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The Hoax Hook

Tricking the corporate media into covering the real news

by Hillary Lindsay

Martime activists plan top secret actions.  Photo: Meghan MacCulloch
Martime activists plan top secret actions. Photo: Meghan MacCulloch
'Yes Man' Andy Bichlbaum encourages activism that thinks outside the box.  Photo: Meghan MacCulloch
'Yes Man' Andy Bichlbaum encourages activism that thinks outside the box. Photo: Meghan MacCulloch

"You can tell the truth all you want, you can have lots of facts, and the media will still ignore you," says Andy Bichlbaum.

Bichlbaum and his co-conspirator Mike Bonanno - otherwise known as the "Yes Men" - have gained international notoriety by setting up fake websites, and impersonating representatives of powerful corporations and governments.

"We  provide humorous hooks for the media to try to get them to cover important issues," explains Bichlbaum.

Bichlbaum and activists from across the Maritimes gathered at the Tatamagouche Centre on the North Shore of Nova Scotia on Friday.  They spent the weekend plotting top secret actions.  Their plan is to trick the media into covering the issues they care about:  from the risks of hydraulic fracking and aquaculture, to reproductive health, and mining justice.   

"They Yes Men offer a unique opportunity and  training that we felt could really benefit many organizations and groups" says Trudy Watts, a facilitator at the Tatamatouche Centre, explaining the choice to bring the Yes Men to Nova Scotia. "Their special contribution is to help activists gain the kind of media attention that their issues merit and that the mainstream media often overlooks."

In 2009, the Yes Men shone the international media spotlight on Canada's deplorable record on climate change.  The hoax involved a flurry of fake press releases, announcements, retractions, and video footage of Canadian and African climate negotiators at international climate talks in Copenhagen.

The first press release, which appeared to come from Environment Canada, announced that Canada would be doubling its emission reduction target, and offering billions of dollars to African countries to repay climate debt.  

The stunt made national news in Canada, and created media space to explore the country's real role at climate negotiations: obstructing progress.

"What I've taken from [the workshop] is that it's not just about just doing something that's funny," says Kate Dempsey, "But doing something that's funny that also has staying power to get the media's attention."  Dempsey is a PEI activist who attended the workshop to learn some new tactics.  

"I think activists think within the box too much," says Wilma van der Veen, who also attended the workshop.

Van Der Veen believes social justice and environmental activists need to push their boundaries and step outside the comfort zone of rallies and marches.

Bichlbaum stepped way outside of his comfort zone in one of the Yes Men's most famous actions where Bichlbaum impersonated a Dow Chemical representative during a BBC interview.   In the interview, broadcast to 300 million viewers, Bichlbaum promised  huge compensation for the thousands of victims of the Bhopal disaster in which Dow Chemical's subsidiary Union Carbide India was responsible for in 1984.

The interview resulted in Dow's stock price taking a nose dive.  Once the hoax was discovered, it made international headlines and millions learned for the first time that Dow Chemicals had never cleaned up its mess in India.

Despite what many assume, Dow Chemicals didn't sue the Yes Men.  If you're funny and media savvy, you can get away with way more than you think, says Bichlbaum. 

The environmental and social justice battles being fought in the Martitimes are the same ones being fought around the world, says Bichlbaum.  "Companies raping the land in various ways, hurting people, not giving a shit.  Certain people gaining immense wealth thanks to our system at the expense of other people."

Van der Veen feels the urgency of what's happening to the planet and hopes the workshop will encourage activists to push the envelope here in the Maritimes. "There's so much that we can still do, despite the fact that our civil rights are being infringed upon," she says.

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