore­front of the Amer­i­can debate” and has count­ed among its board of direc­tors for­mer Repub­li­can Gov. Mike Huck­abee and nation­al secu­ri­ty fire­brand John Bolton. The Secure Amer­i­ca Now web­site fea­tures, among oth­er things, anti-immi­grant rhetoric and a con­ser­v­a­tive pod­cast series with such guests as for­mer Repub­li­can Speak­er of the House Newt Gingrich.

In anoth­er case, Exxon hired Har­ris Media for a cam­paign to help defeat an anti-frack­ing bal­lot mea­sure in Col­orado in 2018, known as Propo­si­tion 112. The Exxon Mobil Col­orado Issue Com­mit­tee paid Har­ris Media $40,000 for that cam­paign alone, accord­ing to records on file with the Col­orado Sec­re­tary of State, and paid Face­book as much as $20,000 to run the cre­at­ed ads. Those ads cre­at­ed more than a mil­lion impres­sions on tar­get­ed Col­orado residents.

In anoth­er indus­try crossover, Rachel Cross, Exxon’s dig­i­tal and social media advi­sor since April 2020, is a for­mer Har­ris employ­ee. Before that, she worked for Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty, a polit­i­cal arm of the Koch brothers.

Abroad, the U.K.-based non­prof­it group Pri­va­cy Inter­na­tion­al has called out Har­ris Media for its ​vir­u­lent” online ads with ​law and order” themes dur­ing a 2017 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in Kenya, where at least 33 peo­ple were killed in elec­tion vio­lence. The orga­ni­za­tion also doc­u­ment­ed Har­ris Media’s work for extreme right-wing par­ties in Ger­many and France and with Israel’s Likud government.

Lucy Pur­don, act­ing pol­i­cy direc­tor at Pri­va­cy Inter­na­tion­al, says Har­ris Media is part of ​a whole ecosys­tem of com­pa­nies that are all using this tac­tic of data col­lec­tion, pro­fil­ing and micro­tar­get­ing in order to reach cer­tain audi­ences.” She adds, ​There is no trans­paren­cy and no accountability.”

Look, how do you build a data­base?” Har­ris told Politi­co in a 2015 pro­file, explain­ing his meth­ods. ​You build a data­base with enthu­si­asm. How do you build enthu­si­asm? With a mes­sage. How do you push a mes­sage? With social media.”

In a 2018 pre­sen­ta­tion at a meet­ing of the Inde­pen­dent Petro­le­um Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca, Har­ris lament­ed how pro­gres­sive politi­cians and advo­ca­cy groups like Earth­jus­tice were shap­ing the nar­ra­tive around the oil indus­try on social media. On the sub­se­quent slides he laid out the way to neu­tral­ize crit­ics and ral­ly support:

Before an issue aris­es Find OUR peo­ple, recruit OUR peo­ple, and edu­cate them”

Using a bot to get phys­i­cal address”

Acti­vate your folks with tan­gi­ble advo­ca­cy actions to sort and seg­ment the data­base ahead of an issue”

Har­ris Media did not respond to mul­ti­ple requests for comment.

Exxon’s use of social media to lobby the public goes way beyond the rest of the industry.

As GOP dig­i­tal strate­gist Mindy Finn explained to Politi­co: “[Dig­i­tal orga­niz­ing is] not just raw num­bers. It’s ana­lyz­ing and deter­min­ing who those peo­ple [who are engag­ing] are and match­ing them back to vot­er pro­files. … It’s not hav­ing the most Face­book likes and clicks, because the ​who’ matters.”

While only age, sex and state infor­ma­tion for each ad is pro­vid­ed by the Face­book Ad Library, Face­book allows ad buy­ers to tar­get ads based on actu­al online behav­ior, in addi­tion to self-report­ed char­ac­ter­is­tics like work and edu­ca­tion. It can tar­get using online shop­ping and brows­ing his­to­ry, for exam­ple, and whether a per­son is like­ly to engage with con­ser­v­a­tive or lib­er­al polit­i­cal content.

