New Orleans - BP has been accused of hiring internet "trolls" to purposefully attack, harass, and sometimes threaten people who have been critical of how the oil giant has handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil firm hired the international PR company Ogilvy & Mather to run the BP America Facebook page during the oil disaster, which released at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf in what is to date the single largest environmental disaster in US history.
The page was meant to encourage interaction with BP, but when people posted comments that were critical of how BP was handling the crisis, they were often attacked, bullied, and sometimes directly threatened.
"Marie" was deeply concerned by the oil spill, and began posting comments on the BP America Facebook page. Today, she asks that she remain anonymous out of what she described to Al Jazeera as "fear for my personal safety should the BP trolls find out that I am the whistleblower in this case".
In internet slang, a troll is someone who sows online discord by starting arguments or upsetting people, often posting inflammatory messages in an online community, or even issuing physical threats.
Marie sought assistance from the Government Accountability Project (GAP) in Washington DC, and has produced boxes of documents and well-researched information that may show that the people harassing BP's critics online worked for BP or Ogilvy.
"We'd been hearing of this kind of harassment by BP when we were working on our health project [in the Gulf of Mexico], so it sparked our interest," GAP investigator Shanna Devine told Al Jazeera. "We saw Marie's documentation of more serious threats made on the BP page, and decided to investigate."
According to both Marie and Devine, some of the threats began on the page, but then escalated off the page.
Threats included identifying where somebody lived, an internet troll making reference to having a shotgun and making use of it, and "others just being more derogatory", according to Devine. "We've seen all this documentation and that's why we thought it was worth bringing to the ombudsman's office of BP, and we told them we thought some of it even warranted calling the police about."
"We have thousands of documents regarding communications posted through various Facebook websites," said certified legal investigator Steve Lockman of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor. "In addtion, we are in possession of communications between the federal government and the ombudsman's office of BP regarding the [harassment] Internet communications, and the federal government requesting BP to control the harassment through their Facebook page and their interactions."
"The harassment communications are not something that BP and their people are not aware of," Lockman told Al Jazeera. "It's not a hidden secret that the personal attacks, broadcast abuse, and type-written harassment were happening and continue to go on."
Marie provided the firm and Al Jazeera with files of complaint letters, computer screenshots of the abuse, and a list of Facebook profiles used by the people who harassed her and others.
According to Marie, the harassment didn't remain on the BP page. Trolls often followed users to their personal Facebook pages and continued to harass them there."I was called a lot of names," Marie added. "I was called a streetwalker and a lot of things like that, and eventually had gun threats."
"They resorted to very demeaning methods of abuse," Marie said. "They were racist, sexist, and threatened me and others with legal action and violence. They've insinuated that some commenters are 'child molesters', and have often used the tactic of mass reporting with the goal of having their targets completely removed from Facebook."
One troll using the name "Griffin" makes several allusions to gun violence in order to distress and harass users, even going so far as to edit a photo of a BP critic's pet bird into the crosshairs of a gunsight, before posting the photo online - along with photos of an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons.
Another instance occurred involving "Griffin" and an environmentalist who posted a picture of a rendition of Mother Earth saying "Mother Earth Has Been Waiting for Her Day in Court, BP". "Griffin" posted a comment to the picture that read, "A few rounds from a .50 cal will stop that b**ch".
According to Marie, Lockman and GAP, BP's "astroturfing" efforts and use of "trolls" have been reported as pursuing users' personal information, then tracking and posting IP addresses of users, contacting their employers, threatening to contact family members, and using photos of critics' family members to create false Facebook profiles, and even threatening to affect the potential outcome of individual claims.
Marie, along with several other targets of harassment, wrote and sent two letters to BP America, asking the company to respond to the allegations and deal with the matter. Neither letter received a response, which is why Marie decided to contact GAP, as well as the law firm.
While Marie's evidence appears to tie Ogilvy and BP together via the trolls, the law firm Lockman works for is investigating further in order to conclusively determine the extent of BP's involvement.
Spinning the Disaster
Stephen Marino worked for Ogilvy during the BP disaster. BP had been a client of Ogilvy for five years before the spill, and when the disaster occurred, "we were responsible for all the social media for BP during the spill", Marino said during a lecture he gave at the University of Texas, Austin, on April 19, 2012.
