Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, has made no secret of his rocky relationship with secret-spilling organization WikiLeaks. Keller, as the chief of the paper in 2010, collaborated with WikiLeaks to receive primary access to the organization’s massive document release that year. But since then, the relationship has soured: earlier this year Keller mocked WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange in an op-ed.
That’s why, when the New York Times’ website appeared to publish a column in which Keller seemed to be “defending” WikiLeaks, it took web readers by surprise. Until they discovered it was a hoax.
The phony column was posted on a website that looks exactly like the online version of the New York Times Opinion Page — the pranksters even loaded the site with similar-looking ads and links to other (legitimate) Times webpages. But that wasn’t all. The WikiLeaks hoax-masters injected some tromp l’oeil magic into their scheme. The article was initially tweeted by @nytkeIler, a ripoff of Keller’s real Twitter handle, @nytkeller. (In Twitter’s standard font, a capitalized “I” and lowercase “l” are nearly indistinguishable.) And while the host domain of the article, http://opinion-nytimes.com, clearly varies from that of the paper’s actual Opinion site (http://nytimes.com/opinion), it was approximate enough to fool readers.
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Shortly after the column went up, Keller’s seeming about-face on WikiLeaks made waves through the social media sphere. Web users quickly clamored to read and share it, not realizing the trickery involved. The article and its display was so convincing, in fact, that it even fooled one of Keller’s colleagues, the Times‘ lead technology writer.
A key hoax ingredient: The forgers made their phony seem authentic to those familiar with Keller’s views by dropping in a few unaltered sentences from Keller’s recent commentary on WikiLeaks.:
I’ve said repeatedly, in print and in a variety of public forums, that I would regard an attempt to criminalize WikiLeaks’ publication of these documents as an attack on all of us, and I believe the mainstream media should come to his defense.
You don’t have to embrace Julian Assange as a kindred spirit to believe that what he did in publishing those cables falls under the protection of the First Amendment.
Both excerpts were drawn from an e-mail that Keller sent to Mathew Ingram at the blog GigaOM.com and were published by Ingram on July 25. In that e-mail, Keller was responding to the interest that House Republicans have expressed in prosecuting the New York Times for publishing leaked classified material. In recent weeks, Keller has opposed calls to prosecute WikiLeaks, but has been careful to denounce Julian Assange as not being a “partner” or fellow journalist of his.
In the fictional column, the Keller impostor wrote that he was “in the awkward position of having to defend WikiLeaks.” He went on to claim that, had the Times had exclusive access to the WikiLeaks cables leaked by Bradley Manning, he would have allowed the federal government to review them prior to the Times’ publication. And the forgery also quoted Keller as advocating that “journalism should work in unison with government.” Too outlandish to be true, right?
To complicate matters, the impostor made a grammatical error that Keller, a 28-year veteran of the Times, would likely never make — or, at the very least, one that would have been caught by a seasoned Times copy editor: the writer used a comma where a semicolon should have been:
Obama has clearly not lived up to his 2008 campaign promises to protect whistleblowers, rather his policy is more like China’s treatment of dissidents.
At 8:48 AM on Sunday, Keller denounced the fake that his account had hours earlier accidentally retweeted.
As suggested by the use of caps lock in his denunciation, Keller was hardly amused by the situation: “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,” he told The Guardian.
Computer security analyst Christopher Soghoian exposed the fake over Twitter at 7:41 AM Sunday morning by pointing out the inaccurate domain name:
Oddly enough, Keller’s actual account, @nytkeller, had previously retweeted @journalismfest linking to the fake. This led news outlets including The Guardian to suggest that Keller’s account may have been hacked. Alternately, other theories held that Keller or someone tweeting on Keller’s behalf may have been fooled, mistaking the prank link for a link to Keller’s actual comments published just days earlier. WikiLeaks, which has claimed responsibility for the hoax, has been quick to mock this seeming slip-up:
While the prank succeeded as a publicity stunt, it’s unclear whether it will benefit WikiLeaks in the long run. Countless journalists and Twitter users have denounced the prank as a mistake for the organization, saying that perpetrating a hoax (and bragging about it) undermines WikiLeaks’ credibility. And it may invite a lawsuit against the organization as well: The Times is currently investigating the legal implications of the scam, and considering whether any legal action may be taken on the hoaxer’s reproduction of its page format, The Guardian reports.
As for motive, it seems that the secret-spilling group pulled the prank due to anger at the news giant for spurning coverage of the financial blockade that has crippled WikiLeaks. Last year, some of the world’s biggest banks and money-transfer organizations, including Bank of America, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and Western Union, blocked all donations to WikiLeaks.
Despite the opportune timing of the hoax, appearing just after Keller’s actual op-ed, evidence suggests the pranksters may have had the plan in mind for quite a while: the fake Times domain was registered on March 30, according to The Guardian.
The fake article and website still exist, but the prank @nytkeIler Twitter account has been removed and all its tweets deleted.