(updated below – Update II – Update III [Tues.])
Late last night, shortly before going to sleep, I saw links on Twitter to what purported to be — and what certainly looked and read like — a new Op-Ed regarding WikiLeaks in The New York Times by former Executive Editor and current columnist Bill Keller (it turned out that the column is a fake: more on that in a moment). I skimmed the column last night, made a mental note to return to it in the morning, and when I read it carefully this morning, I found that it contained some extraordinary claims which I had not heard before: chief among them that there are ”rumors build[ing] about the potential financial blockade against the New York Times by Visa, Mastercard, and American Express for hosting U.S. government cables published by WikiLeaks,” and specifically that this is coming from “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.” The column also said that Paypal had announced that it would refuse to participate in this process.
Obviously, if that were really happening — if the U.S. Government were secretly pressuring financial services companies to blockade newspapers the way they did WikiLeaks — that would be monumentally important and disturbing. But for precisely that reason, I found the claim extremely strange: Keller offered no source citation for this highly consequential assertion, and I had never heard anything about this before, even on the level of rumor. As a result, I spent 30 minutes or so searching for verification or some reference to this claim, and found nothing. That only heightened my suspicions further.
I began writing about Keller’s claims, but first, in an attempt to resolve this bafflement, I went to Twitter at roughly 7:00 am Eastern time, and asked:
Within a minute, someone replied and pointed me to what seemed to be confirming evidence: a post, dated yesterday, that purported to be, and certainly looked like, an announcement on Paypal’s official blog, claiming the company had been “approached by the U.S. State Department to join a task force to conduct a long term investigation of the New York Times,” and explaining the reasons why it had decided to stop participating (exactly as Keller’s column described). In the past, Paypal has issued identical looking announcements on an identical looking corporate blog, including when it announced back in 2010 that it was cutting off WikiLeaks.
So that seemed to provide what I had been looking for: some confirmation of the extraordinary claims I had read in Keller’s column. But less than a minute later, I received another Twitter reply, this one from computer security expert Chris Soghoian, now at the ACLU, alerting me that both the Keller column and the Paypal post were fakes. Specifically, the fake Paypal post had a URL of www.thepaypalblog.co, while the real one is found at www.thepaypalblog.com; similarly, the URL for the Keller column — http://www.opinion-nytimes.com – though similar to the real URLs of the paper, was also a fake. I immediately noted on Twitter that both the Keller column and the Paypal post were fakes.
As it turns out, this was an elaborate and well-executed hoax. Even The New York Times‘ lead tech writer, Nick Bilton, last night (in a now-deleted tweet) hailed the fake Keller column as an “important piece,” and provided the link to the fake URL of his own paper (a fake Twitter account for Bill Keller — looking exactly like the real one — had been set up to promote the column, which is apparently what fooled Bilton).
Aside from the perfectly replicated layout and appearance of the NYT, it’s easy to see why this fooled many people. For one, the column contained numerous observations that the actual Bill Keller made about WikiLeaks in an email interview earlier this week. Moreover, the style was pitch-perfect: as Jonathan Schwarz observed, “whoever wrote the fake WikiLeaks op-ed did a great job imitating the way Bill Keller is both incredibly boring and incredibly irritating.” Keller’s expressed longing in the fake column for an era where no secrets were published in newspapers unless and until governments gave the go-ahead somewhat tracks opinions he has actually expressed before as well as his own conduct as Executive Editor. And, judging from subsequent tweets, Keller’s Twitter account seems to have been hacked. A very good illustrated time-line of this saga, detailing everything that is thus far known to have happened, has been compiled by Josh Stearns; the website Twitchy has more.
Here’s what is most interesting to me about all of this. This episode will undoubtedly be used to claim — yet again — that the Internet cannot be trusted, that it is prone to circulating myths and rumors, and that we need traditional journalistic institutions to verify facts and confirm the truth. My soon-to-be Guardian colleague James Ball already offered a version of this argument when he said this morning: “The fake Keller #wikileaks story is further evidence (if any were needed) that people’s ability to verify info online is *rubbish*.”
I think this proves exactly the opposite. The first known Internet mention anywhere of this well-crafted fake column appeared very late Saturday night. By early Sunday morning — less than 12 hours later — it was exposed as a hoax. That happened by virtue of all of the strengths which the Internet uniquely offers, and which traditional journalism precludes: collective analysis, using one’s readers (tens of thousands of people, if not more) to help with research and investigation, instant and mass collaboration with other journalists and experts, an open and transparent analytical and investigative process.
