Most people know that everything we read on the internet is 100 percent true, which makes Google an arbiter of truth in a discomforting way; you’re only as right as Google says you are. That’s why big oil companies are buying ads that look like legitimate search results. Exxonmobil, Shell and Aramco are among the biggest buyers of these tricky ads, according to the Guardian.
After analyzing Google search results for “78 climate-related terms,” the Guardian found that nearly 20 percent of ads featured on the search engine were placed there by oil companies, and these ads are designed so that search engine users can’t easily tell that they are, in fact, ads.
This greenwashing is especially harmful because people who are looking for information on climate change get these ads mixed in with everything else. The Guardian says that over half of search engine users reported being unable to tell the difference between paid-for ads and normal search results.
According to these deceptive ads, Shell is one of the biggest proponents for reaching net-zero emissions in the near future:
Oil major Shell’s ads – 153 were counted in total – appeared on 86% of searches for “net zero”. Many promoted its pledge to become a net zero company by 2050 and align itself with a 1.5C warming target.
Except that no, Shell isn’t interested in net-zero as much as it is in prolonging the status quo, according to the analysts behind the report:
However, Shell’s net-zero strategy relies heavily on carbon capture and offsetting, according to a Carbon Brief analysis, which says: “Despite its ‘highly ambitious’ framing … Shell’s vision of a continued role for oil, gas and coal until the end of the century remains essentially the same.”
Saudi company, Aramco, went even further than Shell with its ads, using eco-friendly buzzwords to claim it wants to protect the planet:
Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company, which is the world’s largest oil exporter, had 114 ads on the keywords “carbon storage”, “carbon capture” and “energy transition”. A number of their ads claimed the company “promoted biodiversity” and “protected the planet”.
And it’s not just oil companies, but major finance firms that back the fossil fuel industry, like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. Their ads pop up when searching for phrases like “renewable energy,” or “energy transition.” Of course, Google is happy to take their money, as the analysts behind the Guardian report said:
Google is letting groups with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels pay to influence the resources people receive when they are trying to educate themselves.
“The oil and gas sector has moved away from contesting the science of climate change and now instead seeks to influence public discussions about decarbonisation in its favour.
Greenwashing isn’t new. Research says oil companies have used PR to influence the public’s perception since the ’80s, but embedding what amounts to propaganda on one of the most popular search engines is not great. I guess this is one more reason to use DuckDuckGo. Or at the very least, to watch out for the little letters that spell: “Ad.”