With that kind of tar­get­ing,” Lucy Pur­don says, ​you don’t know what infor­ma­tion has been gath­ered about you, from who, and how you’ve been targeted.”

Face­book says it’s not a one-to-one match of an iden­ti­fi­able indi­vid­ual,” says dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy crit­ic Sara Wat­son, ​but the more ele­ments that you start to tar­get against,” the clos­er you can get to iden­ti­fy­ing indi­vid­ual people.

Exxon’s social media approach is unusu­al­ly brazen, accord­ing to Collins of Influ­enceMap. He tells In These Times that Exxon’s use of social media to lob­by the pub­lic goes way beyond the rest of the indus­try, a claim sup­port­ed by the company’s abnor­mal­ly high spend­ing on Face­book polit­i­cal ads. Typ­i­cal­ly, such tac­tics would be used by polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions or trade asso­ci­a­tions, not direct­ly by corporations.

It does feel nov­el that the ads would not be about the prod­uct but the inter­ests of the com­pa­ny,” Wat­son says. She likens Exxon’s use of social media ads to the work­ings of ​a Super PAC, but on a much more gran­u­lar scale.”

In the 11,622 Exxon ads exam­ined for this arti­cle, on aver­age, 16% of those who saw each ad were men old­er than 65, 16% women old­er than 65, and anoth­er 16% men between 55 and 64. In con­trast, only about 15% were users 18 – 34 (of any gen­der). Despite the fact that peo­ple old­er than 65 were a third of those who saw a typ­i­cal Exxon ad, the group rep­re­sents only 16% of the total U.S. pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, younger peo­ple use social media more than old­er ones. Pew Research Cen­ter has used polling to track social media adop­tion for the past sev­er­al years, report­ing last year that 79% peo­ple 18– to 29-years-old are on Face­book and 67% use Insta­gram, com­pared to just 46% and 8%, respec­tive­ly, of senior cit­i­zens. Although both Face­book and Exxon declined to com­ment on what fil­ters Exxon uses to tar­get its ads, this dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty sug­gests the ads are not being sent at random.

Since Exxon’s pri­ma­ry busi­ness does not involve sell­ing direct­ly to indi­vid­u­als (the com­pa­ny decid­ed to exit the gas sta­tion busi­ness in 2008), Wat­son says Exxon’s per­son­al tar­get­ing could build a case for con­sumer pro­tec­tion, since ​most con­sumers should not have a direct rela­tion­ship with Exxon.” She adds, ​So what right does Exxon have in col­lect­ing any con­sumer data at all, aside from aggre­gate infor­ma­tion about con­sumer trends?”

Exxon declined to com­ment on how it uses indi­vid­ual data, but a few recent exam­ples reveal how the oil indus­try as a whole is embrac­ing the strate­gies Exxon has been rely­ing upon.

Take the Texas con­tro­ver­sy ear­li­er this year over some­thing called pro­ra­tioning, the (now) rarely used gov­ern­ment author­i­ty to reg­u­late oil quo­tas to smooth out fluc­tu­a­tions in the U.S. oil mar­ket. The author­i­ty hasn’t been exer­cised in Texas since the 1970s, but this past spring, the Covid-19 shut­down led to an oil glut so large there was nowhere to store any more oil. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion ordered the U.S. Strate­gic Petro­le­um Reserve to fill ​to the very top” in March, but his pro-oil poli­cies weren’t enough to make up for the plum­met­ing glob­al demand.

The Texas Rail­road Com­mis­sion con­sid­ered lim­it­ing the num­ber of bar­rels that oil com­pa­nies could pump, but free mar­ke­teers — linked to the oil indus­try—suc­ceed­ed in beat­ing back that proposal.

