July 30, 2012
A fake opinion editorial that was supposedly by former New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller circulated on Sunday, July 29, with many people initially believing it was a genuine article written in defense of WikiLeaks. Over the course of less than twelve hours, the "hoax" began to unravel as people pieced together how Keller had not authored it and detected multiple clues that proved it was a fake. Then in the afternoon, the Twitter account for WikiLeaks appeared to claim credit for being involved in the creative action. This immediately led people, including those who had been supportive of the organization, to suggest this damaged WikiLeaks’ credibility.
I spoke to the WikiLeaks supporter, who played a significant role in this action. The supporter requested that I not share his or her name but said that this action had been conducted by WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Yes Lab and his or her self.
For those unaware of what unfolded, the supporters behind this action began it over four months ago so that it would be possible to publish the fake op-ed and achieve a high impact.
In late March, domains were registered for Opinion-NYTimes, Block NY Times and ThePayPalBlog in March. The Block New York Times campaign began to promote its agenda that same month. It used the website to make it seem like an American conservative grassroots organization specifically opposed to the New York Times' right to publish WikiLeaks documents had just formed. A Twitter account sent out messages too that attacked the Times. Then, the website was hacked by Anonymous. The hack was part of the hoax. The domain was never "reclaimed." And the campaign put up a fake Craigslist ad in Washington, DC, for a website developer.
Supporters then shortly re-launched online at BlocktheNewYorkTimes.org and set to work meticulously creating a Times op-ed page that would look like the real Times op-ed page when someone visited. Although the Times "favicon" was not added and the URL had the incorrect format, they went ahead and added links to articles posted days earlier. They loaded the page with advertisements to make it look authentic. They crafted a fake statement from PayPal on the company’s decision to not block donations to the Times. They also created and prepared three Twitter accounts that could reasonably be mistaken to be the personal account of Keller. By changing the l’s to I’s, the Twitter accounts launched were: @nytkeIler, @nytkelIer and @nytKeIIer – each very similar to Keller’s personal and verified Twitter account: @nytkeller. [The creator of these accounts also went through and followed all of Keller's followers and copied and pasted many of his recent tweets so it would look even more authentic.]
Around midnight EST, the supporters intended to slip one past many people because it was a weekend night and by the morning an account affiliated with Anonymous and other accounts were tweeting an op-ed that many began to believe Keller had written. It became even more possible that it was credible when one of the three Keller Twitter accounts retweeted the article. Then, a Times tech editor, Nick Bilton, tweeted out a link to the op-ed and so did other prominent people, including Keller, who retweeted a message from a Journalism Festival Twitter account.
This went on for a few more hours until the "hoax" quickly unraveled as Christopher Soghoian, Josh Stearns, Glenn Greenwald and others uncovered clues that indicated Keller could not have written the op-ed (see Stearns’ Storify here). Soghoian wondered what the first account was to tweet out the op-ed. It looked like WikiLeaks had been the first to tweet. Then, someone found a tweet from Block the New York Times. Info for the URLs was looked up by Soghoian and Zeynep Tufekci, which showed the domains were all registered March 30. Keller realized it was fake too and tweeted a message in ALL CAPS to inform people he had not written the op-ed. He deleted the Journalism Fest retweet.
Before Credit Was Claimed
The "hoax" unraveled before WikiLeaks seemed to claim credit. This meant there were a few hours for those who had closely followed this to comment on what had just happened. It was not initially apparent that this was a creative action. It very well could have been a deliberate act of disinformation that no one would ever own up to engineering.
Greenwald celebrated what had happened as a result of all the strengths the Internet offers: "collective analysis, using one’s readers (tens of thousands of people, if not more) to help with research and investigation, instant and mass collaboration with other journalists and experts, an open and transparent analytical and investigative process." He disagreed that this showed "traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than" Internet-based journalism. He listed out some of the "frauds and fakes" in history like "the fraud of Iraqi WMDs and the Saddam-Al Qaeda alliance propagated by the nation’s leading traditional media outlets or the fraudulent story they perpetrated of how grateful Iraqis spontaneously pulled down the Saddam statue or the fraudulent tales they told of Jessica Lynch engaging in a heroic firefight with menacing Iraqis and Pat Tillman standing up to Al Qaeda fighters before they gunned him down."
These comparisons were made before most would be able to realize this was a creative action, not a part of an "information operation" or act of propaganda dissemination designed to intentionally disinform people.