His team, which he called the "digital influence team", was "responsible for the crisis response". Marino told the audience that his job during the BP disaster was to run a " reputation management campaign " and gave this specific example of the depths to which Ogilvy worked to maintain a positive appearance for BP:
"We were putting out ads, if you guys remember those ads that came out where it would be Iris in the Gulf of Mexico and she'd be talking about how she grew up there and she wasn't going to go away," he explained . "The way we were working with the strategy on that was we would cut the ads one day, we would edit them overnight, we'd air them on Tuesday let's say, and then we'd look at social media to see what the response was to the ads - and based upon the feedback we were getting on social media, the advertising agency would then go back and re-cut the ads to fix the message to make it resonate more with what the constituents wanted… that was the first key strategy."
Chris Paulos, an attorney with the firm investigating Marie's case, believes this is a perfect example of "subversive attempts by corporations to put forward their ideology of what we should think about them, and doing it in a way that is not decipherable to the average person".
According to Paulos, the public should be concerned about this because we can no longer tell if people online are truly who they say they are, "or are working for a corporation and talking their script to control the dialogue about whatever issue they are addressing".
"We are in unprecedented times with technology, and [in] the disparity between the power of corporations and autonomous consumers," Paulos told Al Jazeera. " Citizens United has basically emboldened corporations with their ability to speak as individuals with First Amendment rights. Ever since that decision, corporations have been outspoken and vigorously protecting themselves while doing it."
Billie Garde, BP's deputy ombudsman, in a letter to the Government Accountability Project dated December 18, 2012, stated clearly that "BP America contracts management of its Facebook page to Ogilvy Public Relations" and added, "Ogilvy manages all of BP America's social media matters".
Interestingly, Garde's letter addressed the fact that, at that time, according to Ogilvy's data, 91 percent of all the comments on BP's Facebook page were considered to be "unsupportive" of BP, while only nine percent were considered "supportive". She added that "i n previous years, the number of comments that were 'unsupportive ' of BP was larger than the present 91 per cent ".
Her letter stated that Ogilvy follows a "three strike" policy for all comments, "meaning if they find a comment to be in violation of the commenting policy, they delete the comment and record a 'strike' against the user, and three strikes means a user is no longer able to comment on the page. It is also noted that Ogilvy will delete offending comments and send a note to the user indicating the comment was inappropriate".
Garde added: "BP America has informed our office that Ogilvy strictly adheres to the Commenting Policy as stated on the BP America Facebook page. This policy serves as the guidelines that Ogilvy follows when evaluating the appropriateness of comments. Ogilvy does not evaluate a comment with respect to it being a positive or negative statement towards BP. Likewise, they do not delete any comments based on either of these qualifiers."
According to Garde, BP America's Director of Employee Concerns Oversight, Mike Wilson, was apprised of the situation. Wilson was provided examples of harassment and was asked if the examples were reviewed by Ogilvy. "The discussion is ongoing, and Mr Wilson is addressing these specific concerns internally, " Garde added.
A BP spokesman provided the following statement for Al Jazeera: "The BP America Facebook page, and its moderators, do not endorse or dictate any user activity. All users' comments and actions are their own. BP created the BP America Facebook page to engage the public in an informative conversation about our ongoing commitment to America and to facilitate constructive dialogue for any and all who wish to participate. No users are compensated for participating in the Facebook community. More information on our commenting policy can be found here ."
Marie, however, staunchly believes that BP is responsible for the pro-BP Facebook trolls.
"I have no doubt that they are, and I've found the links between the trolls and their friends who work for BP," she told Al Jazeera. "The Government Accountability Project, through the inquiry they're conducting for me, is still trying to find out. But we are being stonewalled on the other end, as far as BP doing some type of an internal investigation into these connections that I've uncovered."
According to Marie, the harassment "almost ceased completely at around the same time GAP received Garde's letter. I say 'almost' because at least two of the people who were involved in the prior harassment are still allowed to comment on BP's page to this day, and [one of those] was still checking on people's profiles to obtain their state of residence, and would use this against them on the page."
