Groups linked to oil companies funded Facebook ads denouncing the rail blockades
As the anti-pipeline protests intensified, so did spending on online ads that had millions of views
Oil and gas companies, and groups linked to them, have been spending big on Facebook ads that denounce the First Nations-led protests that have targetted rail transport in Canada in the past month.
These groups, some of which position themselves as grassroots movements, have spent an estimated $110,000 since the start of the year on Facebook advertising — either to promote the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline at the heart of the protests or to oppose the rail blockades as illegal. A CBC News analysis found these ads were shown to Facebook users about 20 million times.
CBC News looked at hundreds of Facebook ads since the start of the year that focus on the protests and rail blockades, which were launched by Wet'suwet'en activists and their supporters opposed to construction of the pipeline.
The group Canada Action has been one of the biggest spenders; it spent an estimated $21,000 on Facebook ads, most of them decrying the blockades by Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their supporters.
The group Proud to Be Canadian, part of the Canada Strong and Proud network of third-party groups, spent an estimated $4,400 on the ads, according to data obtained from the Facebook political ad library.
While the groups position themselves as grassroots campaigns in their marketing, they have ties to energy companies and conservative-leaning political groups.
Ads in support of the protests, mostly purchased by small activist groups, were viewed about 350,000 times by Facebook users. These groups collectively spent about $3,000 on the ads.
Another big buyer of ads opposing the blockades is Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole. His campaign ran 30 ads, in both languages, at an estimated cost of $14,000. Other leadership candidates, including Peter MacKay, Rick Peterson and Marilyn Gladu, also ran ads pushing their opposition to the protests.
Coastal GasLink behind half of ad buys
The most prolific online advertiser on the pipeline project, by far, is Coastal GasLink itself, which is building the 670-kilometre pipeline that will connect wells in British Columbia to the coast. It has run 80 ads since the start of the year — almost a quarter of all the ads in the data obtained by CBC. It spent roughly $50,000 on ads citing Indigenous support for the pipeline — almost half of all the money spent on Facebook ads about the project and the blockades.
But in other cases, it's not always clear when an entity running online ads about the pipeline or the protests is funded or otherwise supported by the oil and gas industry.
Canada's Energy Citizens is a Facebook page that bills itself "a movement of Canadians who support Canada's oil and natural gas industry." It's run by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP); the ads the page ran mentioned that they were paid for by CAPP.
The second biggest online spender was Canada Action, a group founded by Calgary realtor Cody Battershill in 2014. As with Coastal GasLink's ads, Canada Action's ads focus on the Wet'suwet'en members who want the pipeline built.
Though it describes itself as a grassroots organization, the group — known for its "I love Canadian Gas & Oil" merchandise — has multiple ties to the energy sector.
The annual Global Petroleum Show (GPS) in Calgary listed Canada Action as a partner of the conference in 2019, alongside CAPP. Canada Action also co-organized a pro-pipeline rally in February 2019 with Canada's Energy Citizens and other organizers. According to Maclean's magazine, oil companies regularly order large amounts of Canada Action merchandise, and several companies purchased $2,500 sponsorships for the group's rally during the 2019 GPS.
Lynn Exner of Canada Action said the group does accept funding from oil and gas companies, but also from mining companies, farmers, forestry companies and Indigenous groups.
"We are Canada's only grassroots group that supports resource workers," Exner said. "We accept funding from people who are aligned with our values, but don't have our values mandated by funders."
She added that Canada Action didn't receive any funding from Coastal GasLink or LNG Canada, which is also pushing for the new pipeline.
The organization Debunk Inc. — which spent about $800 on two Facebook ads — describes itself as a "group of people that believe in supporting the issues that matter most to Canadians" and says it pushes back at disinformation about the oil sector in mainstream media.
Debunk Inc.'s website denies it is an oil industry-funded group, claiming it has received contributions from Canadian citizens and from various industries.
Debunk Inc was incorporated in 2017 by two marketers, Anastasia Columbos and Britni Weston. According to her LinkedIn profile, in 2013 Columbos founded the marketing agency ANPORT Communications, which lists oil and gas companies as clients. The lawyer who signed the incorporation documents, James L. Kidd, has a long history of working with oil and gas and pipeline clients, and is himself on the board of at least two energy sector companies.
CAPP, Canada Action and Debunk Inc. were all incorporated at the same law firm in Calgary — Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer.
Debunk Inc. and ANPORT Communications did not respond to CBC requests for comment.
