Early this morning, a pro-WikiLeaks op-ed purporting to be penned by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller cropped up online. It was a stunningly convincing piece of web fraud, its design practically identical to the New York Times‘s own homepage, with every link leading to an actual Times article or section. The only hint that it wasn’t real was the URL: instead of showing as nytimes.com/pages/opinion, it read “opinion-nytimes.com.” It’s a tiny difference, but a monumentally important one.
The article itself, which staunchly defends WikiLeaks and the importance of qualifying it under the First Amendment, is certainly stylistically similar to the real writings of Mr. Keller. Some of the wording is rather clunky, but that seems to lend the piece the impression that its message was so dire that it was written in an emotional hurry. The faux article tries so hard to be convincing that it even borrows wording from an email Mr. Keller wrote recently to GigaOm about WikiLeaks.
The fake op-ed immediately radiated across Twitter, with several journalism and tech luminaries–including, most embarrassingly, the Times‘s own technology writer Nick Bilton–falling for the hoax before it was debunked. The official WikiLeaks Twitter account dove into the fray, tweeting the op-ed before following up with retweets by people conjecturing about what exactly happened. [See our update at the bottom.]
Mr. Bilton uncovered a fake Twitter account that replaced one of the lowercase “l’s” in @NYTkeller with a capital “I,” further complicating the story. Many thought that the op-ed was tweeted by Mr. Keller himself, when in fact it was done by a fake account.
What’s more, a fake PayPal blog was created to voice support for the New York Times‘s alignment with WikiLeaks. Whoever staged this prank had a ton of help, or a ton of time on their hands.
So who’s behind this elaborate hoax? Domain registration data indicates that opinion-nytimes.com was registered back in March, so whoever is behind this ruse was clearly waiting for the right time to launch it. (What better than a summer Sunday morning as people are enjoying their paper and coffee?)
Whoever registered it was also incredibly detail-oriented: the WhoIs information for the fake site notes the registrant as “Ellen Herb,” the same person who is listed as the registrant for the real nytimes.com URL. Sneaky!
Betabeat searched for some of the related queries in the WhoIs data and found that opinion-nytimes.com possesses the same NIC handle as “blocknytimes.org,” another site registered on Gandi, a French domain hoster. The fake PayPal blog also possesses the same NIC handle.
While blocknytimes.org doesn’t yield many leads, there is a Twitter account for (Do Not) BlockNYTimes, which purports to be part of the hacker collective Anonymous. They’re definitely supportive of the op-ed–if not directly involved with the hoax–as they’ve tweeted about it numerous times. They were also one of the first to tweet a link to the piece.
From what Betabeat can gather, there is a grassroots conservative group called “Block the NYTimes” that believes the Times and WikiLeaks are both guilty of treason for leaking U.S. military secrets. The official WikiLeaks account tweeted about them a few weeks ago, to which the “Do Not Block NYTimes” Anonymous group responded, “We are on it. BTW, Anonymous loves you.”
UPDATE: WikiLeaks admitted that it was in on the hoax, along with “its supporters,” which we assume means the Do Not Block NYTimes group. A little over an hour ago they tweeted, “Yes. We admit it. WikiLeaks (Assange & co) and our great supporters where behind the successful NYTimes banking blockade hoax on @nytkeller.”
Further, they credited Julian Assange with the following quote: “If the NYTimes cannot act with honnor to defend their ‘sources’ from economic censorship then we’ll just have to do it for them :).”
Here is a timeline of the hoax published by WikiLeaks on Pastebin.
Mr. Assange must be growing bored after being holed up in that Ecuadorian embassy for so long.
Additional reporting contributed by Steve Huff.