Facebook Is Awash in Oil Money

Facebook Is Awash in Oil Money
Photo: Scott Nelson, Getty Images

Facebook makes close to 98% of its billions and billions of dollars off of targeted ads. The company hasn’t shied away when it comes to taking ad dollars from disreputable sources — including the oil industry.

A new study from InfluenceMap, a think-tank devoted to shining a light on Big Oil’s marketing strategies, shows just how much money Big Oil is spending. According to the group, companies like Exxon and Shell spent a collective $US9.6 ($13) million advertising across Facebook’s platform last year. More than 25,000 ads that were run by the companies fuelling the climate crisis, but the underlying narrative was largely the same: Big Oil isn’t the bad guy that you might have heard about. (To be clear, it is indeed the bad guy.)

Naturally, Facebook ads aren’t the only place these companies are trying to push these sorts of narratives. We’ve seen oil companies tap influencers across (fellow Facebook property) Instagram to post pictures filling up their vehicles at major gas stations. We’ve seen oil giants use their Twitter accounts to gaslight users into thinking that climate change is a problem for individuals to solve.

When it comes to Facebook ads, though, InfluenceMap was able to narrow down the messaging oil companies used across their 25,174 ad dataset into four different categories. The first bucket, and the largest — making up 48% of the ads in the dataset — were the ads that tried to present oil and gas as being “part of the solution” to climate change as a whole. This is an argument we’ve seen from major oil suppliers like Shell and BP increasingly turning to, despite the fact that it’s wrong. So wrong.

Just as wrong is the next biggest chunk of ads these companies ran (making up 31% of InfluenceMap’s dataset): The idea that oil and gas are more “affordable” or “reliable” than other sources of fuel, like wind and solar. Again, that’s just factually wrong. All told, these companies spent a good $US6.25 ($8) million on messaging that can be disproven by… anyone who doesn’t work for an oil company.

InfluenceMap grouped the remaining ads into two more groups: ads that either tried to convince people that Big Oil was good for the overall economy and job market, or tried pushing the idea that oil and gas reliance was a surefire way to establish the U.S. as a “leader” in the energy market. In other words, the ads being run on Facebook don’t scream “Big Oil isn’t killing the planet,” but they do scream “Big Oil might be killing the planet… but look at all the benefits it brings, too!”

It’s a far more nuanced approach than the flat-out denial firms like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell used for so long to keep the public confused and the profits flowing. But that doesn’t make these ads any less harmful. Allowing oil companies to portray themselves in a good light gives them licence to operate. And if there’s one thing report after report and extreme climate disaster after extreme climate disaster has made clear, it’s that that can’t happen if we want a safe climate.

In spite of Facebook’s pledges to help stop climate change and misinformation from circulating on its platform, a lot of that scrutiny doesn’t seem to apply to ads. In fact, many of Facebook’s own ad policies don’t seem to apply either; there are likely hundreds — if not thousands — of ads being missed in the research. InfluenceMap’s dataset only includes ads where oil companies disclosed their relationship to the subject as part of Facebook’s policies for “ads about social issues or politics.” But the researchers were able to find a good handful of ads from the names mentioned above that weren’t running with any sort of disclaimer. It was only after the researchers tipped Facebook off before releasing the report that the company actually bothered taking action against the admins of these company’s pages. As for what action was taken, Facebook was… vague. Per the report:

Facebook informed InfluenceMap on 31st July 2021 that it has taken actions against administrators of some of the Pages belonging to the entities identified in this report. These actions include, but are not limited to, taking down violating ads and restricting users’ ability to advertise on our platform. Facebook did not specify against which entities these actions were taken, for what adverts, or the timeframe in which this occurred.

In other words, Facebook will keep on relying on all of us for its moderation efforts, but won’t give us any transparency into how those moderation efforts work. All the whole, Big Oil will keep falling through the cracks, Facebook makes millions, and we have to bear the brunt of it.