Journalists beware: Shell Arctic hoax signals move from subtle spin to activist deception

As if journalists weren't already confounded enough by the misdirection of spin machines and talking points, they now risk being duped by publicity campaigns using blatant hoaxes.

Consider this video posted to YouTube in June, purporting to show an unauthorized taping of a Shell corporate party celebrating its newest Arctic oil rigs. The event goes horribly wrong when a miniature oil well drink dispenser has an uncontrolled blowout all over the guest of honor.

The event falls apart. The videographer is ushered out by security, reinforcing the impression that this was a huge spontaneous embarrassment to the oil company and giving fuel to a #shellfail meme that spread the video around the Web.

Just one problem: None of it is true.

It was the beginning of an elaborate hoax by Greenpeace and a group called the Yes Men.

Not only was the video fake, but journalists who wrote about the video received followup emails (also fake) from "Shell" calling the video a hoax and directing them to a company website. But that Arctic Ready website, it turns out, was yet another hoax.

So, activists produce a fake viral video, get journalists to write about it, send journalists a fake email admitting the video hoax but steering them to yet another Web hoax. tries to look like a real Shell website.

The website poses as a Shell corporate site with believable yet unflattering information about its Arctic drilling activities, including how the company is excited to take advantage of the "tremendous opportunities" of climate change.

Elaborate steps to look credible

Even a journalist who tried to do some due diligence by diving deeper into the site might be misled.

Links to corporate Web pages are diverted to a "temporary site maintenance" page that tells users "our corporate website is momentarily offline while we add new features as part of our new Let's Go! Arctic campaign. Please check back later."

There are fake article headlines, a fake Twitter account, a "just for kids" page with an "Angry Bergs" game that encourages you to "help Shell get Arctic oil" by melting icebergs, and an "ad contest" that has users create and share ads about the Arctic.

This week, as Forbes reports, the creators launched a new fake Twitter account impersonating Shell and using a little reverse-psychology by asking people to stop sharing the "subversive" or "negative" ads.

From here on it's just hoaxes all the way down.

A new landmark in history of hoaxes

This is not the first time journalists have faced potential confusion by imposters.

After the 2010 Gulf oil spill, an LA-based comedian started @BPGlobalPR -- a satirical but somewhat authentic-looking parody. More recently we've seen some journalists get confused by fake Twitter accounts parodying the New York Times public editor, the North Carolina governor and Rupert Murdoch's wife.

A CNBC reporter fell for an email hoax from a "bored" teenager, another hoaxster convinced people Abraham Lincoln had a Facebook-like patent. A hoax press release meant as a joke made it into a Wisconsin newspaper. And of course April Fool's Day snags a few credulous souls every year.

But the Arctic Ready campaign is shockingly detailed and elaborate in its intention and effort to seem authentic and cover its tracks. Greenpeace took credit for the campaign later on its own website, but the video and Arctic Ready site even today have give no indication of their origins.

It's a sad and dangerous new world for journalists if marketers and activists become increasingly satisfied that the ends of making a point justify any means of trickery.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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