Yes Men hoax uses Twitter, Facebook to put Peabody Energy on the defensive

On Tuesday, the largest private coal company in the world, Peabody Energy, launched a campaign to provide free My Little Pony and Justin Bieber-themed “Puff-Puff” inhalers to kids 18 and under. As part of this humanitarian campaign, Peabody pledged to donate $500 towards a lung-replacement procedure for every 1,000 inhalers ordered through the “Coal Cares” initiative.

Though it looks real, this Coal Cares website is a hoax (screenshot taken May 10, 2011 at at 3:49 p.m.)

Peabody, which launched a “Coal Cares” website to advertise the campaign, hoped to tackle the stigma associated with asthma by giving away a variety of colorful and hip inhalers to dignify the use of asthma medication.

“For kids who have no choice but to use an inhaler,” the website reads, “Coal Cares lets them inhale with pride.” Above all, the empathetic hearts behind the “Coal Cares” initiative are seeking to make what they have deemed “Asthma-Related Bullying (ARB)” a thing of the past.

“Coal Cares,” of course, is a hoax.

The prank, carried out by a newly formed group called “Coal Kills Kids,” was conceived and executed at the Yes Lab, an activist training center associated with the famous Yes Men.

Janet Bellamy, a spokesperson for “Coal Kills Kids,” explained during a phone interview that the website was produced by “concerned individuals who wanted to do something to highlight the point that pollution that comes from coal plants hurts kids. Something that wasn’t doom and gloom.”

A number of news outlets reported on the trickery, including CNN and MSNBC, forcing Peabody Energy to release a statement in response to the “spoof” website.

“The site is in fact a hoax,” the statement reads, “making inaccurate claims about Peabody and coal. Peabody is proud to help hundreds of millions of people live longer and better through coal-fueled electricity.”

But the energy corporation released misinformation itself.

Peabody’s release points to studies that have found a correlation between the use of electricity and life expectancy.  One such study is attributed to the World Resources Institute (WRI), which Peabody says “found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individual live 10 years longer.”

But The World Resource Institute denies having ever made such a claim or even conducting analysis along those lines.  The conclusion drawn by Peabody, according to a statement released by WRI Tuesday afternoon, “ignores critical factors related to energy production and human health.” WRI adds that it has long supported a global transition to cleaner, low-carbon energy.

A spokesperson for Peabody Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

That Peabody botched the facts in a defensive press release underscores the risk to consumers of misinformation — from Yes Men-styled hoaxes or those they target.

Jonathan Swift for the 21st century

The “Coal Cares” hoax is the latest in a long line of elaborate spoofs for the Yes Men, who have been issuing fake press releases and building fake websites for a decade.

The activist organization first launched in the early 2000s, when organizers launched a “corrected” World Trade Organization website. A number of business groups failed to get the joke and invited the Yes Men duo to speak at elite global conferences on behalf of the WTO, where they extended the prank with presentations that caricatured corporate America as greedy and heartless.

In more recent years, the Yes Men have specialized in media hoaxes that they say are intended to create a temporary and shocking illusion that quickly dissipates upon inspection. They do not intend to trick people, they say.

Most notably, they printed 800,000 full editions of The New York Times in 2008 with the headline, “Iraq War Ends.”

The “Coal Cares” project, unlike prior Yes Men satire, leverages social media to expand the scope of the gag.

“Coal Kills Kids” set up a Facebook widget for people to “recommend” the website and a Twitter account under the handle @CoalCares.

“Coal Cares”’ tweets take the website’s parody a step further with aggressively sardonic language for followers who are in on the joke:

It could be that Yes Men’s tactics have come into their own in a generation defined by irony. While critics of fake news argue that disinformation undermines the public’s ability to trust any information, this particular hoax suggests that most in the audience recognize the satire — if not immediately then within hours of their initial discovery.

A quick scan of Twitter shows that most who sincerely tweeted out a link, quickly discovered the humor and retweeted updated information.

“Coal Kills Kids” spokesperson Janet Bellamy says this is the first time a Yes Men-styled hoax has so fully utilized social media.

“Twitter helped us reach a lot of different people,” Bellany explained. “And on Twitter you get an immediate response that lets you gauge what people are thinking.”

It’s especially thrilling for the perpetrators of “Coal Cares” to watch Twitter, where a few people took the hoax seriously only later tweeting that they visited the website and are in on the joke.

“Coal Kills Kids” is also utilizing the petition-activism site Change.org, where they have created a petition that calls for Peabody Energy to put an end to its “outrageous ‘Coal Cares’ campaign.”

This too is a joke — layered atop the original prank — though you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at the petition. It indignantly rages against the “Coal Cares” website, which it labels an outrageous PR program. “It’s really sick,” the petition reads, “and needs to be condemned NOW!”

Bellamy says a few people took the petition seriously. She received a call from one individual who she claims was “angry that Peabody was attempting to greenwash its image.”

Jesse Leber, an editor at Change.org, acknowledged the prank on Change.org’s blog and calls for people to sign the petition despite the ruse.

“While the ‘Coal Cares’ campaign the petition is protesting is not real,” writes Leber, “the facts of the situation presented in the petition are shockingly true. The group would like everyone to sign the petition anyway and leave a personalized message to continue the conversation.”

The social media echoes of the “Coal Cares” hoax may prolong a public conversation about coal-related pollution sparked by the website, but the joke is destined to grow stale.

“We’ll run with this for a few days, but this won’t be longstanding,” says Bellany. “It only works as long as it’s in the media.”

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