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Whitehaven stunt among best environmental hoaxes

The Whitehaven Coal stunt mines a rich vein of environmental hoax activism. Crikey searched the archives to come up with a top ten list of stunts.

Anti-coal activist Jonathan Moylan’s hoax yesterday — announcing ANZ had withdrawn funding for Whitehaven Coal’s planned Moules Creek operation — got Crikey thinking about some of the best green stunts over the last few years.

With the former feet-on-the-streets mentality of deep green social movements now going the way of the keyboard, the hoax has become a formidable tool in the political armoury of post-industrial warriors who’ve found they can jam the gears of carbonated capitalism with their smartphones and a laptop.

Much of the media — including Fairfax’s metro mastheads and The Australian Financial Review website —  were immediately sucked in by the Whitehaven ruse and were forced to backtrack with embarrassing “how we were dudded” yarns (but not before the wily operators at Chris Mitchell’s Australian had screen-grabbed the devastating evidence).

After owning up, Moylan name-checked US culture-jamming activists the Yes Men and ABC TV’s Chaser “boys” to explain his tactics, which led to $270 million being cleaved off the Whitehaven share price before market sheep discovered the error of their ways and restored the stock to its former glory.

The initiative taps into a rich vein of global hoax activism that Crikey decided to rank in order of illness. A popular recent maneuver is the “false positive” — where activists put out a devious and fake press release claiming a fossil fuel behemoth is about to do something positive, which forces the company to issue a statement denying their progressivism.

1. Yes Men Dow Chemicals stunt

On BBC News a fake spokesman for Dow Chemicals claimed the company had finally accepted full responsibility for the 1984 Union Carbide disaster that led on some estimates to 16,000 deaths in the Indian town of Bhopal.

2. Harvey Norman’s fake furniture release

Anti-logging activists drew attention to the company’s love affair with dodgy flatpack tables and chairs by putting out a fake presser claiming it would replace furniture and flooring from native forests with plantation grown furniture ranges by June 2012. Other activists later tagged in-store furniture with fake contest QR codes that linked to an anti-logging site. The real spokesman for Harvey Norman was not amused.

3. The real mining story

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and ex-Chaser Charles Firth (“Firth with the Facts”) uploaded a parody site lampooning the Australian mining industry’s 2011 “Our Story” series with their own version starring fake mining billionaire Alan Billison. The thisistherealstory.com.au site thoroughly pissed off global miner Xstrata.

4. Shell gets Arctic Ready

The US arm of Greenpeace made waves last year over a campaign purportedly emanating from Shell that painted the melting of the Arctic as an “opportunity” for the company, complete with a polar bear struggling to make frozen land. The  original “viral” video generated a #shellfail hashtag on Twitter. Then, the group staged a fake “farewell” for Shell’s drilling rigs at Seattle’s Space Needle which were docked in Seattle at the time. With energy big wigs looking on, a ceremonial spigot-turning resulted in an undercover Occupy activist being sprayed in the face with black gold.

5. Coal Cares website

In 2011 a Coal Cares website — complete with an offer of free Asthma inhalers — cropped up, aimed at US energy giant Peabody. The site was a collaboration between Yes Men development bunker the Yes Lab and a group tastefully called Coal is Killing Kids.

6. Flat earth in Middle Earth

Last July, a fake group of members of the Flat Earth Society turned up to a meeting of climate sceptics — the Climate Science Education Trust in Aotearoa/New Zealand/Middle Earth. Their letter of intent was signed by “Nathaniel Pipe-Blower, Tzar and 33rd degree Grand Wizard Master of the first inverted pancake lodge of the totally awesome Flat Earth Society Ltd”.

7. Conservation International exposed

UK activist journalists posed as staff members of an international arms organisation to expose Conservation International as a “conservation” organisation which exists almost entirely to provide good green PR to any company who asks for it. CI — which has close links to Cargill, Chevron, Monsanto and Shell — turned a deep shade of red when the ruse was revealed.

8. Yes Men in print

In 2009 the besuited Yes Men renegades produced a fake issue and website of the New York Post with the headline “We’re Screwed”, in reference to the coming disastrous impacts of climate change. Three years later, the Post’s distribution area was duly devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

9. Zombie Frack

Not a hoax per se, but last month anti-coal seam gas activists dressed up as zombies and invaded the current APT7 exhibition at the feted Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. A main sponsor of the exhibition is frackers Santos.

10. Alarms for airline industry

In 2010, anti-plane activists Manchester Plane let off helium balloons attached to r-pe alarms reading “Happy Retirement” and let them float to the top of an airline industry conference venue.