Mul­ti­ple ener­gy com­pa­nies cir­cu­lat­ed the same anti-pro­ra­tion form let­ter, includ­ing Exxon. The Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute (API), which includes Exxon among its mem­bers, field­ed an oper­a­tion under the name Ener­gy Cit­i­zens that used the same language.

API used a sim­i­lar play­book in a 2017 Penn­syl­va­nia cam­paign, bankrolling an orga­ni­za­tion called Cit­i­zens Against Nuclear Bailouts. As revealed in a Feb­ru­ary Atlantic arti­cle, the group tar­get­ed res­i­dents with a bar­rage of Face­book ads, direct mail and phone calls. ​Per­haps most sur­pris­ing,” writer Robin­son Mey­er not­ed, ​the indus­try has … actu­al­ly bor­rowed tac­tics and ideas from cli­mate activists.”

It’s a real­ly dif­fi­cult ques­tion about what to do about” direct tar­get­ing of indi­vid­u­als with mis­lead­ing infor­ma­tion, says Kathie Treen, a Ph.D. can­di­date study­ing cli­mate change mis­in­for­ma­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Exeter, Devon, Eng­land. ​It does raise all sorts of ques­tions about free­dom of speech and demo­c­ra­t­ic rights. Is there a demo­c­ra­t­ic right to be mis­in­formed? Whose respon­si­bil­i­ty is it and who gets to say what counts, what is mis­lead­ing and what isn’t, and whose respon­si­bil­i­ty it is to do some­thing about it?”

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Exxon sent the two ads fea­tured above to social media users near­ly 4 mil­lion times in April 2019. A year lat­er, head­lines about the company’s for­tunes had tak­en a decid­ed­ly dif­fer­ent turn.

Big Oil has fall­en,” said May Boeve, 350​.org exec­u­tive direc­tor, in a tri­umphant state­ment emailed to the envi­ron­men­tal group’s sup­port­ers August 25, the same day the Dow Jones Indus­tri­al Aver­age kicked Exxon off its index. The Dow gave Exxon’s spot, which the com­pa­ny had held since 1928, to busi­ness soft­ware com­pa­ny Salesforce.

Bloomberg called it ​a stun­ning fall from grace,” not­ing Exxon’s ​par­tic­u­lar­ly rapid shift in for­tunes” dur­ing the lethar­gic Covid econ­o­my. Exxon’s removal came a few weeks after the com­pa­ny report­ed a sec­ond straight quar­ter­ly loss. In August, the com­pa­ny announced it would sus­pend pay­ments to the pen­sion funds of its union­ized work­force, though it con­tin­ued pay­ing stock­hold­er dividends.

Exxon was the most valu­able com­pa­ny in the Unit­ed States as recent­ly as 2011, but its stock began los­ing val­ue well before the pan­dem­ic. ​I’m done with fos­sil fuels.,” declared Wall Street guru Jim Cramer on the show Squawk Box in Jan­u­ary. ​They’re done. They’re just done. We’re start­ing to see divest­ment all over the world.”

As eas­i­ly acces­si­ble oil reserves decline, Exxon and the entire fos­sil fuel indus­try is shift­ing toward low­er-prof­it ​uncon­ven­tion­al” activ­i­ties, such as frack­ing — the process of frac­tur­ing shale rock and cap­tur­ing the oil and gas that gets pushed out.

Clark Williams-Der­ry, an ener­gy finance ana­lyst with the pro­gres­sive Insti­tute for Ener­gy Eco­nom­ics and Finan­cial Analy­sis, says frack­ing has been ​a com­plete and utter bust,” a ​cash flow-neg­a­tive” busi­ness with pro­duc­tion costs so high they’ve dri­ven many upstart inde­pen­dent drilling com­pa­nies into bankruptcy.

Are they mov­ing into shale because shale is a great oppor­tu­ni­ty,” Williams-Der­ry says, ​or is it that there is no bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ty?” He adds it’s only a mat­ter of time before Exxon suc­cumbs to com­pe­ti­tion from renew­able ener­gy com­pa­nies and stock­hold­ers flee en masse.

