PeabodyAs more and more of us search for news and information online, PR companies and their clients are increasingly trying to manipulate what you read.

There are now companies that specialise in manipulating Google such as Reputation Changer, which recently bought the web domain.

Meanwhile, several PR and lobbying companies have been caught manipulating Wikipedia.

And now it seems that Big Coal has been up to its dirty tricks too.

Back in February this year, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately owned coal company, launched a new public relations campaign which argued that energy poverty was the world’s number one environmental and human crisis.

The campaign, called “Advanced Energy for Life”, spun the line that “coal is key to human health and welfare along with a clean environment.”

Speaking at the launch, Peabody Energy Chairman and CEO Gregory Boyce called coal, which remember is a dirty fossil fuel, a “fundamental environmental solution.”

The first alarm bell is who is the PR company behind the campaign: Burson-Marsteller, which, as I pointed out in the book Green Backlash, has long pioneered so-called astroturfing and setting up corporate front groups.

It has a sordid past, including working for the Argentinian junta when 35,000 people disappeared and for Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster – still regarded as the world’s worst industrial accident.

Peabody’s campaign first started running into trouble in August when the UK Advertising Standards Authority argued that promoting the phrase “clean coal,” was likely to mislead consumers into thinking that burning coal did not produce CO2 or other emissions.

Fast forward three more months and at a G20 related meeting in Brisbane, Glenn Kellow, chief operating officer of Peabody Energy, bragged that the company’s PR campaign had prompted 500,000 people to lobby the G20 over “energy poverty”.

As of this morning, the campaign’s Facebook page has some 431,000 likes and its Twitter feed some 124,000 followers. Those are impressive numbers and it seems that the PR campaign has been a roaring success, building genuine social media support.

But, as so often with the web now,  not everything is at it seems.

According to an article in Australia’s Business Spectator: “Unfortunately for anyone that takes Peabody at its word, the campaign appears to have been faked.”

An analysis by the paper of the Twitter account revealed that the account jumped 85,000 and 21,000 followers on November 11 and 12 respectively. The number of Twitter followers started declining on November 13, which is the day after Peabody hosted its event at the G20 summit. The company’s official Twitter account also made “unusual gains” too during the same period.

The paper argues that “The additions to both AEfL and Peabody’s official account are far too large and consistent to be explained by organic growth – especially considering the activity on the accounts and the lack of serious publicity surrounding them”.

Meanwhile the AEfL Facebook account jumped spectacularly from 24,500 likes at the end of August to 427,987 by November 13, when too it stopped gaining support.

The paper compares the AEfL Facebook account to known-climate sceptic Bjørn Lomborg’s who appeared at the Peabody event at the Brisbane G20.

At the end of August, Lomborg and AEfL had a comparable numbers of followers.

The paper highlights how despite being promoted by the AEfL campaign, and speaking on the the same topics and even at the same events, Lomborg’s followers increased only very slightly over September, October and November. Meanwhile AEfL’s follower’s exploded to nearly 430,000.

One of the tricks of the trade is that to comment on the Facebook account, even in a negative way, you have to like it.

Other alarm bells are the quality of followers for AEfL and the actual small level of interaction on the accounts by the company, which is a “key sign of fake or bought support”.

As the fake campaign confuses people, the Australia Institute recently argues “The coal industry is very vocal in promoting energy poverty and pushing coal as a solution to it. But coal companies are not, in general, major contributors to energy poverty alleviation efforts.”

Indeed, one commentator adds: “In reality, the only money Peabody appears to spend on the rural poor is what it spends talking about them on its website and social media channels.”