Photo Credit: Red Dot / Unsplash

Confessions of a Green Troll

On the pleasures of cyberbullying oil companies

This story is part three of Deny and Delay: Inside the Climate Disinformation Machine, a series on the effects of climate misinformation on democracy. Read part two here. Co-produced with Columbia Journalism Review and guest edited by Sandra Steingraber.

I JOINED TWITTER IN SEPTEMBER OF 2017. A point so late that, according to many memes, I never should have joined at all. I know, I know, Twitter has a reputation as a hellsite, the Bad Boy of social media, and that’s only gotten worse now that an actual Bad Man has taken over. But as much as Twitter is derided as “not the real world,” it has a profound influence on it. While it is ground zero for our broken public discourse, it remains the closest thing we have to a Town Square. It’s been critical in nearly every major social movement of the past decade, from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter. It is where we collectively read or dunk on the same texts. It’s where we debate big ideas like police abolition and free healthcare, in real time with real emotions. From the vantage point of your feed, you can watch as fringe ideas become normalized—for better or worse—and our vocabulary widens. In other words, it is where our discourse is shaped. That, alone, is powerful.

I joined because I was searching for the climate conversation that I wasn’t hearing, wasn’t reading about, but that I knew had to exist somewhere. I knew I couldn’t be the only one freaking out, who couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, who had hallucinations of climate cataclysms everywhere she looked. It took me some time, but I eventually went down enough rabbit holes to find the people who had the same nightmares I did, in a place called #ClimateTwitter. It was the little corner of Twitter where all the scientists, journalists, activists, parents, and generally climate-concerned people could rail about the warming atmosphere and find commiseration and community. It must be said, though, that there’s more than one way to save a planet, so #ClimateTwitter was not without its fair share of heated debates and flat-out enemies.

Once I found my community, it felt freeing to rage against the fossil fuel machine and all the cogs in it, but that freedom came with a catch. It taught Twitter’s algorithm that I was “interested” in fossil fuels. As a result, Twitter considered me the perfect audience for sponsored posts from oil companies. I saw them all the time, and they sent me fuming—pun intended. Every time one of them popped into my feed—ads from BP, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips—I huffed and I puffed and I reported them to Twitter. Usually as “harmful and abusive,” sometimes as “false advertising.” It depended on my mood.

I knew I couldn’t be the only one freaking out, who couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, who had hallucinations of climate cataclysms everywhere she looked.

But that all changed on October 23, 2019. That morning, as I took the D train to my office in New York City, I came across an especially egregious and patronizing poll from BP, the world’s most gifted greenwasher, asking us lowly Tweeters to use their carbon footprint calculator to see “where we stand” and to share our pledge to do better.

“Carbon footprint” might sound like technical climate jargon, but it’s actually just public relations bullshit. As I learned from the award-winning podcast Drilled, it was rolled out in 2000 in an award-winning campaign by the public relations firm Ogilvy on behalf of BP—the same company that hit the whole Gulf Coast with the biggest oil spill in U.S. history and moved on with a Kanye shrug. The same company that was champing at the bit to get at the oil in Iraq in the face of horrific human rights violations. The same company that in 2019 alone saw more than $400 billion in profits. That company was asking us about our carbon footprint.

The nerve. The gall. The audacity. These people were playing right in my face. It was a textbook example of “greenwashing,” that special kind of disinformation where companies try to cover up their dirty work by making themselves appear more environmentally conscious than they are. I tried, at least three times, to report the ad to Twitter, but with the intermittent internet on the NYC subway, the report failed every time. Finally, in exasperation, I replied.

It was the first time I did what I later came to call greentrolling—essentially cyberbullying oil companies—and it felt good! Over the next year, I would do it sporadically, whenever I got angry enough about the climate crisis. Like this tweet, for example. Or this one.

While I have a pretty good natural bullshit detector, I had the good fortune of being good friends with Amy Westervelt, an investigative journalist with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of fossil fuel propaganda. Whenever I got caught up in corporate jargon, it was not uncommon for me to text her a tweet because I knew there was a lie in it somewhere, I just wasn’t sure where. I’d simply ask “show me the lie.” It was always there.

I was having fun, but I didn’t get strategic until September 2020 when I woke up one morning, furious about the fires on the West Coast and the storms on the Gulf Coast. I did my usual rounds of all the big oil companies to see who’d said the most egregious thing most recently. I never followed the oil companies, out of pure spite, so I had to manually type in their names every time I wanted to troll them. But when I tried to check the Exxon feed, the main account wouldn’t load. I found other tweets that mentioned them and clicked on their handle…. And that’s how I learned that Exxon had blocked me. I’d hit a nerve. And I wanted to keep hitting it.

Read more from the Deny and Delay series here.

And why wouldn’t I? The entire point of oil companies having social media accounts is to greenwash. If you thought oil companies were trafficking in outright climate denial or basking in the glow of right wing delusion, you’re in for a surprise. To look at their social media, you’d think they were “just like us,” rolling up their sleeves and trying to find solutions to the climate crisis. You’d think they were investing more in wind and solar, or “hydrogen”, than in oil and gas. It couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s not only not where their investments lie, it’s not even where their intentions lie.

