The Secret History and Uncertain Future of Big Oil’s Unfunniest Meme Website

Illustration for article titled The Secret History and Uncertain Future of Big Oil’s Unfunniest Meme Website
Image: FrackFeed

“Welcome to your new favorite place,” the headline of the website FrackFeed read at the beginning of December. “The dankest memes curated for your lurking enjoyment.”

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If you happen to be obsessed with both fracking and some semblance of early 2010s internet culture, FrackFeed was your playground. The site boasted quizzes (“Pick a Pumpjack”), jokes (“What do you call someone who steals energy? A joule thief”), and listicles (“The Top 5 Oilfield Innovations”). There were more oil and gas memes than you could know what to do with on the site’s active Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.

But if you’re a normal person, clicking through the deeply unfunny meme collections probably just makes you think “what the hell?” and “who made this?” and “why does this exist?” The answer’s pretty simple: FrackFeed is a project backed by powerful oil and gas industry interests in a desperate bid for youth attention. It continues to exist because the fracking industry is paying for it.

There’s a reason that the teens aren’t out in the wild making pro-fracking memes of their own volition. At the end of the day, fracking—a process that destroys the earth, endangers lives, and enriches the already-powerful fossil fuel industry—is a deeply uncool practice. Teens are extremely mad about the fate that oil and gas companies are conscripting them to, and that’s why they’re busy making TikToks about shutting the industry down instead of cheering it on.

What the oil industry lacks in organic support from millennials and Gen Z, it makes up for in money. FrackFeed is an example of how the oil industry has used that money to try to recruit the people who are going to be living with the impacts of its products for decades. And as the fate of the industry changes, dank fracking memes meant to lure in the kids may now morph into something else.

FrackFeed started in 2015. If you can think back to that era of the internet—BuzzFeed listicles, Facebook memes, celebrities beginning to speak out against pipelines—the site’s existence makes a whole lot of sense. The first version of FrackFeed included a game titled “Are You Caught Up In the Hollywood Frack Fiction?” Sub in “Marvel” for “frack,” and you could have readymade content for BuzzFeed of the era, specifically designed to appeal to the kids.

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“Facebook is the number one source of news for millennials, and people are increasingly digesting the news through digital media—especially short, pithy pieces of content,” a spokesperson for the site, Steve Everley, told Politico in 2015. “Simply put, FrackFeed allows us to explain the benefits of fracking to a new generation of Americans.”

While tastes on the internet have shifted over the past six years beyond LOLcats and blue-or-gold dress debates, FrackFeed’s social feeds are crystallized in internet amber and reflect the aesthetic of the era the site came into existence, right down to distinctive—and dated—Impact font. That’s not to say the oil-and-gas memers are lazy and recycling jokes; the feed’s content has always stayed surprisingly up to date with the larger meme culture, suggesting that someone with some sort of finger on the pulse of the internet was responsible for their creation. Last January, for instance, when seemingly every celebrity was participating in the Dolly Parton challenge, the FrackFeed Instagram joined in with an oil-and-gas version. And despite littering their feed with anti-Bernie Sanders memes in early 2020 when he was the Democratic frontrunner, they still took the time to make an “I am once again asking” meme in March last year.

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Illustration for article titled The Secret History and Uncertain Future of Big Oil’s Unfunniest Meme Website
Image: FrackFeed

All this faux grassroots meme-ing didn’t come cheap. According to Facebook’s ad library, the FrackFeed page spent more than $50,000 on ads—seemingly mostly promoting memes and videos—between 2018 and 2019 alone. (It might be no accident that Facebook was the campaign’s most popular social network by far, with more than 150,000 followers on the page.)

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FrackFeed appears to have had some supporters with deep pockets and meme money to burn. Although spokesperson Steve Everley told DeSmog in 2015 that FrackFeed’s parent group, Texans for Natural Gas, was led by “over 110,000 people who support responsible natural gas development,” that “grassroots” group’s site discloses that it was funded by four big industry names, including ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy.

And the campaign had some pretty pricey hired help. The Texans for Natural Gas campaign—and by extension FrackFeed—was, as the New York Times reported last year, a project that appears at least partially run by FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm that’s a favorite of the oil and gas industry. According to the Times, FTI employees have worked on a number of different projects funded by industry players over the past decade, from news sites to advocacy organizations, to fake testimonials. They’re all purposefully designed to create an ecosystem of support around oil and gas industry products and generate attacks on opponents with the veneer of grassroots movements.

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“It’s propaganda—let’s call it what it is,” said Kert Davies, the founder and director of Climate Investigations Center. “It’s the sidestream media of the fossil fuel industry, and they’ve done it pretty effectively.”

FrackFeed, Davies said, is the latest effort of a long history of fossil fuel astroturfing projects designed to look like they reflect the concerns of real citizens.

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“It’s almost like [they have] a craving for real grassroots support...and it just isn’t there,” he said.

Illustration for article titled The Secret History and Uncertain Future of Big Oil’s Unfunniest Meme Website
Image: FrackFeed
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The Times report identifies Texans for Natural Gas as a key project of FTI’s, as the firm’s employees took on a variety of roles from video producers to petition authors to spokespeople to op-ed authors. And FTI’s fingerprints are all over FrackFeed: that FrackFeed spokesperson, Steve Everley, is one of FTI’s managing directors of strategic communications. (Everley also starred in a FrackFeed video reading “mean tweets” in the style of the famous Jimmy Kimmel segment, and is currently fifth on a “dashboard” of top petition signers maintained by Texans for Natural Gas.)

Investor pressure, public outcry, a shift in power in Washington, and plummeting revenues have big industry players on their heels, and they’re making an effort to change both their language and their PR fronts. As the Times reported in November, FTI recently helped launch a new ESG Center with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and has been promoting its new “ESG Compass Model” for investors and clients interested in that area of investing. (Accordingly, Everley has been sharing renewable energy news on his Twitter account recently.)

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With these shifting tides, it’s not clear if big oil companies trying to make ESG names for themselves have room for a brash, aggressively pro-fracking group in their portfolio–or if they’ll try to shift that group’s tone. On Sunday, Texans for Natural Gas announced that it “will operate as a resource managed by” the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, or TIPRO, a statewide industry membership group. As part of the arrangement, the announcement reads, Texans for Natural Gas’s social media properties will be updated as the organizations merge to create “the most comprehensive statewide oil and natural gas campaign in Texas.” Texans for Natural Gas is still described as a “grassroots organization” in the press release.

As for the fate of FrackFeed, it’s unclear. The president of TIPRO, Ed Longanecker, told Earther in an emailed statement that Texans for Natural Gas is “enhancing and updating many of our programs and platforms, including Frackfeed. As TNG steps into a new era, we expect further changes that will strengthen our ability to provide a voice to supporters of Texas oil and gas.” Longanecker also confirmed that TNG will continue to work with FTI Consulting.

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For now, the posts on all FrackFeed’s social sites have slowed to a trickle or stopped altogether. Many of its YouTube videos have been scrubbed, its website is down for maintenance, and its Twitter is locked. The dankest memes, it seems, have been relegated to the meme basement.

DISCUSSION

misterpiggins
MisterPiggins

Whole lotta Steve Buscemi with a skateboard energy in these memes.