Lockman's investigation continues, as do efforts of recovering additional documentation and sifting through information on hand that links the trolls to both BP and Ogilvy as well as other subcontracted companies used by BP as creative storytellers.
"The information we possess regarding Marie's claims, printed out, fills two file boxes, and that does not include all the DVDs which are currently being duplicated at this time," Lockman said. "It is an unbelievable amount of documentation that has been developed. This documentation, support materials, and information is coming from several different sources. It is like a spider web and we just got started."
Al Jazeera asked the firm Lockman works for what the possible legal ramifications would be for the alleged actions of BP and Ogilvy.
"What these guys are doing is bordering on illegal," Paulos told Al Jazeera. "Marie's allegations are that these guys have made overt acts beyond what they did online, and it does sound like people who've been the victims of these actions believe they are in imminent danger of bodily harm, and that can become the basis for a claim of assault."
Paulos went on to say that if money were involved, like if the threats made by the trolls were against people who had pending claims against BP, or offered to cease the harassment in exchange for funds or other benefits, "it can become a claim of extortion or fraud, depending on how the money is being used".
Yet these are not the worst possible crimes.
"They [BP/Ogilvy] are obviously trying to silence folks who are opposed or critical of what they are doing," Paulos claimed. "But it appears as though it has moved into threats that can be considered terroristic threats depending on the intent behind them, so there are a lot of laws they can be treading on, including stalking, and tortious interference with someone's businesses. I understand they've called the workplaces of people on the websites, and depending on what's being said that may become actionable under US civil law. So there are a lot of ways they could be breaching the law based on the intent of their communication and how that has been received." Paulos believes Marie's case is an example of how corporations such as BP use their money and power to take advantage of a lack of adequate legal regulations over the use of internet trolls and vigorous PR campaigns, and that this should give the general public pause.
"Marie's story shows that corporations do not refrain from cyber-bullying, and they are doing it in a very aggressive fashion."
Linda Hooper Bui, an associate professor of entomology at Louisiana State University, experienced a different form of harassment from BP while working on a study about the impact of the oil disaster on spiders and insects.
"BP was desperately trying to control the science, and that was what I ran into," Bui told Al Jazeera. According to her, BP's chief science officer "tried to intimidate me", and the harassment included BP "bullying my people" who were working in the field with her on her study that revealed how "insects and spiders in the oiled areas were completely decimated".
While collecting data for the study, Bui and her colleagues regularly ran into problems with BP, she said.
"Local sheriffs working under the auspices of BP, as well as personnel with Wildlife and Fisheries, the US Coast Guard - all of these folks working under BP were preventing us from doing our job," Bui explained. "We were barred from going into areas to collect data where we had previous data."
Bui said personnel from the USCG, Fish and Wildlife, and even local sheriffs departments, always accompanied by BP staff, worked to prevent her from entering areas to collect data, confiscated her samples, and "if I'd refused to oblige they would have arrested me" - despite her having state permits to carry out her work.
Bui has also been harassed online, by what she thinks was "a BP troll", but she remained primarily concerned about what BP was doing to block her science. Her frustration about this prompted her to write an opinion article for The New York Times , titled A Gulf Science Blackout .
That is when she received a call from BP.
"August 24, 2010, at 7:15am the morning my op-ed was published, I received a call from BP's chief science officer who tried to get me to be quiet," Bui said. "He said he'd solve my problem, and asked me how much money I needed."
Bui explained to him she was only interested in being allowed to conduct her studies, and was not interested in working with BP, "that I was publishing science and it involved the entire scientific community", and she never heard back from him.
She believes her method of dealing with the overall situation was a success. "When somebody starts to mess with me, I publicise it and say: 'Don ' t f**k with me,'" she concluded. "And if you do, I'm going to go very public with it, and that's what I did."
BP did not respond to Al Jazeera for comment regarding her specific allegation.
GAP's Shanna Devine told Al Jazeera she believes the onus is on BP to investigate the possibility that there is a connection between the harassment and Ogilvy and BP employees.
"But so far they've taken a very hands-off approach," she explained. "They've not taken responsibility and they are not willing to share information with us. So if it's through BP's silence that the public is willing to draw their conclusions, I think that is legitimate."
Hence, Devine concluded: "The BP America Facebook page is not a safe place to be."