Mean­while, the oil indus­try is attempt­ing to mar­ket frack­ing as a cli­mate-friend­ly ​bridge fuel” to ease the tran­si­tion from coal and oil to renew­ables. But new research sug­gests nat­ur­al gas might actu­al­ly be con­tribut­ing more to car­bon emis­sions than coal—because of gas flar­ing from wells and leaky pipelines. Accord­ing to a 2020 study, 3.7% of the methane pro­duced in Texas’ Per­mi­an Basin (where Exxon has invest­ed in frack­ing) leaks away and nev­er makes it to mar­ket, more than twice the offi­cial EPA esti­mate for the region. Cli­mate sci­en­tists have already deter­mined that if just 3.2% of gas leaks it becomes worse than coal for cli­mate change.

It breaks my heart,” says cli­mate sci­en­tist Peter Kalmus, ​that we are basi­cal­ly skew­ing the planet’s future for the next 10 mil­lion years in exchange for a few more years of frack­ing, of fos­sil fuel CEOs rak­ing in record prof­its. … It’s just madness.”

Exxon’s local fights aren’t all win­ners, like the time it spent $16,000 on ads urg­ing Louisiana res­i­dents to ​take action” in its fight against the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board over extend­ing expir­ing indus­tri­al tax breaks in Jan­u­ary 2019. Those ads were shown more than half a mil­lion times, though the com­pa­ny lost the vote.

But the trend is clear: Exxon turns to social media to push its nation­al agen­da and try to reverse its gen­er­al wan­ing pub­lic sup­port. Exxon spent up to $1.4 mil­lion on social media ads pro­mot­ing pipeline jobs, for exam­ple, appear­ing 40 mil­lion times over the two-year peri­od inves­ti­gat­ed for this arti­cle and par­tic­u­lar­ly tar­get­ing res­i­dents in states such as Michi­gan, where pipeline con­struc­tion is con­tro­ver­sial. Oth­er ads pushed for off­shore drilling in fed­er­al waters and the new trade agree­ment with Cana­da and Mexico.

For ads that were posted with the same or similar text multiple times, this shows the mean number of impressions and mean spending for ads with that text.

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ENER­GY SUR­VEY: 94% of fed­er­al off­shore acreage is off lim­its to devel­op­ment. Do you sup­port expand­ing access to off­shore ener­gy production?
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232,000 Col­orado jobs are at risk. Tell Gov­er­nor Polis to OPPOSE a mora­to­ri­um on new oil and gas development.

In some states, polit­i­cal social media ads like Exxon’s may need to be dis­closed as lob­by­ing efforts. But many states — includ­ing Texas, where Exxon is based — have few rules or report­ing require­ments on social media spend­ing. Even in states with reg­u­la­tions, enforce­ment is near­ly non-existent.

Unlike direct lob­by­ing efforts — in which Exxon would meet direct­ly with law­mak­ers — ​indi­rect” lob­by­ing (also known as ​grass­roots”) gen­er­al­ly refers to efforts that encour­age oth­er peo­ple to con­tact law­mak­ers, the types of cam­paigns that include peti­tions or that aim to influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion about a bal­lot issue. In some states, accord­ing to con­sult­ing firm State and Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, that def­i­n­i­tion includes ads on social media.

There real­ly isn’t data [about how much indi­rect lob­by­ing goes on in the U.S.] because every state is dif­fer­ent,” Eliz­a­beth Z. Bartz, State and Fed­er­al pres­i­dent and CEO, tells In These Times.

