Big Tobacco 2.0: Oil Company Ills and Social Media Spills

Big business is back in front of politicians to confront climate denial, mental health and Frances Haugen

Nearly 30 years ago, the CEO’s from America’s seven big tobacco firms denied under oath that they considered nicotine to be addictive. It was a gold medal winning “smoking gun” moment. The claim was so terminally at odds with reality that millions of damning documents were exposed, public opinion turned, and the Republican Party abandoned its support (er cash) from the industry.


Now, the world’s leading Western oil executives have begun a process that could lead to a similar fate.

Last week the CEO’s of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, alongside the president of the American Petroleum Institute (trade association for super-charged emitters), appeared for questioning in the US Congress.

Accused of deceiving the public about climate change risk, the executives were faced with a choice: admit past sins in failing to convey the existential threat that fossil fuels pose to the planet (exposing them to potential lawsuits which may or may not come in any case), or obfuscate and deny what was already known and risk a similar undoing to that experienced by Big Tobacco.

Surprise, surprise, they chose to obfuscate and deny. 

As always, their corporate response was driven by the numbers. According to research from the Climate Accountability Institute the top 20 oil companies have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, totalling 480 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) since 1965.

Chevron topped the charts of the eight private sector corporations with the most to lose from a shift to renewables, followed closely by Exxon, BP and Shell. They could, instead, convert the verbal gas emissions from their combined fabrication (of the truth) into wind power, and lead the eco movement. Together these four global businesses are behind more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965. The state oil companies on the list include Saudi Aramco and Gazprom. Guess who was a no show at COP26.

The testimony is part of a larger investigation conducted by the House Oversight Committee’s environment panel that will now involve subpoenaing millions of documents from oil companies and trade groups. Proving we can do tobacco moments over and over again - like war, or famine or Abba’s greatest hits.

The hearing is likely the first of many into what’s going on. Which is what happened with Big Tobacco in the 1990’s. And it looks like it could be needed given the extent of money flowing to anti-climate action propaganda and lobbying, and the sheer volume of findings that the fossil fuel industry buried in the past. Who needs more landfill with these guys.

Analysis shows that 139 elected Congress officials still refuse to acknowledge that climate change is human-made, despite scientific acceptance that this is the case. According to the Centre for American Progress, these same 139 climate-denying members have received more than $61 million in lifetime contributions from the coal, oil, and gas industries. Meaning you can’t blame everything on Trump.

The extent of misinformation being spread about climate change is quite manifest around the world and specifically in the United States. Facebook is one of the leading platforms utilised for the dissemination of such information. Apparently it is fuelling (sorry…) climate misinformation around the world, allowing misleading claims and climate denial to circulate widely on its platform, a new report claims. 

The social media giant does not mention tackling climate misinformation in any of its advertising policies or community standards, according to a Stop Funding the Heat campaign report.

Examples of misinformation widely distributed on Facebook include false claims that frozen wind turbines were the main cause of Texas power outages, (apparently Texans just experienced their first mini ice age). There were also reports that arson was the cause of bushfires in Australia. No connection with the fact that these two regions are heavily invested in fossil fuels.

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Mind you, Facebook, or is it Meta (?), is having its own Big Tobacco moment. As well as leaking internal information faster than a polar ice cap, the social media juggernaut is being threatened with a series of investigations to understand more about its potential for social harm. If ‘Big Tobacco’ was about cancer denial, and ‘Big Oil’ is about climate denial, then Facebook is about denying pretty much everything. But mostly ‘Mental Health’ issues. They are yet to confirm whether it is done to employees and/or customers who can practically be defined as anyone that breathes.

According to Frances Haugen, Facebook’s hippest new whistleblower in-residence-no-longer, MetaZuckFacebook knows that Instagram is toxic for girls. Which would normally have been enough sin for any mere mortal tech autocracy. But Haugen’s biggest bombshell was the fact that Facebook chooses profits over safety. Bombshell? Go tell this to ExxonMobil.

The fact that a corporation chooses money over the safety of its users is hardly news, getting played out daily in a whole range of sectors including travel, hospitality, manufacturing, mining and McDonalds. So why the Meta targeting? It seems Facebook crossed a moral red line:

“You can mess with my husband’s health and my kid’s food, but touch my teenage daughter and you’re blackout days will feel like a walk in a climate-free park compared to the hell we’ll raise!”

The affair has made a Greta cult out of Haugen. She’s already got a Wikipedia page and a super profitable career in political hearings, tech conferences, Instagram influencing and, wait for it, cryptocurrency investor. Zuckerberg regrets not having given his favourite whistleblower a boatload more stock options, particularly since she’s just told him to resign and he wants the value of crypto to go up to boost his holdings.

It seems that Meta is Senegalese for ‘time for a new leader’.

But, it could be that Meta/Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp/Your-data’s-all-ours’s current demise is just the tip of a molten iceberg that will bring a wave of new hearings, document shredding and regulations for the social media industry. Once we get to understand the algorthmic harm done to our mental health from online bullying, hate comms and the constant need to update our iPhone to take a better ‘selfie’ - there’ll be no turning back.

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A number of countries are in the process of figuring out how to control social media - mostly because politicians are its biggest target. And no one wants more of a brain drain from politics or we’ll have to create a Metaverse for PMQ’s.

It looks like Silicon Valley’s future focus might be around new, new, new media 3.0. You know, one that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t own. And one that doesn’t rip us or our data off and isn’t as dry or cult opinionated as, well, the media.

The future is bright, other than the climate thing, because the future might just be more Zuckerberg lite!


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