A Yes Men-Style Action, Not Journalism
The person involved did not think this action would be so wildly successful that the people involved would not be found out. In fact, as a creative action, for it to work, the people involved had to admit that it was fake at some point otherwise the motives and reasoning underlying the action would forever be questioned. However, that is why respectable people who have followed WikiLeaks closely and often sympathized with what they try to do as an organization criticized the action:
The reactions all appear to be a result of viewing this through the lens of what is and is not ethical for a media organization. They stem from views on what is and is not appropriate in journalism, which is certainly fair given the fact that WikiLeaks would like the world to treat it as a legitimate media organization. The WikiLeaks Twitter account did tweet, "Yes. We admit it. WikiLeaks (Assange & co) and our great supporters where behind the successful NYTimes banking blockade hoax on
@nytkeller." Therefore, these reactions are entirely rational.
When one considers this through the lens of activism or, specifically, what is known as culture jamming, reactions might be different. The WikiLeaks supporters involved essentially took a brand—the Times op-ed page—and put forward a view that Keller or the Times op-ed page might not typically be willing to express. In this case, those involved wanted to expose how Keller is wrong to let corporations, politicians and political groups go after WikiLeaks when they could easily do everything they are doing to WikiLeaks to the Times. The fake PayPal page also used a brand to communicate a political message that could be used to advance the creative action.
The fake Times op-ed action bore a similarity to an earlier action by The Yes Men. In 2008, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, published tens of thousands of print copies of a "special edition" of the Times with the bold front page headline: "IRAQ WAR ENDS." It included stories that reflected a future that Americans might desire and forced people to think about what it might take to get to this future. The spoof initially duped people, who read this print edition. Yet, it was not designed to deliberately misinform. The Yes Men knew someone would figure out it was fake and they even included a spin on the Times' slogan: "All the news we hope to print."
What WikiLeaks supporters did was not really satire or an attempt to be funny. There also were no laws broken in the process. The intention was to get citizens to consider what it would be like if the Times faced the same political pressure or targeting that WikiLeaks has faced.
One might look at the creative action as being a part of public relations. It certainly seemed like an effort to gin up support from people, to realize how freedom of the press is under attack. Additionally, the involvement of Anonymous and others outside of WikiLeaks is not new. "The Syria Files" and release of Stratfor emails featured the involvement of Anonymous and, presumably, individuals not typically involved in the organization’s daily operations.
While there are valid points to be made about a media organization engaging in Yes Men-like actions, it is probably okay for the organization to claim credit for a one-off "hoax." The act did not involve the publication of any allegedly leaked documents. It did not involve people reading government records that were later revealed to be forged. WikiLeaks didn’t claim credit for an action designed to send a political message that involved the distribution of false documents, files or records. They tacitly endorsed and supported an action that directly related to how a corporation has made it difficult for the organization to fund its operations and how elected officials in the United States have maintained they committed espionage or treason and do not have a right to publish.
Unlike many media organizations, WikiLeaks’ ability to keep operating is dependent on its supporters. Their supporters are people who are willing to do more for the organization than simply read leaked documents that the organization might publish. Supporters take a stand against attempts by the US to suppress the organization’s members and individuals that might be connected. Supporters defend founder Julian Assange from extradition and stick up for the alleged source of WikiLeaks’ most high-profile releases to date, Pfc. Bradley Manning. Supporters engage in cyber activism that puts them in a position where they could be indicted for violating the law like "Operation Avenge Assange." They challenge attempts by countries’ governments to undermine what Jay Rosen has aptly called the first stateless news organization in media history.
Few media organizations have supporters that would engage in this kind of creative action or resistance but few media organizations face the same threats to their operations that WikiLeaks faces. Few media organizations have been able to expose the true inner workings of a government like WikiLeaks.
Most media organizations might go to great lengths to make certain the US government understood it was not encouraging this type of activity by supporters, however, WikiLeaks does not operate like typical media organizations. It uses its Twitter account to help ensure there are "Friends of WikiLeaks" groups all over the country so it can have a network of supporters.
Supporters see WikiLeaks as being different from any other news organization, especially ones that have held back the publishing of stories on NSA warrantless wiretapping or engaged in pure fabrication to help a government launch a war. They appreciate how it does not show deference to governments and give it the opportunity to request it hold back certain material. They see the organization as one that tests the limits of press freedom and expands boundaries in journalism. And they recognize the value of an organization like WikiLeaks that is capable of truly striking at the core of state power.