Since the election, Facebook has cracked down on political ads across its platform in an attempt to squelch misinformation. But those ad policies may be letting polluters—including powerful pipeline companies—promote their messages while simultaneously restricting ads from green and Indigenous groups.
“If you have a David and Goliath fight, with all of us tiny nonprofits being the David, [Facebook] is giving Goliath all of the space in the fight,” Ashley Fairbanks, a Minneapolis-based communicator, told Earther.
Fairbanks works as a communications manager for 11 different organizations, many of them grassroots climate nonprofits, and has been specializing in social media for more than a decade. Since Facebook has placed a temporary pause on all ads “about social issues, elections or politics” following the U.S. election, Fairbanks said, her work has radically changed as nearly every post she attempts to promote on the platform—even those without any political messages—are removed by the company.
And it was all the more frustrating when Fairbanks noticed that Enbridge, a Canadian fossil fuel company, was still running ads promoting its products. The company is embroiled in what is becoming the next showdown over Indigenous rights versus fossil fuel interests. Enbridge is currently building a tar sands pipeline expansion in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin known as Line 3 that opponents say would unnecessarily increase reliance on fossil fuels and violates the rights of tribes in the area. In early February, Rep. Ilhan Omar asked President Biden to halt construction of the pipeline, invoking his recent decision to block the Keystone XL project.
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Amid this political turmoil, Enbridge has kept its Facebook ads active. On Wednesday, Fairbanks posted a screenshot to Twitter of some of the company’s five current ads. Three of the ads Enbridge is promoting on Facebook are links to newspaper advertorials written by the company praising itself. Advertorials—basically ads that masquerade as news articles—are a practice the fossil fuel industry has relied on for years. The Facebook ads show how Enbridge is taking the process one step further alongside its more traditional Facebook ads.
“Through ambitious sustainability goals, Enbridge is committed to reducing environmental impact & improving racial equity,” one ad reads, with a link to the company’s page promoting its environmental and social policies. “The products our pipelines transport heat our homes, cook our food & power our vehicles,” says another, with a stock photo of a smiling family in a kitchen.
These ads might seem innocuous, until you compare them with the Draconian standards Facebook has foisted on other organizations for even mentioning climate change. Recently, Fairbanks has tried to promote a series of videos for one nonprofit that works on clean energy in Minnesota featuring personal narratives from people about climate change.
“There’s no political ask” in the videos, she said. “There’s nothing. It’s just saying the word ‘climate’.”
Facebook, however, rejected the ads under its “social issues” policies. Last week, Fairbanks said, the same organization filmed a short video promoting an upcoming white paper about climate adaptation and resilience—again, “nothing about politics,” Fairbanks said—which also got rejected when she tried to boost it with an ad.
“I can understand all the things [Facebook] is trying to deal with with misinformation. But letting a pipeline company, in the middle of a large political fight about Line 3, run ads [promoting pipelines] when we can’t say ‘kids deserve clean water’” Fairbanks said, laughing. “They have ads with solar panels, we can’t even run ads with solar panels.”
Buried deep in Facebook’s Q&A on rejected ads is a smattering of breadcrumbs on what type of language the company has deemed too controversial. Under a section titled “Environmental Politics,” the company states that “ads about environmental politics, with ad content that includes discussion, debate, and/or advocacy for or against topics including but not limited to climate change, renewable/sustainable energy and fossil fuels, are subject to review and enforcement.” It gives a few examples of the types of messages it says it will and won’t accept: apparently, “renewable energy is the only way to preserve our planet” is a no-go, per the guidelines, while “new smart solar panels can lower your energy bills” is fine. (Of the five examples given, neither of the two “acceptable” examples mention climate change.)
That is essentially the only guidance the company has issued. There’s basically nothing else to suggest why Enbridge’s ads are allowed to run while innocuous ads like the ones Fairbanks are trying to boost are taken down. Some of Enbridge’s direct opponents have also voiced frustration.
“None of our videos or posts from @GiniwCollective has *ever* been approved for an ad boost on @Facebook,” Tara Houska, the founder of Giniw Collective, an Indigenous group that has been active in the fight against Line 3, wrote on Twitter in response to Fairbanks’s post. “Not posts about wild ricing, traditional harvesting & wisdom, mutual aid, youth leadership or defending our beautiful territory from fossil fuel destruction. None.”
In practice, Fairbanks said, the guidelines seem to be far stricter, noting that colleagues of hers have tried to promote posts with just a “planet emoji and leaf emoji” that have been removed from the platform. It’s hard to tell what exactly crosses a line when Facebook seems to have determined that the mere mention of climate change is too controversial. Context matters, too: A for-profit company might claim to be completely apolitical, but a pipeline company’s claims that it is “reducing environmental impact & improving racial equity” ring a little different when you consider its ongoing legal battles with Native tribes over tar sands. (We reached out to Facebook with questions about Enbridge’s ads and will update if we hear a response.)
“If it was the same standard for everyone, I don’t think everyone would be so upset,” Fairbanks said. “Why can Enbridge post the word ‘pipeline,’ and I can’t post the word ‘pipeline?’...The problem is is there’s not a clear style guide. This is a major discussion among progressive digital people—[Facebook] has left it all very subjective.”
For green groups—especially small and local grassroots organizations doing crucial on-the-ground work—the ban has been devastating. “It’s forcing people to reinvent all of our comms strategy,” Fairbanks said. “Nonprofits are on long funding cycles. We had immovable grant money that goes to Facebook ads. People are having to redo everything because of this.”
It’s hard to imagine how handing a megaphone to a multibillion-dollar company while suppressing small groups’ opportunities to speak isn’t inherently a political act. Enbridge ended 2017 with more than $12.6 billion in assets; some of its on-the-ground opponents in Minnesota had under $2 million in the bank that same year. With each day that goes by that Facebook doesn’t provide more information about what it’s allowing, what it’s not allowing, and why, that fight between David and Goliath gets even more unfair.