It is no joke when they do slip through the net

The internet is awash with spoof websites and corporate hoaxers garnering publicity for their cause – as the BBC found out last week. By Nick Higham

Trust is a precious commodity, and a fragile one. People, companies and brands trade on their reputation for trustworthiness; if their authenticity is once called into question, recovery can be a long, drawn-out business. Last week confidence in two international organisations took a knock – though on this occasion probably only temporarily – thanks to a hoax that raises important questions about our reliance on the internet and about the growing popularity of stunts as a communications device.

The occasion was a politically motivated practical joke, which like all practical jokes looked like a wizard wheeze to everyone except the victims. One of those victims was the BBC. On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster last week, a man claiming to be a spokesman for the US multinational Dow Chemical suddenly announced in a live BBC television interview that the company would pay billions of dollars in compensation to the Bhopal victims.

In fact, the man was an impostor and the claim was entirely false. It was rapidly denied by the real Dow Chemical and retracted by the Beeb. But by then, Dow’s European share price had taken a severe knock; the people of Bhopal had been briefly and cruelly given false hope; and the BBC had been embarrassed by a journalistic cock-up just when it is trying to rebuild its reputation for trustworthiness in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry. (Dow is the present owner of Union Carbide, whose pesticide plant in the Indian town suffered a disastrous leak in December 1984, killing thousands and poisoning many thousands more.)

What seems to have happened was this: a producer in search of a Dow spokesman to interview for the anniversary went to the company website. He also visited several other sites looking for information on Bhopal. At some point he ended up on a spoof Dow site, at first glance identical to the authentic one. In fact, the URL was not “dow.com” but “dowethics.com”, and though the design was the same, the text on the page was different. From this spoof site the producer got an e-mail address for a “Dow Ethics” spokesman. Three days of e-mail exchanges followed about what questions the BBC wanted to ask, about who the interviewee would be and about where he should go. In the end, he was interviewed live from the BBC’s Paris studio.

The spokesman, who called himself “Jude Finisterra”, was in reality Andy Bichlbaum – one half of a pair of anti-globalisation activists and pranksters who call themselves the Yes Men and who make a habit of embarrassing corporations and other international institutions. Their previous targets have included the World Trade Organisation and McDonald’s, and they feature in a prize-winning documentary, reputedly very funny, which has been doing the rounds at international film festivals over the past few months.

The Yes Men are like the campaigners from Fathers 4 Justice who climb up the front of Buckingham Palace, or like “shock” advertisers – the old Benetton, with its deliberately controversial images completely unconnected with clothing, or Channel 4 when it posts a promotion for FilmFour on the Web featuring celebrities telling us their favourite swear words, or promotes the first series of Six Feet Under with a spoof poster campaign for a fictional brand of mortuary products.

In one way or another they all use the stunt as a communications technique, in place of rational argument. It can be very effective in winning publicity, though it may be less effective at actually changing anything, including consumers’ behaviour: if you abandon rational argument you can hardly complain if your opponent refuses to debate with you or fails to act as you’d hoped. Stunts put responsible news media in a difficult position (even when they aren’t the victims of a hoax, as in this case): to ignore them would amount to censorship, to report them may give the authors of the stunt a spurious importance not justified by the strength of their case. Terrorists use the same kind of technique, though clearly there is as a world of difference between stunts which harm no one, even if they embarrass a few, and those which result in injury, even death.

The Bhopal hoax also serves as a reminder that the internet can be a dangerous place. It’s not clear how the BBC producer ended up on the spoof Dow site. Probably he followed a link from another site about Bhopal; but it’s possible the real Dow site had been tampered with to redirect visitors. Either way, the episode serves to reinforce the warnings IT security experts have been giving for years about the dangers of spoofing. It’s also a warning to the rest of us not to believe everything we find on the Web or read in e-mails.

You think you can tell a genuine e-mail from a “phishing” exercise? Try the test compiled by the Washington Post online at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/technology/articles/phishingtest.html, and think again. And when in doubt make a phone call – the BBC might have said “No” to the Yes Men on this occasion if it had tried to make contact by phone.

Nick Higham presents Factfile on BBC News 24

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