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What does Greenpeace’s “Shell” hoax tell us about America?

22 July 2012

Summary: Small events act as valuable “tells”, showing us how America has changed. They give us evidence, allowing us to benchmark ourselves vs. our forefathers. Today we look at Greenpeace’s hoax about Shell, a demonstration of how skilled experts conduct politics in 21st America. Let’s not waste time condemning Left and Right for using methods that work so well. Rather let’s change so that they no longer work so well.

More:  Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper:  I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More:  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat?  … Do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?  I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
— From A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt — This applies just as well to truth as the law (analogy by Abi Sutherland)

Contents

  1. About the hoax by Greenpeace
  2. Some reactions to the hoax
  3. Lessons learned from the hoax
  4. Historical precedents
  5. For more information

(1)  About the hoax by Greenpeace

Here’s the video that went viral:

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(2)  Some reactions to the hoax

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How Greenpeace Manipulated the Media Like a Pro: Analyzing the Shell Oil Hoax“, Ryan Holiday, Forbes — Of course Greenpeace is a pro at manipulating the media!  Excerpt:

You know media manipulation is rampant when even Greenpeace is doing it. There is no other way to describe the “Arctic Fail” hoax that the environmental group pulled off earlier this week. It was media manipulation in its purest form. It may have been done for noble reasons, but that doesn’t change the salient fact that they are manipulating the media by creating a fake scandal and lying about it to get more coverage. … From what I deduce the roll out went like this:

Epic Shell PR fail? No, the real villains here are Greenpeace“, Martin Robbins, blog of the New Statesman — Excerpt:

Of course manipulating the media turned out to be frighteningly easy in this case. … the speed and carelessness with which the main news sites copy and repackage each other’s content means that these errors are compounded and multiplied at a furious rate. Throw in the awesome power of social media, and one blogger’s late night fuck-up can become a truth spoken by millions before breakfast. Evolution has not yet gifted us social apes with sceptical powers to match our fascination with ‘like’ buttons.

The real villain here is Greenpeace. This is an NGO that thinks it is acceptable to lie to the public, to lie to bloggers and journalists, and to then intimidate writers with threatening emails warning of legal action. This absolutely is not okay. I don’t care if you’re saving the Arctic, rescuing kittens from YouTube’s vicious pet-celebrity training camps, or training pandas to pull famine-ridden children out of earthquake debris; to behave in this deceitful way demonstrates an astonishing amount of contempt for the public – not least for environmentalist supporters who spread their message in good faith only to find themselves forced into embarrassing retractions.

Fro an explanation of the con see “Shell Oil’s Social Media Nightmare Continues, Thanks To Skilled Pranksters Behind @ShellisPrepared” be Kashmir Hill at Forbes.

(3)  Lessons learned from the hoax

Smart people run today’s media campaigns, people who have studied and understand the American people.  They know that Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 1 September 2010:

Our leaders (both left and right) have discovered that they can successfully lie to us.   Insights like that can change the course of nations.

More generally, speaking the truth to Americans doesn’t work well.  Games, exaggerations, misrepresentations — even blatant lies — work well. The Romney campaign has worked this insight to the max. Polls show their effectiveness (details here).  Paul Krugman nails it with the precision of an opponent:

… the fact that for several days running the central theme of the Romney campaign has rested on a complete lie. I understand; going on about the dishonesty can get boring. But we should step back often to look at this remarkable spectacle. I really don’t think there’s been anything like this in American political history: a presidential campaign, with a pretty good chance of winning, that is based entirely on cynical lies about what the sitting president has said. No, Obama hasn’t apologized for America; no, he hasn’t denigrated achievement. Yet take away those claims, and there’s nothing left in Romney’s rhetoric.

This is too harsh an insight for many people. The most common way to reduce the cognitive dissonance: “it’s always been so.” Sadly it’s not so.

Even their slogans had real meanings.

  • William Henry Harrison, 1840: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — Back then fighting Indians, even small battles, had great symbolic significance.
  • James K. Polk, 1844: “54-40 or fight” — Expanding the USA from sea to shining sea.
  • James Blaine, 1884: “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?” Blaine’s opponent, Grover Cleveland, had an illegitimate son, when that was considered significant.

