Over the weekend The New York Times’ former executive editor and current columnist Bill Keller fell victim to an elaborate Internet hoax. An opinion piece titled “WikiLeaks, A Post Postscript,” supposedly a follow-up to an article written by Keller in February of this year, was shared through a Twitter account that appeared to belong to Keller and swiftly re-tweeted by journalists, including The Guardian’s Dan Gilmore and the NYT’s own technology correspondent Nick Bilton. Readers were initially fooled by the visual similarities between the fake article and Keller’s regular column. In addition, the advertisements featured on the page were genuine, and all links connected to nytimes.com. On closer inspection, the lack of The New York Times favicon next to the web page’s URL, and the fact that the domain name differs from that used for real NYT op-ed pieces indicated that the article was a fake.
The piece itself centres on MasterCard, Visa and American Express’s attempts to prevent supporters of WikiLeaks from transferring money to the organisation headed by Julian Assange. WikiLeaks claimed responsibility for the stunt, adding on its Twitter page: “What is not a hoax, is that WikiLeaks is under illegal economic censorship by US financial insitutions and NYTimes says nothing. The rats. — WikiLeaks (@wikileaks)”
After denying authorship through his (authentic) Twitter account, Keller was quick to downplay the importance of the event, telling The Guardian he saw it as a “childish prank rather than crime against humanity.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, there is at least one tweeter who might wish that the targets of his/her online prank had reacted with Keller’s aloof manner. After being lampooned on Twitter by @UnSteveDorkland, Steve Auckland, Head of regional publisher Northcliffe Media, has decided to sue the account’s creator. Northcliffe is seeking "punitive damages" in San Francisco, where Twitter is based, for computer fraud and abuse, computer data access and fraud, “online impersonation” and defamation. The identity of UnStevenAuckland is unknown for the moment, but Twitter is set to hand over personal details pertaining to the anonymous tweeter after being hit with a law suit by Northcliffe.
Unfortunately it is not possible to tell whether particularly offensive tweets that would justify a lawsuit have been deleted from UnSteveDorkland’s Twitter feed. That said, the posts that are visible ridicule Auckland and mock many of the decisions he has taken at the head of the company, particularly those relating to redundancies. Meanwhile the account’s creator has insisted in a blog post that “the account is irreverent, piss-taking, absurd and even close to the mark on occasions. But it is those very absurdities and that pricking of pomposity, that it was created to air. For many it proved to be the antidote to the rather brutal way in which they feel they and their business has been treated in the past few months. And if it gave them a laugh amid all this then my work here is done.”
It would appear that incidences of online impersonation in the world of news and media are steadily becoming commonplace. Earlier this month it was revealed that a fake Twitter page was created for the NYTimes’ Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, which for a while fooled journalists and members of the public alike. The ever-increasing popularity of Twitter means that issue is not likely to disappear anytime soon and that news outlets will have to start giving serious consideration to their attitudes and reactions to the phenomenon.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is almost too easy to criticise Twitter-happy journalists for re-tweeting before verifying a post’s authenticity especially when in the case of Bill Keller a lot of effort had been put into making the article believable. Nonetheless, proofreading and fact checking are cornerstones of a journalist’s profession, even in the fast-paced world of digital news reporting. Furthermore, news companies may need to accept that they will never have complete control over the way they or their content is portrayed online and attempts to do so may backfire. Northcliffe’s legal action has seen UnSteveDorkland’s fan base skyrocket from 150 followers to 1,931 and counting but is unlikely to win the Daily Mail-owned publisher many fans.
A journalist’s credibility rests on his or her good name, and the same can of course be said for news outlets: within that context (and even without it) a fierce desire to protect one’s reputation is both natural and understandable. However, the above cases demonstrate the need for an industry that has already invested so much in a digital future to become savvier in its interaction with the online world.