In New York, for instance, social media posts are con­sid­ered lob­by­ing (and sub­ject to reg­u­la­tion and dis­clo­sure) when the post includes a ​lob­by­ing activ­i­ty,” takes ​a clear posi­tion on the issue in ques­tion” and attempts to ​influ­ence a pub­lic offi­cial,” accord­ing to a tip sheet from State and Fed­er­al. As Exxon tells In These Times, it ​com­plies with all applic­a­ble laws and reg­u­la­tions and our lob­by­ing reports are pub­licly avail­able and filed with the appro­pri­ate reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies and author­i­ties. Where required, our reports to reg­u­la­tors and author­i­ties dis­close reportable grass­roots lob­by­ing activities.”

But dis­clo­sure is often not required.

“Facebook and other platforms aren’t going to care about it until the public cares.”

Quite frankly, grass­roots lob­by­ing is prob­a­bly the lion’s share of lob­by­ing that goes on at the fed­er­al and state lev­els — and it goes entire­ly unre­port­ed,” says Craig Hol­man, gov­ern­ment affairs lob­by­ist with the non­prof­it group Pub­lic Cit­i­zen. ​As long as [lob­by­ists] don’t actu­al­ly knock on the door in D.C. of a mem­ber of Con­gress, it’s not actu­al­ly reported.”

Report­ed or not, indi­rect lob­by­ing is chang­ing the cor­po­rate lob­by­ing busi­ness, as illus­trat­ed by the 2019 annu­al report of the New York State Joint Com­mis­sion. In New York state alone in 2019, 24% of reg­is­tered lob­by­ists had expand­ed into indi­rect lob­by­ing efforts, though only 1% engage exclu­sive­ly in indi­rect lob­by­ing. Out of a total of $16.8 mil­lion that lob­by­ists spent on adver­tis­ing in 2019, dig­i­tal advo­ca­cy and web­sites account­ed for $3.6 mil­lion, sur­pass­ing the $2.9 mil­lion spent on print advertising.

Hol­man adds that the extent of Exxon’s social media oper­a­tion ​prob­a­bly is evi­dence that [indi­rect lob­by­ing] is far more preva­lent today than it used to be. Social media now and the inter­net pro­vide a per­fect vehi­cle for decep­tive advertising.”

Com­pa­nies will do it until they can’t,” says Sara Wat­son. ​Face­book and oth­er plat­forms aren’t going to care about it until the pub­lic cares.”

In the mid-2000s, there was an attempt in Con­gress to pass a fed­er­al indi­rect lob­by­ing dis­clo­sure require­ment, but it was beat­en by what Hol­man describes as a mas­sive astro­turf cam­paign. Hol­man adds that sim­i­lar pro­pos­als do exist, but whether they even have a chance depends on the out­come of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and ​whether or not the Democ­rats are sin­cere” about rein­ing in cor­po­rate abuses.

“I’m 24 and I wor­ry every sin­gle day about what will become of my future if the oil com­pa­nies keep drilling.”

Even if legal dis­clo­sure require­ments are passed, Wat­son says, ​there are huge ques­tions about the enforce­abil­i­ty of these laws,” par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to plat­forms like Face­book with a busi­ness mod­el utter­ly reliant on tar­get­ed online advertising.

Since 2011, a coali­tion of more than 70 investor groups have pushed for more dis­clo­sure of all cor­po­rate lob­by­ing efforts, sub­mit­ting more than 400 lob­by­ing pro­pos­als to dozens of com­pa­nies in the past nine years. Only sev­en pro­pos­als have received major­i­ty votes, but the issue is gain­ing momen­tum. Mul­ti­ple such pro­pos­als have been sub­mit­ted to Exxon by the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, includ­ing one ear­li­er this year. Exxon rec­om­mend­ed share­hold­ers vote against it. It failed to pass but will be resub­mit­ted next year.

ENER­GY SUR­VEY: 94% of fed­er­al off­shore acreage is off lim­its to devel­op­ment. Do you sup­port expand­ing access to off­shore ener­gy pro­duc­tion? Answer the sur­vey today!”