When they’re done with greenwashing, they resort to the even more appalling “woke-washing.” See examples here, here, and here. One of my all-time favorite instances of woke-washing was when Chevron tried to enter the Black Lives Matter discourse in the summer of 2020, and sent Amy down a rabbit hole on Chevron’s connections to the police. Lo and behold, we wound up sending out a special mid-week newsletter to break the story. Her research, in turn, sparked bigger investigations and, well, they wound up looking awful silly. All this to say, Big Oil is trying their damndest to enter the good graces of The Left. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them.

The point of greentrolling was always three-fold. First, I wanted to expose oil companies as the actual villains in the climate story. In fact, my favorite part of trolling oil companies was when I finally got them to admit that they had no plans to abandon fossil fuels. It only happened rarely, but it was always delicious.

Second, I wanted to redirect some of the anger and ire that builds up on Twitter to the people (if we’re going with the premise that corporations are people) who deserve it. I didn’t think there should ever be a day where a woman scientist or a Black policy analyst had a worse day on Twitter than Exxon.

And lastly, I wanted to have fun! There’s a reason my troll tweets used gifs and memes and profanity. It was fun to be rude to the most destructive industry the planet has ever seen. Why? Because fuck ‘em! That’s why!

Plenty of people told me it was pointless, that BP wasn’t going to change their business model because I tweeted at them. Of course, I already knew that. That wasn’t the point. The point was to make it clear to other people reading their tweets that they were bullshit, and that they didn’t have to take it. I wanted everyone to see that you don’t have to know everything about climate science to talk back to Big Oil. You can cuss at them, you can mock them. There’s too much bad blood with Big Oil to engage with them in good faith.

I wanted everyone to see that you don’t have to know everything about climate science to talk back to Big Oil.

Another criticism I often heard was that my tweets were making some poor intern cry. Look, I have developed rules about how I engage on Twitter. I think long and hard before I get into any messy Twitter fights with an individual, for example,  and I flat-out refuse to fight with a Black woman in public. But when it comes to oil companies? All gloves are off. They are not people, for one thing, and they do not entrust their social media accounts to some lowly “intern.” In fact, that assumption is incredibly insulting to the many talented social media professionals I know. Nonprofits have full social media teams, as do most companies of any kind. Why on earth would we expect the most deceitful industry in history to leave its Twitter handle to some untrained teenager? Trust me, if they didn’t take their public image seriously, we wouldn’t be in this mess. They all have sophisticated social media departments, and probably a few agencies to boot. If only we invested as much in controlling the narrative, but I digress.

After September 2020, I checked Big Oil’s Twitter accounts regularly, almost obsessively. And I invited—no, implored—people to join me. I did it when Shell posted a poll that was heavy on the individual responsibility and light on the self-awareness right before the 2020 election. I did it when, just a few months later, Chevron called for a peaceful transfer of power after the fascists we used to dismiss as trolls stormed the Capitol. I did it when one of Exxon’s subsidiary accounts (that hadn’t blocked me) sent thoughts and prayers to those affected by Hurricane Ida—which included me! I did it damn near any time the American Petroleum Institute (API) said anything. (I really have to give credit to Amy on the API tip. I’d never heard of them until she told me, which is a real shame because they’re basically every single oil company rolled into one and they should not get to fly under the radar.)

Quite often, Amy and I brought our podcast and newsletter Hot Take in on the fun. In 2021, we even invented our own holiday out of it: #FUBPDay on April 20 to mark the anniversary of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. In 2022, we kicked it up a notch with a parody account with the handle @BPDeezNutzzz. When Elon Musk announced that you could purchase a blue check for a mere $8, we couldn’t help ourselves. The account was permanently suspended just a few hours later, but I laughed harder in those last few hours than I had in a long, long time.

I have had so, so, so much fun cyberbullying oil companies, but I haven’t done it in a while. There are a few reasons why. For one thing, I’ve run out of ways to say “fuck you.” You can only use the same memes and clapbacks so many times before you begin to bore yourself. Also, I feel like I’ve made my point. Big Oil’s name is mud on the internet, and I feel good about that. Fantastic, even. I don’t feel like I need to keep hammering the point home. Lastly, I tired of the DMs and tags from people asking me to bully a specific tweet on request, like a shock jock. I’ve gotten to a place where I want to do less hot-taking and more deep thinking. I want to write things that are longer and more nuanced than Twitter allows for—no matter how big they make the character limit. So, that leaves little room for trolling. For now. Not unless I can find an original, satisfying way to do it. Until then, I think I’m done.

But do I regret it? Not for a single second.

Because fuck them.


This story is generously supported by The Fine Fund.

Subscribe to Orion Ad

Mary Annaïse Heglar was the first writer in residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Boston Globe, Vox, WIRED, and other places. She is also the co-host and co-creator of the Hot Take podcast and newsletter.