Hot Gossip From A Global Warmer!
This is some seriously underrated tea on Chevron, the oil company acting like Regina George (actually though).
In high school, I thought I had seen all there is to see re: embarrassing yourself by trying to drag someone else.
The incident: My classmate “Jake” finds me before AP History and hands me a t-shirt. On the front, there's a huge letter “O.” Jake was flanked by three friends: The group wore shirts reading “P”, “R”, “M,” and “?”. Jake was attempting a promposal. Having run out of friends, he needed to buy a vowel. He begged for my help, and I reluctantly agreed. Jake was promposing to Molly. Molly hated Jake. Jake took her hatred for misplaced attraction. It wasn’t; Jake just sucked. Upon arrival, Molly didn’t say “no,” she just turned on her heel and skipped class. Iconic.
But later, Jake turned his rejection into an all-timer of a Facebook status, arguing that the promposal had been a joke, that Molly was “the biggest bitch on the planet” and would go to prom alone, that his actual date would be hotter, and that Molly’s father “talked like a homosexual.”
Molly had a great prom, Jake is a Qanon guy now. To this day, thinking back on that incident will give me a cringe that curves my spine. You’d think that social media spirals like this would be the exclusive territory of rejected high school boys — and not, for example, multi-billion dollar oil companies. You’d think.
“I don't know,” said Steven Donziger. “I've never heard of a corporation creating a website to attack an adversary lawyer in such a vicious, comprehensive way.“
I caught up with Donziger backstage at Baby’s All Right as he kicked off the Hot Labor Summer Tour — a speaking-series/party in support of his cause and that of Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls.
Donziger’s three-decade legal battle with Chevron is a pain to summarize. Key to understand is that he represented 30,000 Ecuadorian indigenous residents of the Amazon in a lawsuit against oil giant Chevron. Per coverage at the time, Donziger and his team argued that a company Chevron purchased dumped “18 billion gallons of toxic waste… leading to 1,000-plus deaths from cancer and to ecological damage beyond repair.” In a landmark 2013 victory, courts in Ecuador ordered Chevron pay $9.5 billion in damages.
Chevron responded by suing Donziger in the U.S. for $60 billion — for scale, that’s roughly one Koch brother. The Intercept and others have noted that Chevron’s case against Steven hinged on a witness that Chevron had paid “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, and a judge with “a soft spot” for the oil company. Though damages were dropped, Donziger was found guilty, disbarred, imprisoned, placed on house arrest, and remains unable to leave the country.
The legal moves Chevron has made against Donziger are no laughing matter. On the other hand, their attempts to beat him down in the court of public opinion are… different.
“They had to create a fake narrative,” said Donziger. “At that point, they really crossed the line in terms of the things they started do… to lie, to deceive the public, to deceive journalists and their own employees.”
In 2009, an internal memo at Chevron spoke of a “long-term” plan to “demonize” Donziger. The same year, Chevron created The Amazon Post. Skimmed in a Twitter Feed, the name is obviously designed to look like some sort of news outlet. But clicking through, you’ll see the subtitle: “Chevron’s Views on the Ecuador Lawsuit.”
For fourteen years, Chevron has played Regina George by using the Amazon Post (and its Spanish-language affiliate websites) as their Big Oil Burn Book. Their mission statement of sorts is viewable on the Wayback Machine:
The false news and misleading information [30,000 Indigenous Peasant Farmers] put out deserves to be corrected-and the public has a right to know the truth. This is Chevron’s blog to set the record straight!
The Amazon Post became fascinating to me. There’s something deeply funny about a company as large and as powerful as Chevron making its own little Wordpress blog so it can feel seen and heard. A post from September 2011 ends by wondering why the Obama administration hasn’t done more to watch their back. “Where is the support for one of our largest employers,” they asked. “when rip-off artists look to pilfer tens of billions of dollars from an American company in a clearly fraudulent attempt to make a quick buck at the expense of a company with deep pockets?”
The piece ends with: “silence from Washington. Thanks for nothing, guys.” It’s hard to feel bad for them, but think about it this way. Chevron spent $9.5m on lobbying the year that was written. If you spent $9.5m on a date with someone and they didn’t text you back, wouldn’t you be mad too?
To date, the Wall Street Journal has run nine pro-Chevron, anti-Donziger opinion pieces. Plenty of other major outlets have argued in their favor — but it’s not enough. They’re the victim here, and they need you to know that.
For two, they’ve clearly run out of material. The top story on Amazon Post right now is about Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters. Waters recently ruffled feathers by wearing a fascist-inspired outfit during a live performance of The Wall, a 40-year old album (that’s clearly anti-fascist, but whatever). Some groups saw the gesture as anti-semetic. Waters has said nice things about Donziger in the past, so The Amazon Post wants you to know… that the lives-on-the-Upper-West-Side, very-obviously-Jewish Steven Donziger is anti-semetic by association? I guess?
For another, ads for the Amazon Post wouldn’t quit following me as I browsed, with the tenacity of a J. Crew sweater I had left in my shopping cart. Chevron is still putting paid spend behind the website on Twitter. Spend too much time researching Steven , you’ll likely start to see them. As recently as October 2022, academic (and NeoliberalHell pod co-host) Matthew J. Donovan confirmed that Chevron had created approximately 9,000 backlinks to the Amazon Post. (Google ranks websites based on the number of other websites that link back to them — manufacturing “backlinks” is a way to boost credibility and visibility). Calculating the price of an effort like this is difficult. But with a reasonable price per backlink at about $500, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to estimate total spend on promoting the Amazon Post at north of $4.5 million dollars — that’s before factoring in fees paid to an agency providing these services.
It should go without saying that this is pocket change to Chevron. By their own estimates, it has spent “nearly $1 billion” on fees for staff, advisers and attorneys. But let’s not gloss over the numbers here. Over its fourteen years as a blog and on Twitter, the Amazon Post has racked up 6,000 followers (with 4,000 following). That’s a rate of about 400 new followers per year — a rate that would get any 20-something social media manager shown the door. If any Byline reader was given $4.5 million and 15 years, I bet they could get a Twitter account past 6k. This begs the question: How are they so bad at this? That might be unanswerable. But what we can say with more certainty is this: Chevron will be going Regina George-mode more often in the future.
Take the Bay Area city of Richmond, where Chevron maintains an oil refinery. Under the “Incidents” section for the refinery’s Wikipedia page: “1989 explosion and fire,” “1999 explosion and fire,” “2012 fire,” “2014 incident,” “2016 incident.” In the wake of the 2014 incident, Chevron brought something else to the town: a news outlet, called the Richmond Standard. In 2022 they launched Permian Proud, a news outlet for the area between Texas and New Mexico around Lubbock, Midland and Odessa. In this region, Chevron has a net daily average production of 303,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
In the last several years, the effects of climate change have become increasingly impossible for Americans to ignore, even for those who live in affluent areas isolated from the worst effects of rising sea levels. In the same way, the tools used by oil companies to maintain the status quo are also making their way home. Yes, it’s hilarious that Chevron is spending millions of dollars on what amounts to a fuck-you Tumblr dedicated to a single guy. But if they have their way, you won’t hear about the next Steven Donziger. They’ll own the place where you would have read about him.