Kashmir Hill of Forbes has a great article summarizing the “nightmare” that the Shell Oil company is experiencing due to an anti-Shell social media campaign that was funded by Greenpeace. But maybe it’s not a nightmare after all. Has Shell really been damaged by this campaign?
Let me back up and explain a little about the anti-Shell campaign, which has at least three major social media components. The first is a website that enabled users to add a snarky anti-oil-drilling message on cute pictures of arctic animals or beautiful arctic scenery (think LOLcats but with an anti-oil arctic theme).
The second is a Twitter account (@Shellisprepared) that claims to be Shell’s social media team but actually is not. The account sometimes pleads with people not to share fake Shell ads and sometimes makes legal threats. As you can see in the Tweets coming from this account, to someone who doesn’t know this account is fake, it will seem like whoever is running this account is an extremely emotional, unprofessional person that is completely freaking out.
The third social media component is a YouTube video of a Shell party that is ruined when the drink dispenser, which is shaped like an oil drill, starts spewing out liquid. Of course, this was also a fake party that was supposed to give the impression of being a “hidden camera-esque” video. Apparently the campaign was orchestrated by The Yes Men, whose website says that they “impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them.”
I wonder if Shell Oil (RDSA: London Stock Exchange) will pursue any legal action, and if they do, it will be interesting to see how this is judged. Shell could argue that this is libel and/or trademark infringement. At the same time, parody is covered under fair use. Also, who would they sue? Greenpeace for providing the money; The Yes Men for creating the content; or the hundreds of Internet users who created anti-Shell ads?
However, I seriously wonder if this campaign has truly damaged the company. I suspect there are few people who didn’t (already) know that oil companies drill in arctic regions, though I could be very wrong. Moreover, I think this campaign benefited Shell, because it’s a big oil company, but not one of the biggest, and any publicity is good publicity. In fact, the traffic for the Arctic Ready website correlates with the company’s stock prices, and although stock prices fell right after the YouTube video was posted, it has gone up since then. Hmm.
Although this campaign may have increased awareness about oil drilling in the North, it seems like the biggest fools that the campaign made were journalists who believed that the video and Twitter account were real. As Ryan Holiday writes, several news agencies reported wrong information and had to correct themselves later. Shame on them for not checking their sources, but it is a good lesson for us all because anyone can create a profile on a site like Twitter, and although many people do post things that are truthful, there is nothing that stops someone from posting things that are not truthful. It can thus be an unreliable source. Now that bots are being trained to aggregate information from Tweets and other social media to feed out “news,” credibility becomes an even more serious problem. That’s why I believe that journalism will never die and that news companies should focus more on feature reporting rather than news reporting.
On the other hand, it also raises the question of how successful an online campaign really is in terms of having an offline impact. Like KONY2012, this campaign may have raised a lot of awareness but will it actually make Shell stop or even reconsider their Arctic drilling plans? People like Malcolm Gladwell are pessimistic of the power of social media to instigate actual social change. I agree for the most part, but I also think that this so-called slacktivism is because most of the social media campaigns designed for activism purposes weren’t connecting awareness to action. Also, if you think about the person/company/entity that is being criticized, online criticism is something that is very easy to ignore whereas more old-fashioned methods involve some sort of physical discomfort that is not easy to ignore. I’m sure we’ll see more social media campaigns in the future that integrate more with the offline, especially if the cause is tied to something local. If people who design these campaigns imagine designing an alternate reality game (ex) I Love Bees campaign) incorporating social media, they may be able to get more people mobilized, not just interested.