11. Utah oil and gas lease trickster

In 2011, US greenie Tim DeChristopher made fake bids for Utah oil and gas energy leases in an effort to sabotage the auction process. He was later jailed for two years.

*Remember a better one? Email your favourite enviro-stunt to boss@crikey.com.au and we’ll keep the list updated. Thanks to Graham Readfearn for some of these.

33
  • 1
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Gladthat Crikey see this as a great stunt I am sure the small investors who lost their money wouldn’t be so generous!!

    And what exactly did the “best environmental hoax” achieve? No long term damge to the company, I haven’t seen anyone mention the exact point he was trying to make, even the big institutional investors, those that finance the supposed environmental damage, wouldn’t have lost much as they would have been able to verify the report much quicker than the average Joe.

    The only thing I see it achieving is wiping a few thousand from the SMSF’s of ordinary Australians and self funded retiree’s.

  • 2
    Stefan Landherr
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I predict that Mr Moylan will be prosecuted by ASIC and sued for damages by sundry investors and traders. Wonder if he will still be smiling then.

  • 3
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Stefan - True he will probably get a fine from ASIC and be forced to pay damages but I dare say he has no assets so he won’t actually pay anything.

  • 4
    gdt
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Considering that he had no intent to make money from his activities I’d be interested in how you think sentencing which lead to a jail term would be just. His lawyers could readily point to comparable activities by corporate directors which resulted in considerable unearned payments but didn’t result in jail.

    I also don’t understand the “small investors” point. They wouldn’t have been effected at all. It takes more than a day for “Mom and Pop” investors to respond to share price changes.

  • 5
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    GDT - “I also don’t understand the “small investors” point. They wouldn’t have been effected at all. It takes more than a day for “Mom and Pop” investors to respond to share price changes.” That’s just rubbish - a lot of small investors walk around with commsec on their Ipads these days, if you were a small investor and had money in Whitehaven you would be monitoring things pretty closely at the minute with all the issues surrounding it.

    As I said institutions would of had the capacity to confirm the accuracy of the reports pretty quick and could quite well have ended up making money out of the saga , ie started buying on the way down. It would of been the smaller investors who got just enough information to be ill informed that lost the most.

  • 6
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    And GDT who said anything about Jail?

  • 7
    Scott
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    CORPORATIONS ACT 2001 - SECT 1041E
    False or misleading statements
    (1) A person must not (whether in this jurisdiction or elsewhere) make a statement, or disseminate information, if:

    (a) the statement or information is false in a material particular or is materially misleading; and

    (b) the statement or information is likely:

    (i) to induce persons in this jurisdiction to apply for financial products; or

    (ii) to induce persons in this jurisdiction to dispose of or acquire financial products; or

    (iii) to have the effect of increasing, reducing, maintaining or stabilising the price for trading in financial products on a financial market operated in this jurisdiction; and

    (c) when the person makes the statement, or disseminates the information:

    (i) the person does not care whether the statement or information is true or false; or

    (ii) the person knows, or ought reasonably to have known, that the statement or information is false in a material particular or is materially misleading.

    Note 1: Failure to comply with this subsection is an offence (see subsection 1311(1)). For defences to a prosecution based on this subsection, see Division 4. “

    Seems pretty cut and dried to me.

    This is all about market integrity. I would assume ASIC would throw the book at him as a cautionary tale so other activists not to try this sort of stunt in the future.

  • 8
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Yep Scott he is clearly guilty and ASIC will go hard but what is the maximum penalty? If all the cna do is fine him I expect he will declare bankruptcy pretty and they’ll probably find the tree he lives in is in his partners name.

  • 9
    Microseris
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Whilst I don’t endorse fake media releases which may affect small investors, in this instance it is hard to have sympathy of those who would seek to profit from coal investments knowing we are heading for a 4 - 6c temperature increase due to the burning of fossil fuels.

    The environment movement is fighting a rear guard action against a tsunami of environmental destruction facilitated by governments which are merely puppets of big destructive businesses like coal and oil who have power the rest of us could only dream of.

    Try clearing a thousand hectares of a nationally endangered vegetation community. No problemo for big coal.

  • 10
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Microseris - Pull your head out of your a*se, the small investors who lost their money aren’t the ones who make these mines possible that’s the institutional investor.

    And I hope you have checked with your super fund to ensure they aren’t investing in big coal (or any mining companies if you are really serious), big tobacco, big oil, big pharma, any airline (given their carbon footprint), aluminium or steel manufacturers, or anyone else who emits carbon really. In fact who are people allowed to invest in and not be fair game for having their life savings destroyed by activists?

