Has Peabody been fibbing about its G20 coal supporters?

The coal major took to the G20 proud claims of 500,000-strong online support for its campaign on coal and energy poverty. Unsurprisingly, analysis of social media accounts shows that support was probably faked.

Earlier this year US coal giant Peabody Energy launched a social media campaign to promote coal as an “advanced energy” that will solve energy poverty in the developing world. Called “Advanced Energy for Life” (AEfL), the campaign was launched in February, 2014 and now has, according to chief operating officer Glenn Kellow, prompted “500,000 people to lobby G20 leaders on the issue of energy poverty”.

Unfortunately for anyone that takes Peabody at its word, the campaign appears to have been faked.

Kellow made the claim at a Peabody-sponsored G20 event in Brisbane, and was referring to the company’s approximately 430,000 Facebook 'likes' and 124,000 Twitter followers. In its PR promoting the event, Peabody said: “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. This is based on a digital "Lights On Project" movement sponsored by Peabody's Advanced Energy for Life campaign.”

Peabody has already been in trouble once this year for “clean coal” misinformation when, in August, the UK advertising regulator reprimanded Peabody for use of the phrase in its advertising, saying it would mislead consumers into thinking coal doesn’t produce carbon dioxide or other emissions.

Buying social media support to boost perceived popularity is a common, if useless and potentially embarrassing practice, but a huge fossil fuel company faking a sizable “grassroots” political campaign to influence government policy is another thing entirely.

Twitter analysis

On March 13, the AEfL Twitter account had 577 followers. This jumped to 5028 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 at twittercounter.com also reflects the surges.

The huge additions peak on November 12, and start declining on November 13 – the day after Peabody hosted its event at the G20 summit.

Interestingly, Peabody’s official Twitter account mirrors these unusual gains during the same period. From 1690 followers on August 18 it climbed unusually fast, with jumps on almost the same days as the AEfL account, to peak at 7423 on November 12 before declining the next day.

The additions to both AEfL and Peabody’s official account are far too large and consistent to be explained by organic growth – especially considering the activity on the accounts and the lack of serious publicity surrounding them (more on this below).

Facebook analysis

An analysis of Peabody’s AEfL Facebook 'Likes' in Google Wildfire for the past three months also shows 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.

  

While Peabody could try and explain some spikes in the number of likes by saying they followed the release of op-eds and articles (the massive spike on September 26 follows this press release, for example), the statistics for November 13 onwards (following its G20 promotional activities) contradict this as media attention should have been at its highest.

The abnormally rapid increase during September and October 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. On August 31, Lomborg and AEfL had a comparable numbers of followers:

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 November 17, the AEfL Facebook page had amassed 429,096 likes, while Lomborg’s Facebook page had only increased to 13,087 likes.

It is normal for companies to pay to promote their pages, but this is a questionable practice to attract genuine supporters. If enough money was spent Peabody could easily have gotten the likes it has, especially by using unequivocal questions like it does on its AEfL website:

Who would click disagree? Softball questions and questionable paid likes aside: if someone likes a page because they agree access to energy improves lives, or follows a Twitter account, this does not mean that they want to “lobby G20 leaders on the issue of energy poverty”.

Quality of followers

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.

While many of its Twitter followers and Facebook 'likers' do appear to be actual people and not completely fake accounts, it is easy to buy likes and followers from companies who pay people for that purpose.

The influx of likes on the AEfL was also accompanied by a rise in off topic, anti-coal and anti-Peabody, and plain garbage comments. A post on September 26 saw a large number of strange comments and a jump in likes – 855 likes, way up from the average of about 200 before that – and again on October 10 when it suddenly got 8843 likes and nonsensical and/or non-English comments. November 4 was another big day with a massive 5540 likes and similarly odd comments.

The last post prior to the G20 Summit received 2452 likes (well above average) but was only shared by one person twice, while a post on November 7 attracted 3061 likes and wasn’t shared by anyone at all. Many of the people who liked the post are Mexican and Brazilian, none of which in a random sample had the Advanced Energy for Life page listed under their ‘likes’ tab.

Again comparing with Lomborg: his Facebook posts attracted a much more consistent number of likes than AEfL Facebook posts. In the period August 1 to November 14, all of Lomborg’s Facebook posts received between 24 and 363 likes. On the AEfL Facebook page during the same period, however, the number of post likes ranged from 12 to 8843.

Other discrepancies also appear on the AEfL Facebook page: on November 7, a Facebook post claiming ‘we’ve nearly reached 500,000 supporters’ attracted 3061 likes but no shares, and the few comments that it attracted were mostly nonsense or anti-AEfL.

Peabody also has nothing but tumbleweeds rolling through its tumbler posts, and only 17 Google followers, underlining 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 also has huge discrepancies between views and comments. With most videos having only a handful of views, and even the apparently popular ones having only miniscule numbers of off-topic comments about irrelevant content by mostly now-deleted accounts.

Greg McNevin is managing editor - Australia - for TckTckTck.org 

*Peabody’s AEfL PR is managed by global giant Burson-Marsteller, known 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.)

**Twitter follower data sourced from Twittercounter.com during the week of November 17, 2014. Facebook data sourced from Google Wildfire during the week of November 17, 2014.

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