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Imagine this sentence getting past a New York Times copy editor: “The ACLU has shown through its government FOIA requests of WikiLeaks published cables, pretending secrets are secret after they are public isn’t easy.” Yet a piece about WikiLeaks purportedly by former Times executive editor Bill Keller clanging with such clunkers fooled “pretty much everybody,” as a Gizmodo headline put it.
WikiLeaks tweeted Sunday that it had perpetrated the hoax piece. The fake was successful in part, Ed Pilkington writes in the Guardian, because “Visually, it was immaculate – replicating perfectly the typographic style of his column down to the author’s photograph, tool kit and Times adverts.”
“I see this in the realm of childish prank rather than crime against humanity,” Keller told Pilkington. “It’s a lame satire. I’d take it a little more seriously if it were actually funny.”
Once you know the piece is a fake, reading it is like watching “The Usual Suspects” for a second time: Clues are everywhere. Gizmodo’s Brian Barrett lists some of the tells: The “favicon” is missing from the browser bar when you fire the page up, and the URL isn’t standard. Moreover, all the “Inside NYTimes.com” links at the bottom of the page go to stories from July 24 and 25, sort of odd for a piece that supposedly “appeared in print on July 29, 2012, on page A21 of the New York edition.”
But more telling, the copy is awful, and it’s edited so badly I wonder if WikiLeaks might be mounting a stealth campaign to keep copy editors employed. Sentences are unwieldy (“The backroom pressures by the Obama Administration’s State Department to expand its financial blockade targeting WikiLeaks to include news organizations that host information from their trove of pilfered documents goes too far”), incorrect commas are legion (“this new chapter in the WikiLeaks Saga makes me long for the era when The Times and other mainstream media, were the responsible gatekeepers of information”) and PayPal is a “they” instead of an “it.” (Even WikiLeaks’ tweet taking credit for the hoax has a typo in it.)
Some of WikiLeaks’ other touches show more forethought. Tom Cheredar writes:
Whoever is responsible for the fake article has been planning it for a while, as Twitter user Christopher Soghoian points out. The domain it used was registered March 30 under French registrar Gandi.
And as Times tech columnist Nick Bilton (who originally tweeted out a link to the fake column , thinking it was real) notes, there’s a fake Bill Keller Twitter account flogging the piece, too:
I discovered that the two “ll”s in the Twitter handle were actually a capital “i” and lowercase “L.” So in Twitter’s app, it looks like a capital “ll” when in reality it spells his name with an “il.”
Peter Kafka notices the piece cherry-picked actual Keller sentences for this Frankencolumn, something Keller confirmed to him in an email:
My tweet calling the fake tweet a fake was real. This tweet assuring you that the tweet about the fake tweet is not fake is also real. All clear now, right? Good. It’s been real.
Earlier this month, a Twitter account that purported to be from outgoing Times public editor Arthur Brisbane fooled many people, including a few journalists. But at least the tweet that got around under Brisbane’s name wasn’t a mess.