It was the New York Times op-ed that wasn’t. After months of careful planning, Internet activists hailing from WikiLeaks, Anonymous and Yes Men quietly unfurled a very convincing New York Times web page on a lazy Sunday morning. The article fooled everyone for several hours as readers shared it widely via social media, and then enjoyed a second life as media commentators caught on and fulminated over the injustice of it all. Lost in the media kerfuffle, however, was the prank’s point – which counterintuitively supported the New York Times.

The bogus article, attributed to columnist and former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, was published on July 29 under a URL similar to that of New York Times opinion articles and tweeted from a Twitter handle that looked nearly identical to Keller’s. In 2010, Keller had helped the New York Times publish secret documents procured by WikiLeaks, but later he distanced himself from the organization’s methods, drawing a sharp line between leaking and journalism. Titled “WikiLeaks, a Post Postscript,” the fake article stated, “I find myself in the awkward position of having to defend WikiLeaks,” and asserts the organization’s First Amendment rights. Keller’s fans were surprised by the turnaround and shared the article extensively.

At first, Keller himself appeared to accept the article as his own work. A link to the article appeared in his real Twitter stream, only to be deleted hours later. Keller called the shenanigans “childish” and “immature satire;” in short, he didn’t find it funny. As word of the hoax spread, journalists made it clear that the stunt rubbed them the wrong way, going as far as to criticize the writing in the fake op-ed (some of which was cribbed from Keller’s own work). “I wonder if WikiLeaks might be mounting a stealth campaign to keep copy editors employed,” Andrew Beaujon mused  on Poynter.

One Twitter supporter summed up journalist reaction succinctly with the tweet, “@wikileaks’ triumphant #hoax of the @nytimes shows folks writing about it utterly lack #humor.”

More important, the mainstream media’s defensive reaction missed the point. The hoax wasn’t meant to be funny or to offend, and it didn’t involve any illegal activities such as hacking. “Nothing was hacked except reality,” said an online activist involved in the prank. The activist, who is also associated with the Occupy movement, asked to remain (literally) anonymous, saying “I didn’t participate to get famous.”

The fake op-ed was part of a larger campaign that rolled out simultaneously but received much less notice. Concocted in March, the hoax included four additional elements: a fake corporate blog post from PayPal uploaded the same day, the exploitation of the Helvetica font on Twitter when viewed on smartphones (the “i” and “l” letters are virtually indistinguishable), a made-up conservative grassroots campaign called Block The New York Times that purportedly accused the New York Times of treason for publishing WikiLeaks-related documents, and a fake subset of Anonymous whose sole mission was to take down Block The New York Times.

The sham conflict between Block New York Times and Anonymous, which was hardly noticed by the mainstream press, was meant to dramatize how easily the New York Times could be censored in a variety of ways: pressure from fringe political groups who don’t value the First Amendment, prosecution by the government, or financial blockade like the one WikiLeaks is facing.

“We were trying to build attention to the possibility of this happening [to the New York Times]” said the activist, equating WikiLeaks’ release of secret documents to investigative newspaper journalism. “We were trying to start the conversation. WikiLeaks here has been prevented from delivering news with this financial blockade.” In other words, if they could do it to WikiLeaks, they could do it to the New York Times.  

“Julian [Assange] has a much better sense of humor… but [he and Bill Keller] come from very different backgrounds,” concluded the Anonymous source.  

Image courtesy of Flickr/Adobe of Chaos