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June 2008

Greenwashers versus mob rule

Stephen Hodgdon · June 12th, 2008

An interesting battle is being waged through social media channels between General Motors and electric vehicle (EV)enthusiasts, who believe GM’s recent embrace of hybrid cars is just another disingenuous attempt to greenwash its image. It’s a great example of how social media has not only given the little guy a voice against corporate interests, but how the little guy can now drown out the big guy, sometimes to a tyrannical extent.

The EVs cite as evidence the Sony Pictures documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? It chronicles a sinister collusion between auto makers, Big Oil and Big Brother to terminate the fledgling electric car industry before it could take hold. Beyond its theatrical and DVD release, the movie got even wider distribution as a viral video via YouTube, social networks and blogs. And it didn’t help GM’s cause when general manager Bob Lutz was widely quoted throughout the blogosphere saying “Global warming is a total crock of sh*t.”

Conspiracy theories and impassioned rants soon followed on social nets and forums such as the Yahoo!Groups electric vehicle group. EV activists descended on auto shows, policy making events and GM press conferences. An EV movement was born.

GM countered with social sites like gmnext, where people were encouraged to submit media and comments to help GM answer questions like “How can we best address global energy issues we’ll face for the next 100 years?”

Nice try. But the Rainforest Action Network, which called it “one of the biggest and most ambitious online corporate greenwashing campaigns,” quickly rallied its supporters to post photos and comments. GM was forced to kill “the conversation” on the site immediately.

The on-going debate has been fascinating. GM argues they can’t win with the EVs … that they’re investing billions developing the Chevy Volt by 2010. Yet skeptics say it’s red herring vaporware. The activists counter with the fact that GM built a perfectly good electric car a decade ago, so what’s the hold up?

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I haven’t forgiven trusted GM since I bought my sh*t box Chevy Citation back in the 80s. Nor do I suffer well the tinfoil hat fringe of community activism. That’s what’s great about the web. Activists can help keep The Man honest, conspiracy theories can forment, and everyone has a voice. But is this always a good thing, or sometimes tyranny of the majority?