  • 11
    Microseris
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    So Jimmy you saying small investors who invest in coal are not seeking to make money from coal? We already know the big investors have no ethics.

    I am self funded. Ethically.

    Confirmation again (if we needed any), you are a clown.

  • 12
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Microseris - I am not saying they don’t make money from coal but the mine is going to be built and the environmental impacts will be their regardless of their investment. And who knows Microseris some of those small investors might take their profits from coal and use them to fund environmentally friendly projects!

    And you didn’t answer my question “who are people allowed to invest in and not be fair game for having their life savings destroyed by activists?”

    And on top of that you can answer the question I posed way back on the original post - “what exactly did the “best environmental hoax” achieve?”

  • 13
    Scott
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    From the ASIC website:

    Each of the criminal charges of making a false or misleading statement under section 1041E of the Corporations Act carries a penalty of $495,000 or more or imprisonment for 10 years or both.”

    I think he needs to get a lawyer quickly.

  • 14
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Good to hear Scott-

    Microseris - I hope you don’t have any finance sector shares either given they finance all the mines, airlines, manufacturers et el.

  • 15
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Question: what responsibility does a media outlet have for publishing material which turns out to be a hoax? Surely, since any idiot can make up a fake media release and fax it into ‘the media’, isn’t it incumbent on ‘the media’ to fact check? After all, if nobody published it, this hoax could not have got started.
    Also, surely the Corporations Act does not apply to some showoff mug bullshitting in the pub and having his mate pass on the bullshit to the stock exchange? I know we aren’t experts here but “a false and misleading statement under section 1041E of the Corporations Act” would have to be something more than an unattributed fax - surely?

  • 16
    Pedantic, Balwyn
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Charlie McColl. Professional media journos should check their facts before publication; and if not them, the sub editors, editors etc.
    But in the current media environment there is only one stratagem publish and be damned!!We can always print an apology on Page 20, days afterwards!
    Leveson come down to Australia and sort out our mob, except Crikey.

  • 17
    dogspear
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Po mum and dad investors? Give me a violin and a break. One of the basic tenets of classical capitalist economics is an informed consumer base which includes the related absence of externalities (like wider social and environmental damage) underpinning a magical market output of some kind of true value. Anything which sheds light on the true cost of things, or heaven forbid, makes consumers *think* about their desired products and related actions, should be part of the assumed formula resulting in increased wellbeing, rationality and intelligence that are fundamental to the exponential ride to utopia..
    If there were no ethical or environmental issues to be at least considered, the “hoax” would have had no consequence.
    Why people are encouraged by a capitalist faithful government to invest in something PURELY based on speculation some other zombie consumers might think similarly and not because it has some intrinsic worth or recognised tangibly beneficial quality is putting society on an exponential ride to irrational idiotopia.
    And yes, trading in shares does have an ethical consideration (ie real world effect) as speculation is absurdly the name of the game, and more logically, the market equilibrium is put simply a balance between demand and supply.
    I hope all you naysayers fall off your aspirational ladder and break a moron bone.

  • 18
    Scott
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    @ Hugh mccoll

    You do realize that when the press rang the number on the fax, he posed as a legitimate anz media person and confirmed the info? This wasn’t a guy talking rubbish at the pub. This was a deliberate attack on the share price of the company.
    In fact, it was a little too sophisticated for a green group to think up on their own. If I were into conspiracy theories, I would be thinking that they were fed the strategy by an investment fund that made a nice 10/15% return in a few hours by shorting the stock. The perfect crime, with the perfect patsy…environmentalists.

  • 19
    syzygium
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    He he. The poor aspirational mum and pop battler small scale investor. Somehow, I think they’ll get by. Crikey I hope you don’t get the wrong idea from the sanctimonious outrage posted here. My only complaint is I think Tim DeChrstopher should have been much more highly ranked. That was a beaut!

  • 20
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Misleading, tendentious, obfuscatory (or, in the Latin, B/S,),statements, rumours and lies are what the Market is about - the soi disant ‘invisible hand’ which is always in your pocket.
    How anyone can ever be prosecuted for insider trading is beyond me as that is the essence of commerciality.
    How many corporate titans got to the top by spinning glossy prospectus into the public domain?
    Some names spring to mind, Bond, Winkler, Woody, Rhinohide etc.

  • 21
    Jimmy
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    I wonder if those here pooh poohing the impact on the small investor (the only ones really effected by the stunt with no point) would feel the same if an activist came and ripped out their Air Conditioner or Flat Screen TV to make a statement about energy consumption.

