When to put critics on ice

Oil giant Shell maintained a frosty silence as environmental campaign group Greenpeace faked videos, Twitter feeds and e-mails in its name. A tactic that is paying off, David Bowen says.

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The elaborate online campaign that the environmental activist group Greenpeace has been running against Shell’s activities in the Arctic has stirred up a storm, though not quite in the way Greenpeace intended. It is too early for a proper analysis, but the story already raises some intriguing questions. In particular, which will it damage more – Shell or Greenpeace?

Once upon a time

On 7 June a short video appeared on YouTube, showing a private send-off party for Shell’s Arctic rigs in Seattle. The model rig started spraying black liquid over an elderly lady. The ‘hilarious’ video went viral, with more than 800,000 views on YouTube, where it is labelled ‘#shellfail’.
Soon after, journalists and bloggers received an e-mail from Shell’s PR department warning that “lawyers operating on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell plc (Shell) are considering formal action… Shell is monitoring the spread of potentially defamatory material on the internet and reporters are advised to avoid publishing such material”.
Then a new site appeared proving Shell’s online incompetence. Arctic Ready, a subset of the group’s US site, hosted a competition that invited visitors to select a picture, of wildlife or wild icescape, and add their own slogan. Few of the slogans did Shell any favours. ‘Some say catastrophe. We say opportunity’ was typical. ‘You can’t run your SUV on “cute”’ was the subtler winner. As news spread that Shell’s attempt to be clever had backfired spectacularly, #shellfail became a popular hashtag on Twitter.
All these – video, site and e-mail – were fakes, produced by skilled pranksters the Yes Men, along with Greenpeace.
Anyone looking closely at the video and site should have realised that they were hoaxes, albeit clever ones. What was much less clear, especially to journalists in a hurry, was that the e-mail ‘threat’ was also a fake. In fact, Shell was deliberately doing nothing. It did not mention the campaign, even on its own Arctic site.
Greenpeace put up a piece on its own blog explaining what it and the Yes Men had done. A ‘behind the scenes’ video appeared on YouTube giving away some of the secrets.

Return of the pranksters

But Greenpeace hadn’t finished with its campaign. A Twitter feed, @ShellIsPrepared, was launched on 17 June, apparently designed to limit the damage from the backfiring campaign. It was very plausible: “We’re a bit embarrassed. Please don’t share inflammatory ads”; “We’re glad you’re excited by the campaign but please do not share offensive ads”. A fake again, but carefully disguised.
In the past week there have been two developments. First, the ShellIsPrepared feed has showed its true colours: “#Shell is grateful for those who sit around and do nothing to stop us. Without you, none of this #Arctic exploitation would be possible”. Second, a new wave of tweets appeared saying that Shell was making a fool of itself with Arctic Ready. These blossomed for a day or so before being quenched by tweeters pointing out that it was a scam.
Inevitably, the story hit the mainstream media, which spotted that this was a new level of sophistication by the NGO [non-governmental organisation]. Greenpeace did not hide its light under a bushel. The Financial Times quoted James Turner of Greenpeace USA: “We’re only beginning to understand how much social media can change our society. Taking advertising out of corporations’ hands and putting it into normal people’s hands has changed the way people see brands forever”.
But already a backlash was developing. Forbes criticised Greenpeace’s tactics, while Martin Robbins wrote in the left-leaning UK magazine New Statesman that “this is an NGO that thinks it is acceptable to lie to the public, to lie to bloggers and journalists, and to then intimidate writers with threatening emails warning of legal action”.
Back on the internet, the comments under Greenpeace’s own description of the campaign were overwhelmingly hostile. Only eight of the 43 were supportive. The rest ranged from the crisp – “You’ve lost any high ground you earned” – to the poetic: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive”. Surely, many said, there are other real sins of Shell’s that can be exposed without going for all this hoaxing?

Fortress of Solitude

Meanwhile, Shell continued to do nothing. A spokesman described it to the Financial Times as “high jinks”, and left it at that. The oil giant’s own Facebook page had a handful of hostile comments, but nothing significant.
Looking at the story so far, this is what I see.
p((. •Greenpeace made a mistake pulling the wool over mainstream journalists’ eyes. This is still by far the most influential group of opinion formers and you irritate it as your peril. The NGO could be paying for this for many years.
p((. •It appears to have alienated many of its supporters, judging from the comments on its blog. They may, as a couple of comments suggest, have been orchestrated by Shell, but I very much doubt it. Shell understands the internet too well to think it could get away with that.
p((. •If, as some comments say, Greenpeace has given campaigners permission to deceive, the whole world of social media will become ever murkier. There is a contrast with its 2010 campaign against Nestlé, which started with an obviously spoof video in which a Kit-Kat chocolate bar finger was replaced by an orang-utan’s. While the Arctic Ready site gave clues, the e-mail and Twitter feed did their very best to come across as genuine. The word ‘deception’ is used over and again on the Greenpeace comments – and many regard that as stepping over the edge of acceptability, however good the cause.
p((. •Shell has done the right thing in its own terms by sitting firmly on its hands. It could have thrown lawyers at Greenpeace for any number of things. Instead, it learnt from Nestlé, whose first big mistake came when one of its units attempted to suppress the orang-utan video. That was exactly what Greenpeace wanted: it created a storm of outrage that transferred to the company’s Facebook page. Shell’s strong central web organisation must have been flexing its muscles – I bet some of its lawyers were baying to be let loose.
p((. •An interesting detail is the way the original Arctic Ready story came back and flourished briefly on Twitter weeks after it first appeared. There will probably be more such waves, which remind me of the fake virus warnings that used to pop up regularly on e-mail before being suppressed by a surge of denials. Twitter is not a place of perfect information, but it is more or less self-regulating. Obvious fakery will be suppressed without the target having to do anything.
The two big points to me are these. First, Greenpeace has undermined a potentially powerful new campaigning technique by trying to be too clever.
Second, for potential targets the argument for strong central in-house governance is greatly enhanced. They need the brain to make sure the right decisions are made, fast. And they need the brawn to keep the rest of the organisation well in check.

First published 25 July, 2012
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