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Was the Shell oil hoax ethical?

By Paul Root Wolpe, Special to CNN
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue July 24, 2012
  • Greenpeace, Yes Men stage hoax about Shell Oil company using fake website and video
  • Paul Wolpe: Welcome to the Golden Age of culture jamming
  • He says line between legitimate protest and misrepresentation is ethically questionable
  • Wolpe: A culture jamming war online would do no one any good

Editor's note: Paul Root Wolpe is director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University.

(CNN) -- Recently, a puzzling website appeared that seemed to be from the Shell Oil Company. Using Shell's logo and its website's design, the page contained information about Shell's oil drilling activities in the Arctic. It included a function where viewers could caption pictures said to be taken by Shell Oil in the north (a dangerous feature for Shell -- just imagine the captions people would generate under a picture of a baby Arctic fox on an oil company website).

Soon after, a video appeared on YouTube that seemed to show an event sponsored by Shell that went badly awry. A small fountain, in the shape of an oil rig, starts spraying guests and some of the pseudo-environmental decorations of the Alaskan frontier with simulated oil. Finally, in the video, what seemed to be a poorly designed media response by Shell Oil made everything worse.

As you may have guessed (if you have not already heard), the entire thing -- website, video and even Shell's response -- was a hoax created by Greenpeace and the Yes Men, a group of online activists that targets corporations. Shell has wisely decided to remain low-key about the whole thing, issuing a press release that clarifies its lack of involvement but otherwise just hoping the whole concocted ensemble would go away.

Paul Root Wolpe
Paul Root Wolpe

Is Greenpeace's prank on Shell oil a 'scam'?

Welcome to the golden age of culture jamming. Coined in 1984, culture jamming is a tactic of subverting the media as a form of protest. But the advent of social media has taken it to a whole new level.

In the old days, culture jamming might mean defacing a billboard, handing out forged fliers, or staging a false corporate or political event and hoping the media would cover it as if it was real. But today, a fake video or website can quickly go viral and be spread through tens of thousands of shares, tweets, repostings and imitations. It is almost impossible to put that genie back in the bottle.

Social media is emerging as a powerful tool, and neither law nor social consensus has yet caught up with it.

Arctic oil vs. Alaska's natives

On the one hand, it allows a remarkable amount of influence to be wielded by those who traditionally had little. Social media ends the communication dominance of the big players like the mass media and large corporations; it is the great equalizer. From the privacy of one's computer, virtually the entire world can be one's audience.

On the other hand, because it is both relatively cheap and can be so potent, social media is ripe for abuse, whether through scams, gossip, or misrepresentations.

As a medium of protest, the tool is a mixed blessing. Certainly, social media provides some balance in the information battle with corporations who have multimillion-dollar public relations and advertising programs.

But the line between legitimate protest through culture jamming and libelous misrepresentation or trademark infringement is muddy. While the legal issues may be contentious, the ethical boundaries seem clearer.

Opinion: Why we should look to the Arctic

Many sympathize with the intent of the Greenpeace-Yes Men protest. Yet, as much as one might disagree with a particular corporate action, the honest choice demands either engaging in civil protest and accepting the consequences, or staging a symbolic protest (such as culture jamming, parody, or satire) that is clearly identifiable as an act of protest.

The Shell Oil hoax did not announce itself as a parody (though a discerning viewer could detect it), and so neglects the second standard. Satire or parody should be obvious -- maybe not immediately, but soon -- or it is in danger of becoming little more than misrepresentation.

Sometimes misrepresentation is the clear intent of the protester. There is a place in a democratic society for such acts; civil disobedience and other mildly illegal protests have a long history in the United States. But one must cross legal boundaries, even in protest, with a willingness to accept the consequences.

If the Shell Oil hoax is determined by a court to violate a law (such as trademark infringement), Greenpeace and the Yes Men should man up, accept the verdict and pay the appropriate penalty. I doubt that such a verdict will impede people from using social media as a medium of protest. But if tactics like the Shell Oil hoax become accepted and common, they can easily backfire; opponents could just as easily use the same strategy against an organization like Greenpeace.

A culture jamming war would do no one any good. The information overload online is already overwhelming and confusing enough. We don't need a situation where we have to question the validity of every website and video we click on. Let's keep it clean, everyone -- tell us who you are, and then take your best shot.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Root Wolpe.

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  • RHHaitch 4 comments collapsed Collapse Expand

    You forgot the most obvious impact.  While the intent was to discredit and damage Shell's reputation, the other outcome is that greenpeace can't really be trusted to tell the truth.  They can't really be considered a credible source of information after their stunt.  People know (or should know) that they can't trust saturday night live for their news delivery, but they would probably expect greenpeace to be factual and accurate.  That is no longer the case for anyone other than environmental zealots.

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  • CG77 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    Did you trust Greenpeace to be unbiased before this?

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  • Joe Smith 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    EastCoastCat makes a very valid point: It is absolutely possible to be biased, and still use facts to buttress one's arguments. Facts are what they are, and if you stick to them, and don't lie, distort, or misrepresent them, your arguments deserve serious consideration. Otherwise, no, they don't.

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  • EastCoastCat 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    It is possible (and often credible) to be biased and still be factual.  To tell the truth and how you see it is a perfectly normal, acceptable thing.
    It is when opinion means more that facts that problems start.  It is when facts are denounce out of hand because they obstruct the story you are telling that it hits the fan.

