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Epic Shell PR fail? No, the real villains here are Greenpeace

Since when were Greenpeace the bad guys?

A Greenpeace activist covers the logo of the Shell oil company
A Greenpeace activist covers the logo of the Shell oil company in protest. Photograph: Getty Images

For several weeks now I’ve watched endless retweets of "epic Shell PR fails" cascading down my timeline, seeming less like bullshit than the thousands of identical, perfectly-formed little packets of poo you might find behind an incontinent deer. In June came a video supposedly filmed at a private launch party for Shell’s "Let’s Go! Arctic" campaign, which showed “an obvious malfunction of the model rig that was supposed to pour drinks for guests,” a major gaffe with hilarious results:

The video was reported widely in the media, gaining half a million views within a day of its release. Then it was revealed as a hoax, a publicity stunt organised by Greenpeace in collaboration with The Yes Men and Occupy Seattle.

Then matters escalated further, with a series of intimidating legal threats sent to bloggers. Warning that “lawyers operating on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell plc. (Shell) are considering formal action,” over the counterfeit campaign launch, an email from Shell’s PR department told bloggers and journalists that: “Shell is monitoring the spread of potentially defamatory material on the internet and reporters are advised to avoid publishing such material.” A jolly good Streisanding seemed imminent, until the threats turned out to be just another layer of the hoax.

Soon after, links began appearing to arcticready.com, supposedly the “social media hub” for the "Let’s Go! Arctic" campaign. “We at Shell are committed to not only recognize the challenges that climate change brings,” the introduction declares, “but to take advantage of its tremendous opportunities. And what's the biggest opportunity we've got today? The melting Arctic.” The site allows members of the public to suggest their own captions for Shell advertisement, displaying the unfortunate results in a gallery of user submissions. Another hilarity-inducing epic Shell PR fail? Nope, another cynical Greenpeace hoax.

I’ve nothing against parodies – I’ve written a few myself, and they can be an incredibly useful and effective way of skewering an argument. These hoaxes are something much more cynical and dangerous. Ryan Holiday at Forbes rightly described it as media manipulation, a very deliberate attempt to deceive and mislead their audience: “It may have been done for noble reasons, but that doesn’t change the salient fact that they are manipulating the media by creating a fake scandal and lying about it to get more coverage.”

Of course manipulating the media turned out to be frighteningly easy in this case. Journalists aren’t infallible – god knows I’ve fallen for hoaxes in the past – but the speed and carelessness with which the main news sites copy and repackage each other’s content means that these errors are compounded and multiplied at a furious rate. Throw in the awesome power of social media, and one blogger’s late night fuck-up can become a truth spoken by millions before breakfast. Evolution has not yet gifted us social apes with sceptical powers to match our fascination with ‘like’ buttons.

The real villain here is Greenpeace. 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. This absolutely is not okay. I don’t care if you’re saving the Arctic, rescuing kittens from YouTube’s vicious pet-celebrity training camps, or training pandas to pull famine-ridden children out of earthquake debris; to behave in this deceitful way demonstrates an astonishing amount of contempt for the public - not least for environmentalist supporters who spread their message in good faith only to find themselves forced into embarrassing retractions.

And for what? It’s not like there’s any shortage of real scandals to draw attention to. As I write this, Reuters have just reported that Shell could face a US$5 billion fine for a major oil spill off the Nigerian coast that affected 950 square kilometres of water and caused serious harm to local communities. An analysis published last year by the United Nation’s Environment Programme estimated that it could take thirty years to clean up damage to the Ogonil and region in the Niger Delta, pollution caused in part by Shell’s activities in the area. With real scandals like this to cover, inventing fake ones isn’t just unnecessary but actually quite crass.

Shell’s lawyers have sensibly steered clear of this latest fuss, resisting the urge to take any action against Greenpeace. Why bother, when Greenpeace’s message is so extraordinarily self-defeating? The message to the public is crystal clear, as Holiday observes: “Even if you think Shell is evil and will lie to achieve their goals, now you know Greenpeace is the exact same way.” Spending tens of thousands of dollars to deliberately mislead and manipulate the public used to be something the bad guys did, but here we all are watching pigs in suits drive another important debate into the quagmire.

Update 18/07/2012 15:51 Greenpeace have posted an explanation of the campaign here.