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Big coal fakes social media campaign to pressure G20

The world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy, teamed up with PR giant Burson-Marsteller to get hundreds of thousands of bogus "fans." Creative Commons: Paul Sableman, 2013

The world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy, teamed up with PR giant Burson-Marsteller to get hundreds of thousands of bogus “fans.” Creative Commons: Paul Sableman, 2013

With clean energy booming and the world increasingly acting to reduce carbon pollution, big coal is getting desperate.

The world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy, has seen its fortunes crash in recent years. With the help global PR giant Burson-Marsteller—infamous for its handling of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal and its strong historical tobacco industry ties—it is now scrambling to rebrand its dirty product as “good for humanity” with a new social media campaign.

Unfortunately for anyone who takes Peabody at its word, scratch the surface of this campaign and it is very clear that the overwhelming majority of its supporters appear to be bogus.

In February, 2014, the company launched its “Advanced Energy for Life”, which promotes coal as a solution to poverty in the developing world. It now claims the campaign has prompted “500,000 people to lobby G20 leaders on the issue of energy poverty”.

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.

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.

Similarly, Peabody’s AEfL Facebook “Likes” 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.

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.

There a similarly large questions hanging over the quality and engagement of its followers, and the fact Peabody has nothing but tumbleweeds rolling through its tumblr posts, and only 17 Google+ followers again underlines the likely false support for its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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. While other coal companies do help in small ways, ironically they do it by deploying renewable energy.

No amount of grassroot astroturfing can hide the fact that renewables, not coal, provide the fastest, most effective, and most affordable way to help the rural poor in developing nations. Burning more pollutants like coal will only worsen the health, extreme weather, sea level rise, and economic impacts on the rural poor.

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