In 2019, 58% of the oil refined in Cal­i­for­nia was import­ed from oth­er coun­tries. Take action and sup­port ener­gy pro­duc­tion and local jobs right here in Cal­i­for­nia. Sup­port Amer­i­can Ener­gy in San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty. Make your voice heard.

If you have not had a chance, don’t for­get to sub­mit your com­ment let­ter in sup­port of Exxon­Mo­bil’s Inter­im Truck­ing Per­mit. They’re due by 12pm on August 31st!

Exxon’s efforts to use social media to shore up pub­lic sup­port are being put to the test in San­ta Barbara.

The issue con­cerns Exxon’s San­ta Ynez Unit (SYU), con­sist­ing of three off­shore oil plat­forms off the San­ta Bar­bara coast and an onshore pro­cess­ing facil­i­ty at Las Flo­res Canyon. In 2015, the pipeline Exxon used to send oil inland to refiner­ies — oper­at­ed by the Plains All Amer­i­can Pipeline com­pa­ny — spilled 140,000 gal­lons of crude onto the coast­line and into the ocean near Refu­gio State Beach. It wasn’t the first spill along this breath­tak­ing stretch of Pacif­ic Coast. The San­ta Bar­bara Spill in 1969 was the largest sin­gle event in state his­to­ry. His­to­ri­ans say it helped launch the mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and the first Earth Day held the fol­low­ing year.

With­out that pipeline, Exxon’s three off­shore SYU plat­forms were retired. Exxon applied, in 2017, for a tem­po­rary truck­ing per­mit that would enable the com­pa­ny to reopen these wells. If approved, the com­pa­ny would run up to 70 trucks each day (about one every 20 min­utes) on Cen­tral Coast roads from SYU to Cal­i­for­nia refineries.

On August 12, the San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty Plan­ning Com­mis­sion issued its long-await­ed rec­om­men­da­tions based on the envi­ron­men­tal impact analy­sis on Exxon’s plan. A pub­lic hear­ing was sched­uled for ear­ly Sep­tem­ber, but before that could hap­pen, Phillips 66 announced it was clos­ing its San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty refin­ery — which Exxon had intend­ed as its pri­ma­ry des­ti­na­tion for the trucked oil.

A pos­si­ble alter­nate path would be a longer route to the Plains Pent­land Ter­mi­nal in neigh­bor­ing Kern Coun­ty. In its envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis, how­ev­er, the com­mis­sion had sug­gest­ed Exxon aban­don Pent­land alto­geth­er ​to lim­it truck trav­el, reduce air emis­sions, and reduce the like­li­hood of acci­dents result­ing in spills due to few­er miles traveled.”

The com­mis­sion may still approve Exxon’s plan, how­ev­er, and the next step would be a final deci­sion from the San­ta Bar­bara Board of Super­vi­sors. Errin Brig­gs, super­vis­ing plan­ner in the Plan­ning Commission’s Ener­gy Divi­sion, says the project is still fea­si­ble depend­ing on what mod­i­fi­ca­tions Exxon makes to its pro­pos­al and that coun­ty offi­cials will have to weigh the risks of the oil against area eco­nom­ic benefits.

San­ta Bar­bara for Safe and Local Trans­port (SBSLT), mean­while, launched in Decem­ber 2018. SBSLT’s direct ties to Exxon are appar­ent. The San­ta Maria Sun, a local news­pa­per, spoke to Exxon Mobil’s then-SYU asset man­ag­er for a pro­file on SBSLT, and report­ed that SBSLT is ​a joint effort between Exxon­Mo­bil and inter­est­ed San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers”; the group’s web­site says it’s ​Pow­ered by Exxon SYU.”

The SBSLT web­site describes itself as ​a coali­tion of res­i­dents and tax­pay­ers, includ­ing local busi­ness­es, teach­ers, law and safe­ty enforce­ment and Exxon­Mo­bil employ­ees.” Exxon does claim sup­port from sev­er­al unions and busi­ness cham­bers, about 30 busi­ness­es and a half dozen local lead­ers, includ­ing some cur­rent and for­mer elect­ed offi­cials. To date, SBSLT has spent more than $44,000 on social media adver­tis­ing, and Exxon has spent more than $2 mil­lion in a vari­ety of off­shore drilling ads through its pri­ma­ry page.

