New Orleans, United States -- BP has been accused of hiring internet "trolls" to purposefully attack, harass, and sometimes threaten people who have been critical of how the oil giant has handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil firm hired the international PR company Ogilvy & Mather to run the BP America Facebook page during the oil disaster, which released at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf in what is to date the single largest environmental disaster in US history.
The page was meant to encourage interaction with BP, but when people posted comments that were critical of how BP was handling the crisis, they were often attacked, bullied, and sometimes directly threatened.
"Marie" was deeply concerned by the oil spill, and began posting comments on the BP America Facebook page. Today, she asks that she remain anonymous out of what she described to Al Jazeera as "fear for my personal safety should the BP trolls find out that I am the whistleblower in this case."
In internet slang, a troll is someone who sows online discord by starting arguments or upsetting people, often posting inflammatory messages in an online community, or even issuing physical threats.
Marie sought assistance from the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a non-profit group in Washington DC, and has produced boxes of documents and well-researched information that may show that the people harassing BP's critics online worked for BP or Ogilvy.
"We'd been hearing of this kind of harassment by BP when we were working on our health project [in the Gulf of Mexico], so it sparked our interest," GAP investigator Shanna Devine told Al Jazeera. "We saw Marie's documentation of more serious threats made on the BP page, and decided to investigate."
According to both Marie and Devine, some of the threats began on the page, but then escalated off the page.
Threats included identifying where somebody lived, an internet troll making reference to having a shotgun and making use of it, and "others just being more derogatory," according to Devine. "We've seen all this documentation and that's why we thought it was worth bringing to the ombudsman's office of BP, and we told them we thought some of it even warranted calling the police about."
"We have thousands of documents regarding communications posted through various Facebook websites," said certified legal investigator Steve Lockman of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor. "In addtion, we are in possession of communications between the federal government and the ombudsman's office of BP regarding the internet communications, and the federal government requesting BP to control the harassment through their Facebook page and their interactions."
"The harassment communications are not something that BP and their people are not aware of," Lockman told Al Jazeera. "It's not a hidden secret that the personal attacks, broadcast abuse, and type-written harassment were happening and continue to go on."
Marie provided the firm and Al Jazeera with files of complaint letters, computer screenshots of the abuse, and a list of Facebook profiles used by the people who harassed her and others.
"I was called a lot of names," Marie added. "I was called a streetwalker and a lot of things like that, and eventually had gun threats."
According to Marie, the harassment didn't remain on the BP page. Trolls often followed users to their personal Facebook pages and continued to harass them there.
"They resorted to very demeaning methods of abuse," Marie said. "They were racist, sexist, and threatened me and others with legal action and violence. They've insinuated that some commenters are 'child molesters,' and have often used the tactic of mass reporting with the goal of having their targets completely removed from Facebook."
One troll using the name "Griffin" makes several allusions to gun violence, while another, named "Ken Smith" also harassed and threatened users, even going so far as to edit a photo of a BP critic's pet bird into the crosshairs of a gunsight, before posting the photo online - along with photos of an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons.