Facebook is being used by oil and gas companies to clamp-down on protest. Three companies are currently seeking injunctions against protesters: British chemical giant INEOS, which has the largest number of shale gas drilling licenses in the UK; and small UK outfits UK Oil and Gas (UKOG), and Europa Oil and Gas. Among the thousands of pages of documents submitted to British courts by these companies are hundreds of Facebook and Twitter posts from anti-fracking protesters and campaign groups, uncovered by Motherboard in partnership with investigative journalists at DeSmog UK. They show how fracking companies are using social media surveillance carried out by a private firm to strengthen their cases in court by discrediting activists using personal information to justify banning their protests.
Included in the evidence supplied by the oil and gas companies to the courts are many personal or seemingly irrelevant campaigner posts. Some are from conversations on Facebook groups dedicated to particular protests or camps, while others have been captured from individuals’ own profile pages. For instance, a picture of a mother with her baby at a protest was submitted as part of the Europa Oil and Gas case. Another screenshot of a post in the Europa bundle shows a hand-written note from one of the protesters’ mothers accompanying a care package with hand-knitted socks that was sent to an anti-fracking camp. One post included in the UKOG hearing bundle shows two protesters sharing a pint in the sun — not at a protest camp, nor shared on any of the campaign pages’ Facebook groups. A screenshot from INEOS’s hearing bundle shows posts from a protester to his own Facebook wall regarding completely unrelated issues such as prescription drugs, and a generic moan about his manager.
It is not always clear how such posts are being used against these activists except to portray them in a bad light, and a judge could disregard them as irrelevant to the case. But their often personal nature raises questions about how these companies were scrutinising the private lives of campaigners to justify shutting down their protests.
In 2011, the UK government ordered a public inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press after a leading tabloid newspaper was convicted of phone hacking. One of the activists subject to surveillance, Jon O’Houston, who has been part of the Broadford Bridge Protection Camp, said he felt it was equivalent to the phone hacking cases, which led to the Leveson review.
“What’s said in the groups is generally taken either out of context or cherry-picked”, O’Houston told Motherboard. “When taken out of context, you can make anything look bad or good.”
Despite his posts being used to strengthen the case for injunctions against protesters, he said he wouldn’t necessarily change his behaviour on social media.
“I don’t think I’d ever change the way we operate our groups. There’s too much information there already. If someone wants to go back five years and have a look at what was going on in these groups five years ago, they could do that,” he said.
“It would be very difficult if we stopped using Facebook as a platform,” he added. “We would lose so much of that important stuff. In a way, it’s got us trapped.”