Disinformation as a tool for destabilizing enterprises: Shell /Greenpeace and Elf-Shell/ Ran

On February 16th, 1995, the British government authorized the oil company Shell to sink the Brent oil spar off the coast of Scotland. The environmentalist association Greenpeace denounced the danger of the impact of this operation on the ecosystem, since this spar contained 5000 tons of oil. Both Shell and many scientists justified the need of sinking it and neglected any impact on the ecosystem; even the British Minister John Major agreed on that.

Greenpeace thus started a disinformation campaign articulated in precise steps: first, Greenpeace indicated that the scientists testifying for the sinking of the spar were linked to the government and therefore their view were biased; second, it carried on direct attacks against the oil platform with the help of about twenty activists. Their actions were filmed and diffused all over the world together with the announcement of Greenpeace activists to be determined to stay on the oil spar until Shell consented to their request. Greenpeace was also active on the counter-information side: the association published a report signed by some independent scientists highlighting the possible environmental risks of the sinking of the oil spar. All these operations were highly circulated on media outlets together with the call on the main European countries to boycott the Shell oil stations. A good amount of trade unions responded to this call and Shell witnessed significant losses. Even the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl endorsed Greenpeace campaign and explicitly asked John Major to withdraw the project of sinking the spar. Eventually, the oil company dropped the operation on June 29th, 1995.

Nevertheless, Shell lawyers commissioned a report to an independent scientific foundation in Norway exploring the issue from the scientific perspective and the possible damages to the ecosystem. The report – published on October 18th 1995 – concluded that there was no real impact. When Greenpeace got to know about the evaluation ordered by Shell, the association feared its big impact on public opinion and started a preemptive counterattack basing on the techniques already theorized by Sun Tzu: cutting the grass under the opponent’s feet. In this regard, Greenpeace tried to counter-argue the content of the report even before its diffusion. Although Greenpeace was still criticized for its own report, the impact of Shell’s findings was quite limited.

The counter-information strategies adopted in this case can be defined as the combination between communication actions that, thanks to precise and verifiable information, can soften or pushback the attack against the instigator and sometimes even wipe out its effect.

Although it is very difference from the disinformation techniques used by security services, counter information follows strict rules like using preliminary intelligence, mastering psychological mechanisms and communication and media techniques. In order to be credible, counter-information must convey open and well-developed arguments, while systematically attack contradictions and weaknesses of the opponent and using media outlets to diffuse its messages. In the case presented, the British oil company not only put in place a defensive (and non-aggressive) strategy but above all created a direct clash with Greenpeace that was completely inadequate. Besides, Shell was never able to effectively contain Greenpeace’s media attack because it decided to build its arguments on an objective and scientific dimension while the environmentalist association adopted subversive techniques.

In 1996, oil groups Exxon Shell and Elf decided to set up a consortium in order to build up an oil field in agreement with Chad’s government. The well-respected US association for environmental defense RAN immediately reacted to this initiative and revealed that the construction of oil plants would have caused the extinction of a number of vegetal and animal species such as gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and rhinos. In order to hinder the project, RAN started a dis-information campaign based on direct action: 1) carried out a blitz at the headquarters of the World Bank (which in 1999 had decided to finance the project of the oil pipeline and terminal): one of RAN activists tied himself to a rope suspended at 30 above ground on the World Bank main building; 2) produced catchy slogans supporting an effective media disinformation campaign; 3) covered Washington D.C. with posters portraying the World Bank general director’s face with the expression “Wanted”. This strategy caught the attention of international press and transformed a local cause into a global campaign.

As a result, Elf and Shell dropped their project and so did the World Bank. The escalation of RAN’s disinformation campaign had reached its goal. RAN understood that limiting its cause to the protection of monkeys and rhinos would have not produce effective disinformation. When RAN decided to engage in the political field, mainly through spotting the inefficiencies of the World Bank and discrediting the agencies linked to the project (RAN pointed out the corruption of the countries involved in it) the importance of disinformation acquires a new feature.

Even in this case the strategy adopted is indirect and characterized from the very beginning by a gradual attrition of the oil companies involved. According to the authors the strategy that RAN adopted were following well-structured steps: first it built up its campaign basing on the moral principle of not hurting both ecosystem and the local population; second, it used public opinion to put pressure on political and economic institution. In other words, RAN proved to be aware of the importance of playing on multiple fields, and taking advantage from spoiling, exhaust and circle the opponent.

As for the narrative and the techniques applied, RAN managed to attack the credibility of its opponent focusing on its weaknesses. Through jumping from a topic to another and going around the problem, RAN disoriented its interlocutor and prevented it from putting in place an effective counter-argument. This case provides another example about how the destabilization carried out through disinformation is now a strategy civil society and associations adopt constantly and represents a threat for both institutions and enterprises.

Gagliano Giuseppe
Gagliano Giuseppe
President of the De Cristoforis Strategic Studies Center (Italy)