Peabody coal fakes social media campaign

by Greg McNevin, Australian Editor for TckTckTck.org

Peabody_Friends 3-2Having not learned its lessons after being reprimanded for misleading advertising by the UK Advertising Regulator, US coal giant Peabody Energy is again sailing very close to the wind, after it claimed its “Advanced Energy for Life” (AEfL) campaign has prompted “500,000 people to lobby G20 leaders on the issue of energy poverty”.

Launched in February, 2014, AEfL seeks to promote coal as an “advanced energy” that will solve energy poverty in the developing world. By 500,000 people, the Company means its approximately 430,000 Facebook Likes and 124,000 Twitter followers. From very small initial numbers its supporters suddenly exploded in volume in recent months – conveniently in the lead up to the G20, where Peabody was sponsoring a side event.

At the event, Peabody said that “approximately a half-million citizens from 48 nations have urged G20 member nations to place greater focus on advancing policies to alleviate energy policy in the past eight weeks.”

The clearly mean “alleviate energy poverty”, however, typos aside anyone who takes some time to analyse its social media presence can plainly see that the vast, overwhelming majority of these supporters appear to be bogus.

To start with Twitter, on March 13 the AEfL Twitter account had 577 followers. This jumped to 5,028 a month later, then underwent jumps of 13,000, 85,000 and 21,000 on October 2, November 11, and 12 respectively. Its three month average reflects the surges. Peabody’s official Twitter account mirrors these unusual gains during the same period, and interestingly: the unusual growth for both accounts peaks on November 12 – the day Peabody hosted its event at the G20 summit – and start declining afterwards.

AEfL - November 13_TwitterPeabody’s AEfL Facebook “Likes” in Google Wildfire for the past three months also show a similarly huge and unusual jump in support between August and November as its Twitter following. On August 31, the AEfL page had 24,537 likes, growing to 427,987 by November 13, when it, like the other accounts, suddenly stopped gaining consistently huge amounts of support.

Peabody_Wildfire2

The abnormally rapid increase during September and October 2014 is starkest when comparing it to Bjørn Lomborg’s Facebook page over the same period.  Lomborg frequently writes articles and op-eds which share some of the views expressed in the AEfL campaign, and he was a presenter at the Peabody event at the Brisbane G20.

Despite being promoted by the AEfL campaign, talking on the same topics, and at the same events, Lomborg’s followers increased only very slightly over September, October and November. AEfL’s follower numbers exploded during the same period. By 17th November, the AEfL Facebook page had amassed 429,096 likes, while Lomborg’s Facebook page had only increased to 13,087 likes.

Bjorn AEfL November

The quality of followers for AEfL and both their and the company’s social interaction is also a key sign of fake or bought support. For Twitter, the fact that the AEfL campaign only tweets once a day and does not interact with its Tweeps or other users makes its huge and sudden follower gains all the more suspect.

On Facebook, when there is community engagement it is similarly full of off topic interactions, attacks from Peabody critics, or simply garbage, demonstrating again the dearth of real people connecting with the campaign.

The fact that Peabody also has nothing but tumbleweeds rolling through its tumbler posts, and only 17 Google+ followers again underlines the likely false support for its Facebook and Twitter accounts. If the campaign support growth was truly organic, there would be more interest and interaction on other social platforms.

Its Youtube channel is a different story again, but while it does have a few videos with large view counts, there is once again no consistency, with huge discrepancies between views and comments. Most videos having only a handful of views, but even the apparently popular ones only have a small amount of comments, which are overwhelmingly irrelevant, off topic, and from mostly now-deleted accounts.

But why would it fake social support in such a ham-fisted way? Peabody’s AEfL PR is managed by global giant Burson-Marsteller, infamous for its handling of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, its work for governments with questionable human rights records, and for its strong historical tobacco industry ties.

Companies buying likes or twitter followers to create the perception that they or their products are popular is a common, if useless and potentially embarrassing practice. However, the huge numbers of followers Peabody has gained appear to be bought to give the AEfL campaign credibility for lobbying, and the company social license to talk about poverty issues.

In reality, the only money Peabody appears to spend on the rural poor is what it spends talking about them on its website and social media channels. It spends $0 directly helping poor people, where other coal companies do help (ironically, others like Rio Tinto help by deploying renewable energy).

Peabody’s arguments for coal’s ability to help the rural poor in India, Africa and elsewhere need the kind of political and PR support because it is trying to buy with AEfL because they do not hold up to scrutiny.

With the increasingly dire climate, health, and economic problems coal power is creating for the world, its friends are dwindling. The only thing Peabody has been able to prove with sockpuppet support for its misleading AEfL campaign is that polluters know that to survive, they need to pay. It’s a pity Peabody has chosen to pay for fake friends instead of solutions.

Related coverage

Big Coal Buys Facebook ‘Likes’ in Lame PR Stunt (EcoWatch)

Peabody ‘Clean Coal’ Advertisement Ruled Misleading (Bloomberg)

Coal’s Defender-in-Chief Tries to Shift Debate About Fuel (Bloomberg)

The real story of US coal: inside the world’s biggest coalmine (The Guardian)

G20: Reality bites for coal and climate change (The Guardian)