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Soon after Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, released his $2 trillion climate plan last year that promised to escalate the use of clean energy in the United States, the world’s major oil and gas groups dialled up their presence on Facebook.

Overnight on Facebook’s U.S. platforms, 25 of the biggest oil and gas producers, industry lobby groups and advocacy organizations unleashed a surge in ads promoting fossil fuels, according to ad-spending data analyzed by InfluenceMap, a London-based watchdog that tracks corporate influence on climate policy.

By the following week, collective ad spending by companies such as Exxon Mobil – as well as powerful lobby groups such as the American Petroleum Institute – had risen more than 1,000%, from a seven-day rolling average of about $6,700 a day to more than $86,000 a day, according to the data, based on disclosures by Facebook and tallied by InfluenceMap. For the whole of 2020, 25,147 ads logged more than 431 million views, bringing Facebook almost $10 million in advertising revenue on those ads.

“Do you support America’s pipelines? We all depend on this critical infrastructure for affordable energy supplies!” said an ad run by Exxon starting July 15, 2020, the day after Biden’s climate announcement. “Natural gas is already clean, affordable and efficient – and it’s getting better every day,” said an ad by the American Petroleum Institute starting July 20.

Of the 25 companies and groups, Exxon and API were the largest users of paid ads on Facebook’s U.S. platforms in 2020, accounting for 62% of the total ads analyzed by InfluenceMap. The analysis found that ads were shown to more men than women overall, although there were some variations: Posts that focused on fossil fuels as part of the climate solution were shown to more women, while those that argued oil and gas were a pragmatic choice economically were shown to more men.

Recent research has highlighted that though natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal or oil – releasing less greenhouse gases, which are the driver of global warming – there are heavy emissions associated with producing the gas. Scientists, environmentalists and, increasingly, regulators have called out the portrayal of gas as a low-carbon fuel as misleading.

In a statement, Facebook pointed out that similar ads run on many platforms, including television, and that the social networking platform offered transparency by making its ad data available. (Many large traditional news organizations, including The New York Times, also accept oil company advertising.) Facebook’s advertising policies also ban ads containing misleading information and require those on social or political issues to be clearly labelled.

“We reject ads when one of our independent fact-checking partners rates them as false or misleading and take action against pages, groups, accounts, and websites that repeatedly share content rated as false,” Facebook said.

An Exxon spokesperson, Todd Spitler, said the oil producer believed “that sound public policy is achieved when a variety of informed voices participate in the political process. For these reasons, Exxon Mobil exercises its right to support and participate in policy discussions.” An API spokesperson, Megan Bloomgren, said the lobby group’s social media spending was “a fraction of the robust investments our companies are making every day into breakthrough technological research to shape a lower carbon future.”

Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard University researcher who has examined the fossil fuel industry’s climate messaging, said aspects of InfluenceMap’s findings were consistent with his research. InfluenceMap identified several different types of messaging in the Facebook ads – including presenting oil and gas as part of the solution on climate change – that had become part of the industry’s playbook, he said.

“What our research has shown is that over the past decade or so, the industry has gradually shifted from outright disinformation about climate science to more subtle and insidious messaging,” he said. But those messages “work to muddy the waters to the same end – which is to stop action on climate change,” he said. “Media and communication platforms need to stop being used; they need to stop being pawns of fossil fuel propaganda and to protect the public.”

The analysis comes as a big part of Biden’s climate vision, his $1 trillion infrastructure package, moves forward in Congress, with substantial investments aimed at addressing climate change. But it is far from the broader package that Biden had sought, and it has also angered climate advocates for extending a lifeline to fossil fuels by allocating some funds to natural gas infrastructure.

Facebook temporarily suspended new political ads before the U.S. presidential elections in November to reduce misinformation and interference. The social networking site has since lifted that ban, and most of the groups tracked by InfluenceMap continue to run ads.

“While this research focused on 2020,” said Faye Holder, who authored the InfluenceMap report, “the reality is, the oil and gas sector is continuing to use Facebook as a key tool.”

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