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

Since when were Greenpeace the bad guys?

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, 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.


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

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.