    For some reason I don’t think so.

  • 22
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    People have defended this action as civil disobedience. But civil disobedience is directed towards a bad law. No one here says that the law cited by Scott is bad. What laws would Mr. Moylan not be justified in breaking in order to publicise his cause ?

  • 23
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    A Whitehaven spokesman on ABC RN this morning said their project was “the largest of its size in the world”. Hmmm.
    Scott, the way you put it, the hoaxer could quite easily have been sitting at the bar with his mate, waiting for a media call. I imagine he was amazed at the response. If an investor reads some financial information in a newspaper or on a news website and then acts on it without any further inquiry whatsoever, and blows his money, well….. he’d have to be the largest mug of his size in the world.

  • 24
    Jimmy
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Hugh - “. If an investor reads some financial information in a newspaper or on a news website and then acts on it without any further inquiry whatsoever, and blows his money, well….. he’d have to be the largest mug of his size in the world.” Really Hugh? You would read something in AFR which includes quotes from the ANZ, then watch the share price plunge but still set about doing “your own research”? Where would this research come from? Just pick up the phone to the Whitehaven CEO and ask? And if the report had of been confirmed by the CEO how much more money would you have lost by being slow to act?

  • 25
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Jimmy, if the AFR has such flimsy protocols (and I mean dismally non-existent protocols) for these kinds of announcements then it’s amazing we have a stock exchange at all. Don’t tell me nothing will be done about these protocols which I’m sure exist and I guess have been flouted or completely ignored. And someone has probably been ‘counselled’.

  • 26
    Jimmy
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Hugh - Yes the protocols will be improved (at least you would hope) but that doesn’t change the fact that the small investor got information from a trusted source that included a quote from the ANZ, saw the price plunge and acted in what they beli eved were their best interests.
    You say you would have done more research but considering the issue was time sensitive (ie the stock was falling fast) and the average investor doesn’t have access to anyone at the company who would actually know anything how would you have done this research and how much would you have been prepared to lose before acting?

  • 27
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Jimmy, if I was a small investor I would have just discovered that the AFR, the SMH or the Australian (etc) cannot be a ‘trusted source’ (period) if they are not required by law (such as the Corporations Act) to rigidly adhere to prescribed protocols. In other words - I think it’s a waste of time pursuing the hoaxer, far more productive to pursue the publisher for apparently (I repeat, apparently) dispensing with time-honoured protocols in such a way as to invite mistakes. I can’t see how they are not culpable. It is unbelievable to me that such material can be released into the public space without any functional consultation. A phone call to an unknown person on an uncheckable number (sitting in the pub with his mate) is not consultation. It is not fact checking. This is kids stuff.

  • 28
    Jimmy
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Hugh - So while the share price plunged how would you have confirmed the accuracy, and if the papers had been accurate how much of a loss would you have suffered while doing you checking?

  • 29
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Jimmy, the share price would not have plunged.

  • 30
    Guest
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Greens’ praise for anti-coal hoax proves their extremism - Abetz..

    but not quite as extreme as jumping into illegal immoral wars based on lies against people who were never a threat to anyone resulting in the murder of millions of innocent men women and children.,

    seems wanton destruction is fine, anything else is extreme

  • 31
    fractious
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    @ Guest, but of course. Anything left of Erica is “extreme”, didn’t you get the memo?

    I heard Gus the Weimeraner (aka Avanda Manstone) using ABC 702 the other day (they had her on because of some claptrap she’d typed on inspirational citizens) as a platform for her jaundiced views on minority governments.
    The tl;dr was:
    Labor + Greens + independents (ffs) = bad.

  • 32
    MJPC
    Posted Friday, 11 January 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    So the poor Mum and Dad investors took a shock…I wonder if they will be as shocked in coming years where their investments in yesterdays’ technnology has helped to well and truly stuff this planet.
    Capitalism in its many forms is rapacious in its need to consume and destroy the environment. As for Abetz and his ilk, all their bleating about their concern for climate change lasts as long as it doesn’t affect their mates down the big end of town.

  • 33
    Stefan Landherr
    Posted Friday, 11 January 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Comment #2:
    “Wonder if he will still be smiling then”

    From story in Sydney morning Herald today.
    “Usually outspoken and boisterous, Mr Moylan was far more subdued on Thursday, as the potential consequences sank in”.

    http://www.smh.com.au/business/moylan-camp-is-feeling-the-heat-in-more-ways-than-one-20130110-2cj49.html#ixzz2He60jfa8

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