The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These self-described trolls tackle climate disinformation on social media with wit and memes

Environmental activists, researchers, lawmakers and others are haunting corporate social media feeds to push back against greenwashing

(Washington Post illustration; based on iStock images)
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Most days, when Mary Heglar wakes up, the first thing she does is reach for her phone in search of a fight.

Armed with her Twitter handle and “deep reserves of anger,” the 37-year-old climate essayist and podcaster haunts the feeds of fossil fuel companies, harnessing memes and the native language of the Internet to engage her particular brand of climate activism against the flow of misinformation in the digital ether.

Greenwashing, as her target is known, spans industries and takes many forms — from a backslapping tweet on green job creation to a slick net-zero emissions campaign that defies company practice. The strategy relies on unsupported, exaggerated or misleading claims to paint corporate action as being greener than it is.

But climate advocates like Heglar have adopted a form of rebuttal better associated with the Internet’s ne’er-do-wells — trolling — infused with voice, verve and mordant humor. Greentrolling gives them reach and immediacy, a leveler against well-funded corporate marketing machines, and is increasingly being employed by youth activists, researchers, lawmakers and others to push against the greenwashing they say is rife on social media.

“The reason [fossil fuel companies] are on social media is to greenwash,” Heglar said. “The thing that’s surprising is that they’ve done it unchallenged.”

Heglar, the self-proclaimed “Godmother of Greentrolling” and co-host of the podcast “Hot Take,” says fossil fuel ads started showing up in her Twitter feed after she began tweeting actively about climate change a few years ago. Agitated by what she saw as efforts to mask decades of destruction, she would do things like report the ads for promoting bodily harm “just to be petty.”

She moved on to needling companies in reply threads. In October 2019, her response to a BP survey asking users to calculate their carbon foot print — “B---- what’s yours???” — went viral. Last summer, she got blocked by ExxonMobil, and her heart “burst like the Grinch.”

That is when greentrolling became part of her daily regimen, Heglar said. “I wake up and see if they said something stupid.”

Heglar sensed something larger take off in November 2020, when a Shell poll asking users “what are you willing to do to reduce emissions?” was met with a snarky pile-on from youth leaders like Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin, activist groups, scientists, and even @AOC — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose Green New Deal envisions a planet weaned off fossil fuels as part of a broader approach climate change.

“I’m willing to hold you accountable for lying about climate change for 30 years when you secretly knew the entire time that fossil fuel emissions would destroy our planet,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

Afterward, Heglar said, Shell’s feed went dark for several days.

Shell declined a request for comment.

Greentrolling’s rise comes at a crucial time for oil companies.

The pandemic pushed oil demand to historic lows, spurring hopes that the coronavirus pandemic could kick off a global decarbonization movement. But as economies eased coronavirus restrictions, the industry rebounded. The International Energy Agency has warned that demand could soar at the fastest rate in history without major clean energy action from governments.

Amid the crunch, the industry was being pressed about global warming: On Earth Day, New York City sued ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute for “systematically and intentionally” misleading consumers about “the central role their products play in causing the climate crisis.”

In May, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent by 2030 compared with 2019 levels, a significantly faster timeline than it had planned. And in recent months, ExxonMobil lost three of its 12 board seats to an activist investor determined to shift the company away from fossil fuels.

Chevron, ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment. BP declined to comment.

Meanwhile, severe weather events, which many scientists say are indisputably linked to climate change, are manifesting worldwide: Severe flooding razed villages in Germany and trapped hundreds in submerged subway cars in China, killing at least 14. Wildfires scorched Siberian forests and large swaths of the American West. A monstrous North American heat wave cooked shellfish alive in the waters of Canada.

As of July 9, the United States had recorded eight weather disasters in 2021 in which losses topped $1 billion, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. In 2020, there were 22.

President Biden has identified climate change as a major priority, overturning 40 of his predecessor’s energy and environmental policies and finalizing more than 20 of his own, according to The Post’s tracker. He ended work on the Keystone XL pipeline and restricted drilling on federal land early in his presidency. His administration has announced plans to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030, with a goal of hitting net zero emissions by 2050. Biden’s tax plan also aims to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and raise taxes on major polluters.

Oil and gas companies spent decades privately researching the effects of global warming and adapting their businesses, extensive research has shown. Publicly, giants like Shell, BP, ExxonMobil have sown climate change denial and portrayed themselves as allies of the environment while knowingly acting against its interests, said Genevieve Guenther, founder of the advocacy group End Climate Silence.

ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Shell collectively spent at least $3.6 billion on advertising between 1986 and 2015, according to reporting from the Guardian.

“Fossil fuel companies have really done a lot of work to present themselves on the forefront of decarbonization battle,” Guenther said. “They have painted themselves as being partners in the coming energy transition, whereas industry trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute are doing the hardcore propaganda work of blatantly lying.”

An Exxon lobbyist thought he was in a job interview. Instead, it was a secretly recorded Zoom call.

In May, an undercover Greenpeace effort recorded senior ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy describing the company’s efforts to stymie the White House’s climate agenda. He described Biden’s plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions as “insane” and said the “company had aggressively fought early climate science through ‘shadow groups’ to protect its investments,” according to the report. On Monday, members of Congress requested McCoy appear for an interview on the company’s attempts to “mislead the public” about the role fossil fuels play in climate change.

“ExxonMobil has had scientific evidence about the danger posed by climate change since at least 1981,” Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said in a statement Monday, arguing the company undermined science and prevented action to thwart the harms of its products.

After the excerpts were made public, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods wrote in a blog post that the recorded comments were “entirely inconsistent with our commitment to the environment, transparency and what our employees and management team have worked toward since I became CEO four years ago.” He reiterated the company’s public position in support of the Paris climate agreement and carbon pricing. The company declined to comment further.

America Misled,” a 2019 study by researchers at Harvard University, George Mason University and the University of Bristol, examined how the fossil fuel industry took a page from Big Tobacco by using fake experts and conspiracy theories to fund climate change denial, while attacking the scientific consensus.

“Fossil fuel companies rarely if at all misinform the public directly these days. They’re too savvy for that,” said John Cook, one of the researchers on the study and a research assistant professor at George Mason. “Following in the footsteps of the tobacco industry they started using external groups to launder their misinformation … which mainly gets amplified through social media and mainstream media.”

Climate misinformation is “remarkably static,” Cook said: The central arguments made by oil and gas industries are the same now as they were in the 1990s. But the cost is substantial, Cook and other researchers found: It messes with public understanding of climate change, polarizes the public, reinforces climate silence and lowers support for climate action.

On Twitter, climate misinformation often slips through the cracks, research has shown. Around the time then-president Donald Trump announced the U.S. exit from the Paris climate agreement, roughly a quarter of the accounts tweeting about climate change were suspected of being bots, according to research from New York University and George Mason University. Biden reversed Trump’s decision in January.

Meanwhile, as climate journalist Emily Atkin first reported at HEATED, the application of Twitter’s political ad ban allows fossil fuel companies to run ads discouraging climate action while preventing climate organizations from running ads to fact-check them. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on its policies.

Greentrolling is a form of what researchers call “inoculation theory,” which suggests that bringing attention to weakened forms of misinformation can guard people against its influence, according to Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard researcher who studies oil companies’ messaging tactics. Using humor and the accessible language of the Internet to fight misinformation “creates a spectacle and a drama that grabs people’s attention in a way that a science textbook and facts about polar bears won’t,” Supran said.

Amy Westervelt, a climate accountability journalist and Heglar’s co-host on “Hot Take,” has spent her career reporting on fossil fuel companies and the role they play in sowing the seeds of climate denial. Fear is the animating force in much of their messaging, she said.

“They go for the absolute lizard brain, most emotional kind of messaging,” Westervelt said, “and you cannot combat that with charts and graphs.”

It might be tempting to dismiss greentrolling as frivolous, but fossil fuel companies have poured millions of dollars into shaping their messaging on social media.

In a January 2020 rebranding package, BP said its goal was to “invest in more oil and gas,” while emphasizing the need to position itself as a “leader” in the energy transition, as Westervelt first reported at Drilled News. BP said it needed to “reach younger people” and become “relatable, passionate and authentic.”

In 1997, a gold mining executive coined the term “social license to operate,” which has since become a favorite of the oil and gas industry, Supran said, a way of saying “local stakeholders approve of what we’re doing.” Greentrolling then, is all about swaying the pendulum of public opinion in a way that erodes that license.

“Social media is now, for better or for worse, at the very heart of public conscience,” Supran said. “Whoever wins that terrain will have an upper hand in dominating the climate conversation.”

‘Feels like you’re bullying the bully’

For the past few decades, most of the voices challenging Big Oil were doing so with facts and data, in the belief that scientific research would prove persuasive. Even as the face of climate activism has gotten younger, more diverse and more media savvy, leaders like Thunberg have struck a sober tone: “How dare you?” the Swedish environmental activist famously asked of those complicit in climate inaction in her 2019 United Nations speech. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Which is what makes greentrolling so appealing, and potentially potent, Heglar says: It is accessible, cathartic and free. It uses everyday language to attempt what scientists struggled to do for years with research: counter the voices that bear the brunt of responsibility for the climate crisis. Heglar sees her own greentrolling as applying “the Black aesthetic” to climate activism, to “speak truth to power and call out absurdities” with wit.

“The civil rights movement was not without humor,” Heglar said. “Climate action often looks depressing and sad, but this is fun!”

Greentrolling has spread to Instagram and LinkedIn, Heglar said, and she has noticed that some companies have been quieter. Most have stopped or slowed tweeting about personal responsibility — a longtime tactic to shift blame for the climate crisis to individuals and away from fossil fuel industries that do the lion’s share of environmental damage, she said.

Elia Griffin, a senior studying journalism and design at the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York, wrestles with intense climate anxiety that “manifests mostly as existential dread.” Since she was a kid in Takoma Park, Griffin has been aware of the ways the world was changing: the seasons becoming less distinct, the increasing frequency of wildfires and hurricanes. She worries about the world future generations will inherit: Would they know what a polar bear was? Would they be able to breathe?

Greentrolling provides a “release valve” for her anxiety, Griffin said, a way to take part in the fight for climate change that is not costly or time-consuming. She finds it empowering.

“If you compare your individual self to those Big Oil companies, they’re the ones who are committing these crimes and destroying the earth, way more than myself as an individual,” Griffin said. “It kind of feels like you’re bullying the bully.”

Guenther of End Climate Silence said greentrolling is a great way to appeal to people who are “extremely online.” Although to some extent Guenther “wonders who the audience for greentrolling is,” she thinks that any action taking social license away from oil and gas industries is a worthy pursuit.

Her years as a Renaissance scholar have given her an appreciation of just how liquid public opinion can be in the arc of history, even on issues that seem cemented in convention.

“Change can happen slowly,” Guenther said. “But then it can happen all at once.”