Activist hoax shines spotlight on media behaviour and crisis in 2.0 world

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Audacious? Absolutely. Did it fool the media? You bet. Was it legal? To be determined. One more reason why corporations should take the web and social media seriously?  Unquestionably.

What’s this all about? How a grassroots environmental coalition calling itself “Rising Tide” yesterday fooled some of the world’s most respected media when they issued a fake press release announcing that the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) - which includes BP, Dow, Alcan, GE and others among its membership – had agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050. In support of the fake announcement, the campaign organizers also linked the release to a fake website (now shut down) - which mirrored the real website of USCAP identically. 

As a result, and in a clear demonstration that in today’s media environment the need to be first increasingly trumps the need to be accurate, traditional media, along with a number of bloggers, immediately jumped on the story without verifying the accuracy of the report, resulting in USCAP having to release its own statement to refute the fake announcement.

Pie in the face for media. Profile for the hoax organizers. And what for USCAP? In my view, an opportunity to talk about their plans and objectives in light of this controversy, and to communicate their story more broadly… which according to Wired, “USCAP actually calls for 60 to 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and has pushed for coal plant carbon capture and sequestration technologies.“  

Moreover, this type of action only reinforces the need for organizations to be aware of what is happening in the digital space, and be prepared to move quickly to counter misinformation, misreporting and speculation.




Laurie Smith

You’re absolutely right, Brendan – this is a messy issue. I hope you’ll excuse me sounding a little self-promotional here, but this kind of incident also highlights a key point of value provided by the newswires. Our reputation is pretty much built on being a dependable and accurate source of information for the media. We have very tight procedures in place to prevent fraudulent or hoax announcements such as this ever hitting the wire.

A good (and high-profile) example from the last couple of years was when we declined to carry an April Fool’s Day news release from a client making bogus, though funny, claims about their product.

We were accused of not being able to take a joke in this case, which is fine with me. Being serious is highly valued in our business. We don’t run hoaxes.  It’s good to note that USCAP chose to rebut the fake story by issuing a statement on PR Newswire  - a reputable wire service (and, full disclosure here: they own 50 percent of us).



Brendan Hodgson

Hi Laurie, thanks for dropping by… It will certainly be interesting to see what role newswires will play in this new environment, and as requirements for legitimate and "legal" disclosure evolve. At the same time, the ease by which an organization or individual can execute a hoax as sophisticated as this – bypassing "gatekeepers" and "filters" such as yourself – is only increasing, given the changing media environment I describe above, and the increasingly role of the blogosphere itself where individuals unschooled in professional journalism might "report" on this even if the traditional media don’t.  

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