Learning from American Petroleum Institute’s Fake Twitter Campaign

Social media has become a popular engagement tool for both companies and organizations. So far the examples we had of social media usage were divided between good (Keen is a great example as my colleague, Paul Smith pointed out here two weeks ago) and the bad (remember the disastrous response of Nestle to Greenpeace campaign on its Facebook page?). Now we also have the ugly.

An investigation by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) concluded that the office of a former Nebraska Senator working for the American Petroleum Institute (API) appears to have set up about 25 fake Twitter accounts to promote the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

This attempt might shock you unless you’re familiar with the campaign tactics of API. Apparently this is not the first time they have launched an astroturf campaign. In 2009, a leaked memo from API’s President exposed plans to launch a nationwide astroturf campaign, including a series of “Energy Citizens” rallies in about 20 states against the climate legislation which was debated then (oh, the good old days) in the Senate.

Two years later API finds itself dealing with another battle – this time it is on the Keystone XL pipeline, a $13 billion project that would extend over 1,500 miles from Alberta to Texas. If constructed, the pipeline will carry tar sands oil, which is considered one of the world’s dirtiest fuels. Along its route from Alberta to Texas, this pipeline could, according to environmental organizations, devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources, and would jeopardize public health. TransCanada needs US State Department approval to move forward and the final decision on the project is expected before the end of the year.

Environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, and landowners in the affected region have come together to oppose the project. Since decision time is getting closer, API probably felt pressured to show that there is also a strong public sentiment in favor of the pipeline– why not launch a fake twitter campaign to demonstrate support?

According to Brant Olson of Rainforest Action Network, who exposed the fake campaign, the person behind it was Keith Bockman, who is apparently connected to Chris Abboud, a former Nebraska Senator, and current lobbyist who works as Grassroots Coordinator for the Nebraska Energy Forum, one of 26 state-based-front-groups sponsored by API in the lead up to the 2012 election. Got that?

So what did Bockman do exactly? According to Olson he opened about 25 twitter accounts designed to prop up public opinion about the pipeline with posts like “The real facts on #tarsands #oilSANDS http://twurl.nl/ik6z8h.” The link will get you to a page on API’s website on oil sands. What caught Brant’s attention was at first that all these tweets were identical and posted at the same time. Later on came more ‘creative’ versions of the message like “I also am 100% in favor of #keystonexl #pipeline, because I, too, live in #nebraska,” or “I’m okwith #keystonexl and #oilsands after clicking on the link below.”

After the fake campaign was exposed by Olson all accounts were removed, which provides strong evidence that Olson’s accusations are accurate. You can see him below explaining the whole story on Al Jazeera English.

If you are familiar with the tactics API and the oil companies have used in the past you’ll actually be expecting them to play dirty. When so much money is at stake it’s only naïve to think the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline will be fair and square.

What actually surprised me was not the lack of ethics on the side of API or the fact that the twitter accounts were faked poorly enough to be discovered. I was actually more surprised by API’s lack of understanding of the use of social media as an engagement tool. You would expect of a trade association with what seems to be a fair amount of resources (it is representing after all about 400 corporations involved in the oil industry) to do their homework. Obviously, they didn’t.

The first lesson API missed comes from author and green marketing expert John Grant – if you need to explain social media in one word, he wrote in his book Co-Opportunity, it would be enthusiasm. And enthusiasm is something you can’t really fake. The second missed lesson is that effective social media requires transparency, open dialogue and authenticity. Again, these are elements that it’s pretty difficult to have when you’re running an astroturf campaign.

Twitter is also just one piece of the social media puzzle. Although I have a feeling that API was planning to extend its efforts to other social media channels if they wouldn’t have been caught, I’d still like to remind them that you need to work on multiple platforms and connect them effectively to achieve results – Just look how Greenpeace runs their outstanding campaigns.

Social media is for better or worse, a conversation you can’t manage and control, or even fake for that matter. API learned it the hard way and not for the first time. Let’s just hope they got the message this time.

Image credit: A typical fake Twitter account set up by tar sands cheerleaders, Brant Olson, Rainforest Action Network

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

4 responses

    1. Evidence? Clearly they’re not learning much. If you’re doing something wrong you’ll be called out eventually!

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