ExxonMobilCorp, it was discovered yesterday, and now a discussion is unfolding among social media advocates about what the company should do.Energy giant Exxon Mobil fell victim to a Twitter user spoofing official use of an account named
Many people say that Twitter is frivolous and unimportant. In this case those people would be correct. Just six weeks ago the US Supreme Court rejected Exxon's appeal to drop a lawsuit alleging that its employees in Indonesia "committed murder, torture, sexual assault .. genocide and crimes against humanity" in defense of one of the world's largest liquid natural gas facilities. Placed in this context, whether or how this company deals with Twitter seems irrelevant.
International Corporations and New Social Media
The conversation about how Exxon should have or will deal with the spoofed Twitter account can be followed via a post last night on analyst Jeremiah Owyang's blog. It makes sense to tackle the general questions concerning "big brands" and new media, but a line should be drawn somewhere in order to keep technology in a larger perspective. The case of Exxon Mobil is on the other side of that line.
The Context in Indonesia
Indonesia is a sprawling country of more than 220 million people and an amazing 17,000 islands. It possesses huge amounts of liquid natural gas and gold and has major geo-political significance.
The country has a long and troubled history of international and internal conflicts but the US government's own documents detail US payment of local groups killing subversives based on US provided lists of individuals in the 1960's and US State Department acceptance of Indonesian government massacres of civilians using US supplied weapons in the 1970's.
Key player and Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger retained financial interests in the country's natural resources throughout the 1980's, the human rights abuses alleged to have been committed by Indonesian soldiers working as Exxon employees were far from the only crimes alleged to have been committed in the 1990's (see in addition the Dili Massacre, for example) and since the turn of the 21st century multiple US administrations have sent elite US military training groups to "train the trainers" in Indonesia despite US Congressional bans against direct co-operation with the Indonesian military on the basis of documented human rights abuses.
It's not a pretty picture. There's an intense history of globe-dominating nations doing horrible things to the people of Indonesia.
The Current Lawsuit
the US Supreme Court denied a request by Exxon Mobil to dismiss a lawsuit titled Exxon Mobil v. John Doe, 07-81, brought by international rights groups on behalf of 11 villagers in Indonesia's Aceh province. The suit alleges that Indonesian soldiers hired by Exxon Mobil "committed murder, torture, sexual assault .. genocide and crimes against humanity."On June 16th, 2008
One British rights organization specializing in Indonesia, called Down To Earth, further reports that "the company has been accused of providing the military with buildings used for torturing local people suspected of involvement in the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and excavators to dig mass graves for the victims of military violence." The worst accounts of the treatment of civilians in Indonesia are something no one wants to read.
Exxon argued to the Supreme Court that the lawsuit against it should be dismissed because it involves issues of international relations that should be left to the Executive Branch. In 2002 the US State Department said that "adjudication of this lawsuit at this time would in fact risk a potentially serious adverse impact on significant interests of the United States..." Indonesia is a country heavily populated with Muslims and the US argued that a ruling on the Exxon lawsuit could harm anti-terrorist efforts, among other concerns.
Since that time various courts have shaped the debate such that now-resigned Solicitor General Paul Clement said this May that the case had been sufficiently narrowed to avoid harm to the nation's foreign policy interests. According to the Associated Press, the Bush administration urged the US Supreme Court to reject Exxon's request to drop the case this June.
Thus the lawsuit still stands and Exxon may, years later, have to answer to some allegations of human rights violations.
And what about Twitter? There may or may not be a time when Exxon's engagement with new social media is important, but this same summer when the Supreme Court has just said they will be judged is not that time.
New Media and International Human Rights
In October we wrote here about the last active bloggers in Burma, fighting to let the world know what was happening there as the military massacred monks and turned the country inside-out. In December we wrote about YouTube's deleting videos documenting torture of civilians by Egyptian police because of the site's policy against violent imagery. On the Fourth of July we wrote about the Iranian Parliament's consideration of the death penalty for subversive bloggers.
The internet and human rights intersect often. If we are to believe that these democratizing media are going to make the world a better place, then it's important to keep them in context regarding what's going on in the world outside of our tech niche. It's with that in mind that we point at the lawsuit and Supreme Court ruling against Exxon when the company's communication strategy with the world comes up in conversation.
After all, as Exxon Spokesperson Alan Jeffers said yesterday about Twitter: "It's our perception that social networking is based on honesty, transparency and trust..."
Photo: A market in Aceh, Indonesia. Creative Commons from Flickr user A. www.viajar24h.com