That’s why errors and frauds have a very short life-span on the Internet. The power to tap into collective knowledge and research is so much more potent than being confined to a single journalistic outlet. The ability to have one’s work take the form of a mass dialogue, rather than a stagnant monologue, is incredibly valuable. It is true that the Internet can be used to disseminate falsehoods quickly, but it just as quickly roots them out and exposes them in a way that the traditional model of journalism and its closed, insular, one-way form of communication could never do.
The attribute of writing on the Internet that I’ve always valued most is that any errors I make — factual, logical or otherwise — will be very short-lived because they will be exposed by commenters, tweeters, emailers, etc., rather than days or weeks later (if at all) in the form of a Letter to the Editor that can be (and usually is) easily ignored. And this interactive process will also immediately bring to my attention facts and evidence that bolster what I’ve written but of which I was unaware. That’s why the first step I took when I had suspicions about the Keller column was to go and ask thousands of people about it using Twitter, knowing that other people would have knowledge that I lacked. This collaborative model enabled by the Internet strengthens every aspect of journalism and, as today’s episode shows, obliterates errors quickly and definitively.
For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just follow the excellent suggestion this morning from Alexa O’Brien: just compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism. Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic. More recently, consider the fraud of Iraqi WMDs and the Saddam-Al Qaeda alliance propagated by the nation’s leading traditional media outlets, or the fraudulent story they perpetrated of how grateful Iraqis spontaneously pulled down the Saddam statue, or the fraudulent tales they told of Jessica Lynch engaging in a heroic firefight with menacing Iraqis and Pat Tillman standing up to Al Qaeda fighters before they gunned him down. And that’s to say nothing of the Jayson-Blair-type of rogue, outright fabrications.
Those frauds were vastly more harmful than anything the Internet has produced. And they took far longer to expose. That’s because they were disseminated by stagnant, impenetrable media outlets which believe only in talking to themselves and trusting only government sources. Nobody can get away with that on the Internet. The voices are far more diversified, the scrutiny is far more rigorous, the feedback is much more rapid, and the process is much more democratized. Yes, the Internet enabled a fake Bill Keller column to fool some people for a few hours, but — through the work of journalists, experts, and anonymous, uncredentialed users alike — it also immediately exposed the hoax, documented how it happened, and drew rapid lessons from it. The prime lesson is not that Internet journalism is more prone to errors; it’s that it is far more adept and agile at detecting and banishing them.
UPDATE: Today’s Guardian article on this episode suggests that the motive — or, at least, a motive — was to satirize Bill Keller and The New York Times as subservient puppets for the U.S. Government (as the article states: the fake column “has [Keller] say that ‘journalism should work in unison with government’ and opine that had the Times had the WikiLeaks cables to itself (rather than sharing them with the Guardian and other papers), he would have granted the US government the right to review all of the documents before publication”). There’s certainly no doubt that that’s true and is more or less an accurate representation of the expressed opinions and conduct of the former NYT Editor. And Keller wants it clear that he is not amused (“I see this in the realm of childish prank rather than crime against humanity. It’s a lame satire. I’d take it a little more seriously if it were actually funny”).
Bolstering the prospect that this was satire aimed at Keller and the NYT, WikiLeaks — which has had a stormy relationship with both — has now claimed responsibility for the hoax:
I don’t know if this claim of responsibility is true or not. Either way, it doesn’t strike me as a good idea for a group that relies on its credibility when it comes to the authenticity of what they publish — and which thus far has had a stellar record in that regard — to be making boastful claims that they published forged documents. I understand and appreciate the satire, but in this case, it directly conflicts with, and undermines, the primary value of WikiLeaks.
UPDATE II: Just to underscore one point: whatever you thought about the Keller/Op-Ed hoax, this is why the satire of him as a subservient U.S. Government puppet hit home.
UPDATE III [Tues.]: Numerous people — in comments, via email and elsewhere — objected to my reference here to the “mass panic” spawned by Wells’ War of the Worlds by arguing that no such panic was ever documented. Journalism Professor W. Joseph Campbell makes the case here that this is nothing more than urban myth. He suggests that the widespread propagation of this myth on the Internet undermines my argument because it shows how the Internet can spread rather than combat falsehoods (Dan Drezner makes a related argument here), but (at least with regard to Campbell’s argument) I’d say the opposite is true. Leaving aside that this “mass panic” myth was widely believed long before the Internet was widely used, I was quickly exposed to, and persuaded by, the likely mythical nature of my claim as a result of the interactive process of Internet journalism which I praised.