(4)  Historical precedents

There is nothing new under the sun. Lies have often been effective tools for statesmen seeking to rule foolish people.

(a)  The Noble Lie, from Plato’s The Republic

“this myth … would have a good effect making them more inclined to care for the state and one another”

(b)  The Big Lie:  from chapter 10 of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf

All this was inspired by the principle — which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.

(5)  For more about propaganda used against us

  1. Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
  2. More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010
  3. A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
  4. About the political significance of the conservatives’ health care propaganda, 23 March 2010
  5. Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
  6. Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 15 September 2010
  7. The easy way to rule: leading a weak people by feeding them disinformation, 13 April 2011
  8. Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
  9. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
  10. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
  11. More use of the big lie: shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011
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11 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 July 2012 2:12 pm

    Kashmir Hill, Forbes: There’s some element in all of this where they realize it’s not real but they want it to be real. … It’s that willful suspension of belief. This is why hoaxes often work. We know it’s too good to be true, but we still want it to be true.”

    There’s nothing remarkable in this. Moderns are no more gullible or manifestly self delusional than any other people in any other time or place. That Americans are vastly different from the founding generations 200 + years ago is an indisputable fact, but it becomes a false cliche when its implied today’s humans are inferior, immoral or less worthy than mythic hero’s of an imagined golden age.

    Like

    • 22 July 2012 3:01 pm

      “Moderns are no more gullible or manifestly self delusional than any other people in any other time or place”

      It’s an interesting proposition that change is impossible. History suggests otherwise. Societies change in almost every imaginable dimension over time.

      However, it is a comforting delusion. Do an experiement: try reading the Federalist Papers or the Lincoln-Douglas Debates to your friends. Those were mass-market articles/speeches to our forefathers. See if they can follow the author, and how long it retains their interest. The Fed Papers are an especially good example, as many are as relevant today as when written. That’s also true of some sections of the L-D debates.

      Like

    • 22 July 2012 4:21 pm

      I did not say change was impossible. Americans just aren’t only “vastly different from the founding generations” as I had stated, but also from mid 19th century and even the depression era/WW II generations in culture, society and what people believe. What doesn’t change and holds true since Adam & Eve or, the first ape/man are our foibles. Those lesser and better angels of human nature like greed, deceit, hate, envy, etc.

      Especially self delusion, the self reinforcing sort that’s a body guard of lies in times of affliction or distress. Paraphrasing, I believe it was Hemingway who said; ‘its a far better thing to be slain in ones youth, with ones illusions intact, than to grow old and learn you were deluded in the first place.’

      That’s a hard fate, obviously one Ernst couldn’t live with.

      Like

    • 22 July 2012 5:09 pm

      “What doesn’t change and holds true since Adam & Eve or, the first ape/man are our foibles. Those lesser and better angels of human nature like greed, deceit, hate, envy, etc.”

      That is exactly what I meant by demial of change. While you are of course correct from a God-like perspective, a person and society’s character results from the relative magnitude of these characteristics — especially vs. their duralities (hope, faith, charity, valor, etc). This changed mixture to a large extent determines the rise and fall of nations.

      As I have said so many times on the FM website, magnitudes matter. Life — and its characteristics — are not binary.

      Like

  2. 22 July 2012 7:34 pm

    I saw a video of this when they were actually working on the it. The video explained that it is all fake (made with actors/actresses). It showed how they made the video and why they were doing it.

    I guess if you saw this it’s not such a big deal, but it probably would have been a better idea to have coupled this with the previous video; with people being all stupid and such. <—— kidding : )

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  3. atheist permalink
    24 July 2012 4:04 pm

    arcticready.com is a prankish satire designed to hook interest (create a fictitious Shell initiative), string the reader along for a while, and allow them to discover the truth (actual initiatives of the oil industry are almost as crazy as the fictitious one). Hitler’s “Big Lie” is a method of telling enormous lies to people (your society is being taken over by a sinister cabal of Jews!), and simultaneously rendering them impervious to any contrary voice (those people saying its not true are all communists and crypto-Jews!). In short, you’re equating satire with propaganda, but they are not the same thing.

