Fake press releases are a public service
Yesterday, an enterprising clown used PRWeb to publish a fake press release about the purported purchasing of WiFi provider ICOA by Google for $400 million. The Associated Press, Business Insider, Forbes, TechCrunch and other websites ran stories about the transaction — without gaining confirmation from Google — and shortly after AllThingsD unmasked the release as fraudulent, the hoodwinked news organizations donned hair shirts in penance for their journalistic malpractice.
The pranked news organizations were right to self-flagellate, and the apologies and self-recriminations appeared to be sincere. “We were wrong on this post, for not following up with Google and the other company involved but posting rather than getting waiting [sic] on a solid confirmation beforehand from either source. We apologize to our readers,” confessed TechCrunch.
You don’t even have to be a talented liar to fool the press into publishing one of your lies. You just have to have gumption. In February, the Madison Capital Times got taken in by a phony press release about Representative Paul Ryan pressuring the Smithsonian to delete posters from its archives. A bogus April press release about the Bank of America’s seeking advice from customers on how to run its operation fooled the Dow Jones Newswire, and in June, a fake press release about General Mills got play in the Dow Jones Newswire, WSJ Online, and Fox Business News before the ruse was uncovered. In August, the Los Angeles Times got doubly duped when it ran a story about a nonexistent San Diego pharmacy crackdown that relied on two prank press releases.
The fake Google-ICOA press release may have been part of a “pump-and-dump” stock scheme, theorizes Technology Review, designed to boost the price of ICOA stock fivefold for a few hours, just enough time to reap quick profits. Thanks to the Web, it’s pretty simple to pollute the news stream with a counterfeit press release, as this PRWeb page on pricing indicates: You can send your release to “thousands of news outlets” for as little as $159 a release.
Did a pump-and-dumper really produce the Google-ICOA release? Surely such stock transactions would produce an incriminating paper trail and lead investigators back to the perpetrator, whom they could charge with stock manipulation. Could anybody be that stupid? I’m hoping the Google-ICOA release and others similar to it are minor acts of guerrilla press criticism by folks who have sufficient talent to mimic the press release template but insufficient talent or initiative to explain their low regard for the reporters covering the tech, political, business and crime beats. When a prank press release gets published, it identifies the outlets and journalists who were too lazy to make the single phone call that would have defused the joke. I consider that a real public service.
Or maybe I’m giving the prank press-release crowd too much credit. Perhaps their releases are an adult version of the “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” phone calls that most of us made as kids.
Every prankster wants you to laugh, but some want you to laugh long enough to swallow their political point. The Yes Men excel at this technique: In 2011, they snookered the Associated Press with a release about GE repaying the government for a $3.8 billion tax break, and in 2010 they scored with a campaign against Chevron. In 2010, an unidentified person or group spoofed Koch Industries by distributing a release about climate change that was designed to look like it came from the company. (I don’t think any news organization bit.)
Theoretically, journalists should be the last people to fall for press releases, phony or otherwise. They’re lied to day-in and day-out on the phone by the people who write the genuine press releases I worry more about getting , and a good many of those genuine press releases aren’t exactly honest. I worry about counterfeit press releases, but I’m more suspicious about the real things, which claim to be true.
As much as some critics would like to blame the warp-speed of the Web for their mistakes, the reality is that such hoaxes and their victims have long been with us. Fake press releases are like the viruses that infect vulnerable computer systems; until you fix the system, they’ll continue to work.
If you must send press releases, send only fake ones to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. All of my Tweets are genuine. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.