New research shows Canada Proud has an online reach surpassing major media outlets.
By Geoff Dembickion
Originally publish on Desmog. Republished under Creative Commons licence.
As Russian forces advanced towards Kyiv, Canada’s oil and gas industry and its supporters responded with a self-serving narrative: the Ukraine crisis means Canada must accelerate its production of fossil fuels.
Leading the charge is Canada Proud, a right-wing Facebook page with close ties to the Conservative Party, which made post after post in the early days of the invasion urging the country to export more hydrocarbons to Europe.
“The world is enriching Vladimir Putin when they buy his oil and gas,” it explained in one to its nearly 400,000 followers. “Shouldn’t the world be buying Canadian oil and gas instead?”
The political circumstances may be novel, but this is merely the latest variation on a message that Canada Proud has pushed online for years: that we need to remove as many restrictions as possible on the production, transport and export of fossil fuels.
New research shows that Canada Proud is incredibly effective at spreading that message.
The Ontario-based group founded by Jeff Ballingall, a paid strategist for former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, punches far above its weight on social media when it comes to global heating, posting content dismissive of climate action that regularly outperforms national environmental groups and rivals the reach of mainstream media.
That’s according to a newly published study from Simon Fraser University communications professor Shane Gunster, who calculated that Facebook posts from Canada Proud (along with a related page called Ontario Proud) were shared on average 750 times each in 2020, a level of engagement ten times higher than climate posts from the David Suzuki Foundation and Greenpeace Canada.
The Proud network got nearly 118,000 engagements for its climate posts during that period, surpassing the almost 107,000 engagements for climate content on Facebook from Bell Media/CTV, one of the country’s top media outlets.
The Proud traffic is even more striking considering its engagements came from just 48 Facebook posts, compared to 290 posts from Bell Media/CTV.
“They are the most effective group at generating action for anti-climate action material,” Gunster told DeSmog. “They’re able to drive massive amounts of engagement.”
Canada Proud didn’t respond to an interview request from DeSmog.
The Facebook page’s primary mission is to antagonize Justin Trudeau. Visit Canada Proud’s feed on any given day and you are likely to see memes referring to the Liberal prime minister as a hypocrite, political lightweight or dangerous tyrant. “We are reaching millions of Canadians every week with our anti-Trudeau message,” Canada Proud explained in a recent email to supporters.
In addition to its national work attacking Trudeau and promoting oil and gas, the Canada Proud network “is making forays into municipal politics with anonymous Facebook pages” in B.C., Ontario and Quebec, according to a recent investigation in Canada’s National Observer.
The group’s climate posts add an environmental twist. In mid-February, Canada Proud shared several posts referencing an RCMP statement saying that 20 people with axes attacked a worksite for the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northwest British Columbia. Somehow this was the prime minister’s fault. “Let’s expose Justin Trudeau’s hypocrisy and double standards,” said a Canada Proud post about the attacks.
Another post blamed progressive policymakers for the violence.
“This extremism is the direct result of the inflammatory rhetoric of irresponsible politicians and fanatical activists like David Suzuki,” said one post, which was reposted from a pro-oil and gas Facebook page called Debunk Inc.
There is no evidence to support this claim, given that the RCMP hasn’t publicly identified any suspects in the attack or announced any arrests.
But Canada Proud is not a neutral observer when it comes to projects like Coastal GasLink.
The group launched three paid posts in late January supporting the project, a 670-kilometre pipeline that would supply gas to an export facility on B.C.’s west coast.
“Environmentalists claim that by opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline, they are supporting local Indigenous people,” reads the post. “They will never tell you that ALL of the elected band councils along the pipeline’s route support the project.”
Facebook analytics show that Canada Proud spent up to $4,000 promoting that message, which reached an estimated audience size of over one million people, generating more than a million impressions.
It’s true that 20 elected band councils along the pipeline’s route have signed agreements supporting the Coastal GasLink project. But the reality is not as cut and dry as Canada Proud is making it seem. Band councils are tasked with representing reserves chronically underfunded by the Canadian government. Poverty can be rampant, and that complicates meaningful consent.
Making a deal with a large oil and gas pipeline company is sometimes the only way elected First Nations leaders can gain resources and jobs for their citizens. Meanwhile, hereditary chiefs that represent the much larger traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en are staunchly opposed to the $6 billion pipeline.
“It’s disingenuous to give the impression that hordes of Indigenous people are cheering it on,” Clifford Atleo, a Tsimshian and Nuu-chah-nulth scholar at Simon Fraser University who focuses on Indigenous governance, told DeSmog. “I don’t think that’s a realistic assessment of what’s actually going on.”
Another recent paid post from Canada Proud, which resulted in as many as 700,000 Facebook impressions, claims that the Coastal GasLink pipeline “would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by outcompeting made-in-China coal energy.”
Its source for that statement was an article created by the Canadian Energy Centre, a pro-oil and gas website funded by the Alberta government, which claimed that Coastal GasLink will result in climate gains equivalent to shutting down several dozen coal plants.
Actual climate experts disagree. “Methane emissions are likely to give natural gas a climate footprint at least as large as coal, if not higher,” Robert Howarth, an Earth systems scientist at Cornell University who’s studied the gas industry extensively, told DeSmog.
Methane stays in the atmosphere less time than carbon dioxide, but its warming power is 25 times higher. Worryingly, research from last year suggests that the amount of methane leaking from oil and gas operations in B.C. is up to 2.2 times higher than current federal estimates.
That is not information that Canada Proud’s 392,000 followers are likely to see when encountering a climate post created by the group. Instead, those followers get hit with content designed to make them distrust efforts to fix climate change, such as a recent Jordan Peterson interview attacking the “naivety of climate activists.”
These posts can be easily debunked by experts, but by that point they’ve already reached potentially millions of Canadians, priming an online constituency to passionately defend the oil and gas industry–or to view a geopolitical crisis in Ukraine as an opportunity to drill for more gas in Canada. “It’s fairly easy to write it off as a joke,” Gunster said of the disinformation given a platform by Canada Proud. “But it can end up being extremely effective.”
Geoff Dembicki is an investigative climate journalist based in New York City. He is author of The Petroleum Papers and Are We Screwed?