We need peo­ple to be real­is­tic about the deci­sions that must be made to live here,” Bob Set­back­en admon­ished oth­er local res­i­dents in a com­ment thread last year on the SBSLT page. He is a retired San­ta Bar­bara res­i­dent, accord­ing to his Face­book pro­file, but did­n’t return a phone call request­ing an interview.

As of Octo­ber 19, SBSLT’s Face­book page had only 408 likes and 422 fol­low­ers in a coun­ty of 450,000. The page has drawn the ire of local res­i­dents. ​SYU is a wolf in sheep­’s cloth­ing,” San­ta Bar­bara res­i­dent Mau­reen McFad­den writes May 22. Amy Foss, anoth­er com­menter on the page, calls SBSLT ​an oil com­pa­ny pro­pa­gan­da page, not a ​com­mu­ni­ty.’ ”

In Octo­ber 2019, Face­book said in an online post that it would be adding more infor­ma­tion about who is behind Face­book pages, includ­ing adding con­firmed page own­er infor­ma­tion and ver­i­fied city, phone num­ber or web­site. In Octo­ber 2020, the SBSLT page con­tin­ues to be list­ed as a ​com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion,” and under the ​Page Trans­paren­cy” sec­tion, it reads: ​San­ta Bar­bara for Safe and Local Trans­port is respon­si­ble for this Page,” mak­ing no ref­er­ence to Exxon. But the address pro­vid­ed for SBSLT in the Face­book Ad Library is an Exxon­Mo­bil address.

If we find a Page is con­ceal­ing its own­er­ship in order to mis­lead peo­ple, we will require it to show more infor­ma­tion about who is behind it,” said a spokesper­son for Face­book in an emailed state­ment. ​We’re inves­ti­gat­ing if these Pages fol­low our rules.”

Beyond Face­book, oppo­si­tion to Exxon’s San­ta Bar­bara plans is fierce. The oppo­si­tion has its own grass­roots coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal and com­mu­ni­ty groups, local gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers and more than 80 busi­ness­es. They fear how anoth­er oil spill could impact the region’s tourism and fish­ing indus­tries. Oth­er locals com­plain the roads just aren’t made to truck that much oil.

In San­ta Bar­bara, as it does across the coun­try, Exxon hopes to turn the tide on its pump­ing, truck­ing and frack­ing through its lax­ly reg­u­lat­ed social media lob­by­ing efforts; its polit­i­cal con­sul­tants and cam­paign soft­ware; and its well-fund­ed and heav­i­ly moti­vat­ed sup­port­ers. Exxon’s $16-mil­lion ad spend­ing spree under­scores that the fight against the fos­sil fuel indus­try is far from over.

Stephanie Prufer, an oceans cam­paign­er at the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty, says she does­n’t think Exxon’s strat­e­gy will work for the com­pa­ny, espe­cial­ly among youth.

I’m not sur­prised that Exxon is tar­get­ing the demo­graph­ic that they are,” she says, refer­ring to the fact that Exxon ads dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly appear on the screens of old­er social media users. ​They know they are not going to be able to get the sup­port of peo­ple who are afraid for their own futures. I’m 24 and I wor­ry every sin­gle day about what will become of my future if the oil com­pa­nies keep drilling.”

The sci­ence is so clear,” she adds. ​We need to keep oil in the ground. We need to end drilling on our coast, not revive it.”

 

David DeMaris served as a tech­nol­o­gy con­sul­tant on this sto­ry. Juan Caice­do con­tributed fact-checking.

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is an inves­tiga­tive reporter and author, whose work focus­es cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and green­wash­ing. She was a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

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