“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”

John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets

Hoax

Contributed by

“Sometimes it takes a lie to expose the truth.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Common Uses

To create a momentary illusion that exposes injustice through satirical exaggeration, or that demonstrates how another reality is possible.

On April 15, 2011, when General Electric announced that the company would return its illegitimate (but legal) $3.2 billion tax refund, and also lobby to close the sort of corporate tax loopholes that had allowed them to dodge taxes in the first place, it seemed too good to be true. When was the last time a major American corporation took such a moral leadership role?

Um, never! The announcement was a hoax, created by the tax fairness group U.S. Uncut, with some help from The Yes Lab. On this occasion, the core of the action was a simple press release that masqueraded as a real one from General Electric. An Associated Press writer, as eager as the rest of America to believe that such a thing could be true, picked it up and sent it over the wire. It only took minutes to be debunked, but in the media storm it created (including a temporary $3 billion plunge in GE stock value), U.S. Uncut was able to make their point, at a scale usually only granted to those who can pay for the privilege.

Hoaxes are one way for activists to “buy” some airtime that they can’t afford. Instead of complaining that the press is set up to give voice to the interests of the powerful see THEORY: Propaganda model, the hoax puts that bias to work. By speaking as the powerful, and telling a more interesting story than the powerful usually do, one can often commandeer a pretty big soapbox. After the hoax is revealed (usually within minutes or hours) then the activists can explain themselves to the public in their own true voices, with the help of the usually massive numbers of journalists all stirred up by the trick that’s just been played on the powerful.

It is generally best to reveal a hoax promptly. The ultimate goal here is more truth for more people. At the Yes Lab, we have an ethos: Never leave a lie on the table. This ethos is the opposite MO of those in power. The grand hoaxes they perpetrate on the people — everything from simple greenwashing campaigns to complex conspiracies to subvert democracy[1] — are never meant to be debunked. Activists, on the other hand, generally reveal their hoaxes at the earliest opportunity. Speaking of which, the epigraph for this entry is not from Sun Tzu. It’s from the DVD box of The Yes Men Fix the World.

  1. [1] In 1991 the PR company Hill and Knowlton created a fake story on behalf of the Kuwaiti government about Iraqi soldiers taking premature babies out of incubators after the invasions of Kuwait. Their story and manufactured “eyewitness accounts” won Bush Sr. the U.S. public support he needed to invade Iraq. That hoax was never meant to be revealed, but thanks to investigative journalists, the truth eventually came out. That’s just one example. For more, see gregpalast.com.
Key Principle at work

Use the Jedi mind trick

With nothing more than a website, a phone line, and some gumption, anyone can be anyone. Just use the Force!

Potential Pitfalls

There is always a certain segment of the population that despises the idea of a lie, regardless of the intent. If you are trying to appeal to this small, sanctimonious, and usually left-wing group, you may want to think twice.


Mike Bonanno (né Igor Vamos) is a guy from Troy, New York, who spent his formative post-childhood years making mischief. Mike once purchased hundreds of talking GI Joe and Barbie dolls, switched out their voice boxes, and created a media firestorm that had God-fearing Americans up in arms about the shadowy “Barbie Liberation Front.” This escapade caught the attention of lazy queer hackers like Bichlbaum, and together they formed the Yes Men. When not involved in tomfoolery, Bonanno is also a professor of media art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with a Scottish wife and two babies.


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