Also among the ad buyers are several Facebook pages belonging to the Canada Strong and Proud network, such as Proud to be Canadian, New Brunswick Proud, NL Strong and Nova Scotia Proud. Proud to be Canadian describes itself as a group of "grassroots Canadians" who want to "steer Canada in the right direction."
During the 2019 federal election, Canada Strong and Proud received $240,500 from the Manning Centre, a conservative think tank. Some of its election campaign messaging was devoted to promoting the Canadian oil and gas sector.
"Obviously as a western-based organization, I think some of the pro-energy messages resonate with Manning [Centre] supporters," the think tank's president, Troy Lanigan, said in an interview with CBC last year.
Several members of the Manning Centre's board have ties to the oil industry. Michael Binnion is the president and founding shareholder of Questerre Energy, a public oil and gas production company operating in Quebec. He's also on the board of governors of CAPP. Joe Oliver is on the board of directors of High Arctic Energy Services, a drilling company from Calgary. Cliff Fryers used to be the chairman of the board of directors of Enmax, a utility company in Alberta.
One of Debunk Inc.'s Facebook ads promoting Canadian oil contains a link to a YouTube video which features Heidi McKillop, who was director of New Brunswick Proud in 2018. Since November 2019, according to her LinkedIn profile, McKillop has been working as a business development coordinator for Obsidian Engineering, a company offering various services to oil companies.
In Debunk Inc's video, published in January of this year, McKillop is described as a filmmaker.
The practice of funnelling corporate messaging through apparently grassroots organizations — known as "astroturfing" — is nothing new, said Fenwick McKelvey, associate professor of communication studies at Concordia University. But social media platforms' lack of clear policies makes it easy for companies to "mimic" the work of grassroots movements, he said.
"These campaigns come out of nowhere [and] are playing up their supposed legitimacy, when it's really industrial funding," he said.
McKelvey said that while the ads purchased by Canada's Energy Citizens run under the label "paid for by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers," many advertisers aren't so transparent.
"What you see here is an example of monied interests being able to exploit simple loopholes and basically being able to buy seeming public legitimacy for a time, at least until people call them out on it," he said.
Franziska Keller is an assistant professor in the social science department at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Along with three colleagues, she looked at eight astroturfing campaigns on Twitter — including Russia's work during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the South Korean secret service campaign during the 2012 election there.
Keller said it can be tricky to determine if an online message is coming from a genuine person or is part of a coordinated astroturfing effort.
"Social media makes it so much easier to go online and maybe open up multiple accounts and pretend to be multiple people who are all in favour or against something," said Keller.
"I think there's a tendency still, among politicians especially ... even among journalists to some degree ... to look at the internet and go, 'Oh well, there we are, this is what the people want.'"
The Canadian Competition Bureau defines astroturfing as "the practice of creating commercial representations that masquerade as the authentic experiences and opinions of impartial consumers, such as fake consumer reviews and testimonials."
The Bureau did not want to comment on whether any of the ads examined by CBC could be considered astroturfing. "It would not be appropriate for the Bureau to speculate as to whether the precise behaviour you describe would raise preoccupations in the eyes of the law, since only an exhaustive and in-depth analysis of the facts would permit us to arrive at such a conclusion," said Jean-Philippe Lepage, media relations adviser at the Competition Bureau.
Fewer pro-blockade ads
Facebook ads in support of the Indigenous protesters have been more rare than ads opposing them, and spending on those ads has been lower overall. Only 41 ads out of the 330 identified by CBC support the blockades.
In all, the organizations behind the ads supporting the protests spent about $3,000 on them — just 2 per cent of the sum spent by their ideological opponents.
The Canadian Council of Muslim Women was the biggest spender in this category, dropping $750 to run five ads supporting the protests. These were shown to Canadians on Facebook about 130,000 times.
Amnesty International's French-Canadian wing and the B.C. Ecosocialist party spent about $500 and $300 respectively on ads backing the protests.
CBC downloaded all the ads in the Facebook Ad Library API shown to Canadian users. To find ads about the rail blockades, CBC isolated political ads since Jan. 1 that contained the following keywords: Wet'suwet'en (with and without apostrophes), Coastal GasLink, blockade, hereditary chief, blocus, blocage, the hashtag #ShutDownCanada and phrases like "clear the tracks", "rule of law" and "illegal protest."
In total, the CBC collected 333 ads between Jan. 1 and March 2. CBC journalists classified the ads as being in favour of, against or neutral on the rail blockades.
Facebook does not provide the exact amount spent on each ad or the number of ad views — only a range of values. CBC used the median of the given range to estimate the total numbers per advertiser.