Social media is at the forefront of ‘climate deception’, Harvard report reveals
Automotive brands, airlines and fossil fuel companies are using social media to green their reputations, according to a new survey from Harvard University.
The report, commissioned by Greenpeace, says its findings show how companies in Europe are exploiting people’s concerns about the environment to spread misinformation online.
“Social media is the new frontier of deception and climate retardation,” says Geoffrey Supran, lead author of the study.
The researcher in the history of science says that while Europe was going through its hottest summer ever“Some of the companies most responsible for global warming have been silent on social media about the climate crisis.”
He adds that they have instead used language and imagery to position themselves as “green, innovative and charitable brands”.
How do companies use social networks to green their reputation?
The report looked at over 2,000 posts from 375 accounts on a wide variety of different social media platforms. They included 12 of the biggest car brands, five of the biggest airlines and five of the biggest fossil fuel companies.
The researchers used established social science methods to assess the images and text published by these companies.
They found that only one in five “green” car advertisements analyzed actually sold a product – the rest served to portray a brand as green.
One in five announcements oilautomakers and airlines have also used sports, fashion or social causes to distract from their core business roles and responsibilities – or “hijacking” as the report calls it.
Two-thirds of these companies’ messaging focused on “green innovation” in their business operations, which the authors say represents a variety of different types of greenwashing.
Only a handful of all posts actually made explicit references to climate change.
How do brands use imagery to green their image?
Specific imagery was also used to reinforce corporate messages about greenwashing and misdirection. Many posts featured/represented female, non-binary, and non-Caucasian presenters, as well as youth, pundits, sportspeople, celebrities, and nature.
The report details how people featuring women, in particular, have been used by these companies to target sales to this demographic and leverage social associations between “green” and femininity.
“While this discussion is primarily geared towards the increased use of female castings in green marketing,” adds Supran, “racial and ethnic minorities are among the highest environmental concerns, so it is reasonable to assume that similar motives may be behind their increased prominence in green messaging as well.
He explains that fossil fuel companies, especially automakers, use the presence of young people and non-binary people to help “legitimize their wokewashing.”
Nature too much was used in posts to help shape similar perceptions of brands.
“One of our most startling findings is that Europe’s oil, car and airline industries are subtly but systematically appropriating nature’s beauty in their social media content to ‘green’ their public image. “, says Silvia Pastorelli, climate and energy activist of Greenpeace EU. .
Pastorelli adds that automotive brands in particular are much more prolific on social media than airlines and oil companies. This means they have a much bigger role in shaping the public narrative on climate, fossil fuels and the energy transition.
“This pervasive and powerful public affairs technique is lurking in plain sight, and it demands closer examination.”
Should fossil fuel advertising be banned?
Researchers say report confirms social media is now at the cutting edge of climatedisinformation and deception”.
Last year, Greenpeace signed a European Citizens’ Initiative petition alongside 40 other organizations calling for laws banning fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in the EU.
And this year, the IPCC identified for the first time the role of public relations and advertising in fueling the climate crisis.
Some countries have already taken steps to get rid of some forms of fossil fuel advertising. France recently announced a ban as part of a package of new climate laws. But environmental groups have said it doesn’t go far enough and Greenpeace is calling for a complete ban – just like tobacco advertisements.
“This is a systematic greenwashing effort that must be countered with a legal ban on all fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship across Europe, as has happened with tobacco,” Pastorelli says.
But curbing the greenwashing identified by the social media report could be much more difficult.
It’s difficult for governments to ban a specific type of social media activity, says Cameron Hickey, project director at the Algorithmic Transparency Institute, because it only applies to entities under their jurisdiction.
“Countries and cities have banned types of content and accounts and forced social media platforms to comply, proving it’s not impossible.”
Hickey adds that the biggest challenge is identifying what constitutes advertising when it is more ambiguous on social media. There are advertisements that companies pay to place in front of the public, but it must also be argued that every communication from a company is a form of The advertisement.
“This creates a much bigger challenge for regulating fossil fuel advertising on social media, as it could have the effect of prohibiting these companies altogether from leveraging social media to communicate.”