In January of 2020, just a few weeks after the discovery of SARS-CoV-2, an internet user suggested that 5G cellular technology was causing COVID-19. In the ensuing months, the spread of the virus wasn’t the only thing that gained steam – the “5G causes COVID” narrative did as well, growing slowly but steadily through February and March before seeing an explosion of mentions across media in early April.

Then, by May, news sites were reporting that dozens of cell towers in the United Kingdom had been burned in arson attacks due to  the “5G causes COVID” narrative, and that employees of one telecommunications company had even been subjected to physical and verbal attacks. 

There’s no reason to believe an event like this could only have happened in the cellular technology space. Just about any industry could conceivably face incidents of online narratives jumping from the screen to the physical world. And when we look at recent headlines and current conversations, one industry that stands out as being at risk is energy.

Here are some key things Chief Information Security Officers and other Risk Management professionals at energy companies should understand about the intersection of online narratives and their companies’ physical security.

Learn more about physical security risks posed by online narratives in Get Ahead of the Unknown, our new guide to narrative intelligence.

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What kinds of physical threats could your company face?

When online narratives related to your company or industry gain steam, the potential physical consequences can be multifaceted. For the most part, they’re two-fold:

Security of your physical infrastructure

Narratives promoted online can quickly end up offline – as we’ve discussed, in several cases, they have.. And like the cellular technology industry with its cell towers, the energy industry invests heavily in infrastructure that is widely dispersed and, often, situated in remote areas, making it particularly vulnerable.

Executive and employee safety

In addition to your organization itself, narratives can emerge around your executives, employees, or company spokespeople – and these, too, can have physical consequences. These narratives may pertain to travel itineraries, or other information that facilitates threats.

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What makes the energy industry vulnerable?

It’s no secret that the energy industry typically plays a starring role in conversations about climate change – and those conversations have been ratcheting up. Zignal analyzed the climate change conversation across media and found that the volume of mentions of climate change-related keywords increased 53% from April 2020 to April 2021 compared to the previous 12-month period.

This increase has been fueled (no pun intended) by major events like the historic 2020 wildfire season, the Texas power crisis of February 2021, and others. These events have drawn attention to the broader issue of climate change and, at times, to the energy industry specifically – consider the debate over the role of wind turbines in the Texas power crisis, and the way that event was leveraged to defend the use of fossil fuels.

Major events driving an increase in the climate change conversation

Major events driving an increase in the climate change conversation, May 2019 – May 2021.

When major destructive events like these spark fast-spreading, highly opinionated online narratives about the energy industry, the writing is on the wall for Risk Management professionals in that industry: Keep tabs on those narratives, respond appropriately, or risk being subject to the fallout.

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What sub-sectors within the energy industry face the most risk?

As one would likely expect, many energy-focused narratives in the climate change conversation have centered on the duality between the fossil fuel and renewables sectors. Zignal tracked two sets of narratives – one presenting climate change as an urgent problem and one downplaying or denying climate change – and found that, from April 2019 to April 2021, the former received more than five times as many mentions as the latter.

Climate crisis vs. climate change denial

The Climate Change Crisis narrative captures all conversation around keywords and hashtags such as “climate change crisis” or “climate change emergency”. The Climate Change Denial narrative captures conversation around keywords and hashtags such as “climate change isn’t real”, “climate change is a hoax”, or that “climate change doesn’t exist.”

From this, one might deduce that the narrative landscape poses more risks to the fossil fuel sector, which is typically seen as a major driver of climate change. But it would be a mistake to ignore the possibility of risks to the renewables sector as well. After all, while the fossil fuel industry has faced protests both online and off, those protests often trigger a backlash that can pose risks to renewable energy companies as well. Again, the Texas power crisis of February 2021 was leveraged in narratives about both fossil fuels and renewables, with both sectors facing criticism. And narratives suggesting frozen wind turbines caused the crisis show how narratives can go beyond the conceptual to focus on specific physical assets.

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How can companies protect themselves?

The good news is that energy companies don’t have to sit by idly – and anxiously – as online narratives threaten to culminate in physical security threats to their business. Narrative intelligence resources empower CISOs and other Risk Management professionals to identify emerging narratives much more rapidly, so they can better understand those narratives and plan their response. 

Narrative intelligence technology automatically digests relevant data to present ready-made summaries of narratives to risk teams, eliminating the need for those teams to parse through that data manually – which is often impossible to do before the impact of the narrative is felt. 

Reach out to Zignal to see how you can get ahead of online risk narratives before they jump from the screen and physically impact your organization.