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Greenpeace Fails: Lying To The Public Is Wrong

Last Thursday, a video was posted to YouTube with the title “#ShellFAIL: Private Arctic Launch Party Goes Wrong.”  It garnered nearly 700,000 views in its first week online and arguably gave the Shell Oil Company something of a black eye.  The one minute video purports to show a private publicity event for the launch of two artic oiling vessels, at which a well-dressed elderly woman was accidentally doused with brown liquid from a malfunctioning drink dispenser in the shape of a miniature oil rig.

In fact, there was no such party.  There was no such mishap.  The video was an elaborate hoax concocted by Greenpeace and a progressive media consulting firm called Yes Lab.  As web hoaxes go, this one was very artfully done.  It has all the markings of a surreptitiously recorded corporate embarrassment, complete with shaky cell phone camera footage, off-screen voices rushing to try to suppress the images from getting out, and a hasty cutaway as the supposed uploader is ushered out of the building.

If you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for swallowing this story whole, and in fact some news outlets did, and had to issue retractions after the fact.  I dare say the filmmakers did everything right with their production.  Everything, that is, except considering the ethics of making it in the first place.

The persons responsible have made no secret of the fact that the video was a put-on, and Yes Lab even released a behind-the-scenes video to its own YouTube channel the next day.  But that doesn’t change the fact that their initial efforts, including the distribution of a fake press release pretending to be from Shell, were meant as deliberate deception of the public.  And judging by the comments beneath the original video, there are plenty of new viewers who didn’t notice the revelation.  The video description still gives details about something that didn’t happen, so evidently transparency is not foremost in the minds of the hoaxers.

This isn’t the way to accomplish political goals, and it’s certainly no way to prove a point.  After all, you’re not actually saying anything about your ideological opponent if you show people something that that that opponent didn’t actually do, and encourage people to laugh at him or be outraged.  If outrage is the response, it’s outrage at something that only happened in your imagination.  To encourage that is essentially to encourage people to tilt at windmills even though there are real giants lumbering toward Dulcinea’s village.

If an activist group wants to pick a fight with a corporation, surely there are plenty of real examples of actions and policies worth bringing negative attention to.  And if there aren’t, that group has probably picked the wrong fight.

I get it, all right?  This hoax was a clever way of calling attention to the possibility of catastrophic spills in fragile ecosystems.  But if you think that many of those 700,000 viewers read deeply into the metaphor or even knew exactly what the fake part was fake-celebrating, then you probably don’t know the internet very well.  Even the most in-the-know viewers won’t get much out of this.  The ideal reaction is probably something along the lines of, “How will Shell contain an oil spill in the Arctic?  They can’t even control a coffee spill indoors.”  And that would be a great point, if there was any evidence whatsoever that that was true of the company.  You know, evidence that wasn’t made up as a convenient act of PR sabotage.

This is the new media equivalent of a straw man argument – the practice of mischaracterizing someone else’s views and demanding that they defend themselves for a claim that exists only in your mind.  It is the refuge of people who are boastfully sure of themselves but don’t have the intellectual capacity to make their arguments convincing on their own.

And it shouldn’t be that difficult to convince people that new drilling operations off the coast of Alaska might come with some serious risks.  Isn’t that a strong enough point on its own that Greenpeace doesn’t need to falsely convince people that Shell Oil Company is run by a bunch of half-wits who can’t even create a faucet that won’t explode without warning?

That kind of deceptive character assassination cheapens the national discourse about very important issues.  It conveys the sense that politics and activism are just competitions wherein it’s not so much about being right as it is about winning.  But we don’t accept outright lies from politicians about the people on the other side of an issue.  We don’t accept that corporations can make plainly false representations of their competitors.  And we shouldn’t accept that kind of behavior from activists, either.

Here at Green Earth News, we have an activist’s interest in bamboo.  We think people should plant it, invest in it, and buy it.  We want consumers to wear bamboo clothing and we want corporations to experiment with bamboo biofuel.  We want all these things because we genuinely believe that it is the most sustainable, ecologically friendly resource, and that it makes attractive, quality products.

For the sake of promoting bamboo, we can tell you that it grows in most climates, that it is an unparalleled oxygen producer, that bamboo towels can be as soft as cashmere and wick away moisture better than other materials.  We can tell you these things not only because they benefit the market for alternative resource, but also because they’re true.

We cannot, however, tell you that traditional wood has a tendency to spontaneously combust, or doctor footage to show cotton producers dumping toxic chemicals into the ocean.  Those things would be lies.  And while they might dupe a few people into joining our side for about a day, it wouldn’t really be progress if people were not only choose the right side, but choosing it for the right reasons.


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