It might be legitimate for a PR firm to spin a story for their benefit, but it certainly appears as though BP's social media PR experts may have gone too far when it came to how they handled social media in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010.
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.
Pretty standard Internet behavior these days, right? Post anything controversial on social media, expect a pile-on from the usual trolls. But this went beyond just basic trolling.
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."
This caught my attention right away. Right after Rush Limbaugh hired a PR firm to repair the damage from his Sandra Fluke remarks, the StopRush effort saw stepped-up instances of aggressive trolling and harassment of individuals involved in that volunteer effort, which included a concerted effort to infiltrate and disrupt what they were trying to do. In connection with that, my own personal information was posted online along with the full names of my children and relatives and their addresses, our employers, current and former, all under the perjorative claim that I was one of the "radical progressives who had to be stopped at all costs."
In fact, the descriptions of harassment on the BP Facebook page aren't unlike what happened to me and others working on the StopRush effort.
"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 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."
The video at the top is an excerpt of a talk given in 2012 by Stephen Marino, who was responsible for coordinating the social media piece of BP's public relations campaign through Ogilvy and Mather. In the clip, he discusses BP's fear of allowing comments on their Facebook page and how they addressed the problem with "strict community guidelines" that would allow moderators to remove users who violated them, "no ifs, ands or buts."
According to Al Jazeera, they adhered to those guidelines and satisfied their client, but that didn't stop the harassment.
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 compensation claims against BP.
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.
Once again, it all comes down to how identity is managed online.
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."
Indeed, they have. Public relations efforts have been around as long as corporations and celebrities have, but when they descend into the world of anonymous online harassment, bullying and threats, it's not public relations anymore. It's a criminal act. If BP and their public relations firms are found to have hired people to harass and chill critics' speech, they should be on the hook for damages.
But more importantly, it really is time to start considering ways to balance free speech against anonymity online. Sending an army of sock puppets after citizens is no way to manage corporate relations, and it shouldn't be allowed.