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  • hambdiscus 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    PETA advocates pouring fake blood on innocent women wearing a fur coats and this example of idiocy by Greenpeace has earned my enmity and I shall oppose these organizations and their Gestapo tactics at every turn.

    Both have long since ceased offering reasoned discourse, resorting to ill-considered acts in a really juvenile display of ignorance.  

    I am opposed to drilling in Arctic waters and I also oppose the original routing of the Keystone pipeline.  I often argue my position with supporters of those projects.  However, I try to use available facts, studies and evidence of past performance in support of my position rather than resort to shouting, name-calling and thuggery.

    Thuggery has become the preferred means of argument of PETA, Greenpeace and other environmentalist organizations, some resorting to extremist tactics like torching ski area buildings and Hummer dealerships.

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  • friendofaya 4 comments collapsed Collapse Expand

    Good for them..corporations already own the media so you need to find alternate tactics to get your message out.

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  • cnwilli 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

     most of those media owning corporations are liberally aligned.

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  • Joe Smith 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    cnwilli: The only way the media corporations are aligned is with the almighty dollar. They couldn't care less which way they slant the news, as long as it doesn't cost them viewers or readers.

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  • snowyowl 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    Liberally aligned?  What alternative universe do you live in, cnwilli?

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  • Clinton Thomas 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    It was abundantly clear from the start that this was a parody site. The problem is that the American people are getting dumber by the day, so they cannot recognize such obvious satire. Does anyone honestly think an oil company would be stupid enough to post any of that stuff online?

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  • Techsupp0rt 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    No oil company is ethical, so I don't see it as terribly unethical to toy around with them like this.

    They manipulate us with lobbying. Greenpeace manipulates us with hilarity.
    I know who I'd rather be brainwashed by.

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  • RDriftwood 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand

    Koch Industries Employs PR Firm To Airbrush Wikipedia, Gets Banned For Unethical ‘Sock Puppets’  By Lee Fang on Mar 9, 2011.

    Last year, Koch Industries began employing New Media Strategies (NMS), an Internet PR firm that specializes in “word-of-mouth marketing” for major corporations including Coca-Cola, Burger King, AT&T, Dodge and Ford. It appears that, ever since the NMS contract was inked with Koch, an NMS employee began editing the Wikipedia page for “Charles Koch,” “David Koch,” “Political activities of the Koch family,” and “The Science of Success” (a book written by Charles). Under the moniker of “MBMAdmirer,” NMS employees edited Wikipedia articles to distance the Koch family from the Tea Party movement, to provide baseless comparisons between Koch and conspiracy theories surrounding George Soros, and to generally delete citations to liberal news outlets. After administrators flagged the MBMAdmirer account as a “sock puppet” — one of many fake...

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  • Joe Smith 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    Thanks, that is useful information. Not particularly related to the topic of this article, though.

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  • WWWYKI 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand

     I'm shocked that Greenpeace would do something completely stupid rather than actually try to help what they claim they are on this earth to do. Way to follow in the footsteps of PETA and Joe Paterno.

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  • drkent3 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    Joe Paterno?  Seriously?  Was this an attempt at parody?

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  • Chris Roumanis 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    The Shell Oil hoax did not announce itself as a parody (though a discerning viewer could detect it), and so neglects the second standard. Satire or parody should be obvious -- maybe not immediately, but soon"

    So it was quickly apparent that it was a parody to someone who was paying attention, and parody should be obvious?

    .... Seriously, what's the problem here? I didn't even have to cut up your own article to highlight the contradiction. The sentences were ALREADY next to each other. 

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  • MFKelley 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    I'm guessing somebody had to be told that the website wasn't real.  (Mr. Wolpe, I'm looking your way!)

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  • DanFromParma 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand

    Greenpeace are terrorists.
    All terrorists should be shot on sight.
    Be they home grown anti goverment, foreign religious, or eco terrorists. A terrorist is a terrorist.

    Put a bullet in them.

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  • Joe Smith 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    A logical reply: You're advocating shooting people without a trial. You must be a terrorist. You should be shot.

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  • cnwilli 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    Feb 2012 - Shell Oil won a major consideration on Friday when the Obama
    administration approved the oil giant’s oil spill response plan for
    drilling in the waters of the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, now opening up a
    drilling process set to begin as early as this summer

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  • CG77 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand

    Trying to win a judgement against Greenpeace would be the dumbest action Shell Oil could possibly take.  You want to talk about ethics?  How many lobyists does Shell Oil have screaming into the ears and dumping money into the wallets of elected officials?  Sure, Greenpeace has some to but no where near the same amount either in people or campaign contributions.  Turnabout is fair play and that would be the best action for Shell to take, if any other than keeping quiet.

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  • cnwilli 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

     you need to dig into the relationship Shell oil has with the Obama administration.

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  • Suzanne Lurie 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    Corporations misrepresent themselves (i.e. lie) all the time - WE ARE THE GREAT SAVIORS OF MANKIND AND ALL WE DO IS GOOD!   So, because someone else is doing it, that's different?

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  • CG77 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    It has never been, nor will it ever be, illegal to parody.  From Shakesphere to Dante to Jon Stewart.  Targeting to deliver a message is widely accepted.  To suggest these actions are something else and that the law hasn't "caught up" with it is ignorant at best.

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  • Ed Campbell 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand

    The appropriate term is "hypocrites".

    show more show less
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