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    • 24 July 2012 5:16 pm

      (1) The Greenpeace hoax was satire.

      Please advise of several well-known websites who saw that it was satire, contradicting the large number who took it seriously.

      (2) Propaganda

      I don’t believe you are accurately stating the conclusions of this post. It did not say that the Greenpeace hoax was the same as Hitler’s Big Lie. To repeat:

      More generally, speaking the truth to Americans doesn’t work well.  Games, exaggerations, misrepresentations — even blatant lies — work well. The Romney campaign has worked this insight to the max. Polls show their effectiveness (details here).  Paul Krugman nails it with the precision of an opponent:

      That seems clear to me. Rather then speaking sense to us — as in the debates about the Consitution (Federalist Papers) or slavery (Lincoln-Douglas debates), political engineeers today rely on the manipulative tools well-suited for children and fools. That includes a wide range of tools: from hoaxes like Greenpeace’s, to outright lies (eg, like in the climate wars, and those used ad nauseam by Romney’s campaign).

      Like

    • 24 July 2012 5:18 pm

      For more examples of the methods to influence Americans that work today, see secton #3 of today’s post – The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia.

      This also shows that these methods are used by both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, since both sides are attempting to influence Americans. We’re the common element.

      Like

    • atheist permalink
      24 July 2012 7:57 pm

      That seems clear to me. Rather then speaking sense to us — as in the debates about the Consitution (Federalist Papers) or slavery (Lincoln-Douglas debates), political engineeers today rely on the manipulative tools well-suited for children and fools.

      It is indeed true that the Lincoln/Douglass debates required much greater attention and mindfulness than today’s internet ads. Our culture has stupidified itself, no question. Perhaps it is our focus on pictures, or perhaps it is the sheer amount of information we transmit.

      (1) The Greenpeace hoax was satire.

      Please advise of several well-known websites who saw that it was satire, contradicting the large number who took it seriously.

      Here I find myself at a loss. I initially encountered the “ArcticReady” website on Twitter, where I almost immediately suspected it was a joke, partially because people connected to the Yes Men were pushing it, partially because the ads shown were just so absurd. But then, I’m very used to reading political subtext.

      For websites calling this a hoax, how about:
      “Shell Arctic Ready” hoax fools the internet — again“, CBC Community on Storify.com, July 19 2012, author not given.

      Note, according to the Storify article:
      Approximately 24 hours after the campaign was launched, Greenpeace and the Yes Lab released blog posts and a video admitting their involvement in the hoax.

      If that is correct it supports view that this is more a prank than propaganda.

      Shell Arctic Ready Hoax Website By Greenpeace Takes Internet By Storm (IMAGES)“, Huffington Post, by Timothy Stenovec, June 18, 2012.

      Like

    • 24 July 2012 8:44 pm

      Some of this is incorrect.

      The Huffington Post article is dated Jul 18 — not, as you say, June 18.
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/shell-arctic-ready-hoax-greenpeace_n_1684222.html

      The Shell Press release is dated July 19. Unless there is more than one; but that’s the only one I see on Google, and it has the same wording as referenced in the Storify article. Perhaps they’re going by the URL:
      http://www.shell.us/home/content/usa/aboutshell/projects_locations/alaska/events_news/06142012_statement.html

      As for the Greenpeace press releases — I don’t know how that got ignored for so long.

      http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/media-center/news-releases/Arcticready-or-Shellfail-Shells-Climate-Disaster-Gets-a-Rehearsal/

      http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/greenpeace-the-yes-men-and-the-inside-story-o/blog/40893/?ilink=1

      However, none of this is relevant to my major point. Influencing the American public is now done largely through means other than rational dialog, from pranks to lies. They understand who we are. Perhaps at some point we too will understand ourselves, which might open the possibility of change.

      As Michael Jackson said, “it’s the man in the mirror”.

      Like

    • atheist permalink
      24 July 2012 9:42 pm

      However, none of this is relevant to my major point. Influencing the American public is now done largely through means other than rational dialog, from pranks to lies. They understand who we are. Perhaps at some point we too will understand ourselves, which might open the possibility of change.

      Indeed. When everything is entertainment, life is just a big play and everyone is just an actor. Nothing is real.

      Like

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