Anatomy of a hoax

Around about Monday lunchtime news of a spoof Shell site appeared on my network via Richard Heap’s Twitter account @richheap.


The site was eerily reminiscent of a crowdsourcing advertising stunt that General Motors had done six years ago to get a new advert for one of its large SUVs, The Chevrolet Tahoe. This was then hijacked by environmentalists, which set alarm bells off in the back of my head because this example is well known amongst the kind of people likely to be counseling Shell – a crowdsourcing site of this nature would be well supervised or just not happened as the reputational risk was too great.

Looking at the page source and and web console views (using the Firefox browser) for both ArcticReady.com and Shell.com showed that they were both similar, which made me wonder why ArcticReady.com domain was not just a redirect to a shell micro-site rather than apparently different site but built exactly the same. Some nice touches for authenticity included submitted artwork like this one below, which made it look like there was an agency asleep at the wheel:
trolled
How to spot it as fake:

The definitive evidence for me was looking at the WHOIS report for the domain:

Registrant: c/o ARCTICREADY.COM P.O. Box 821650 Vancouver, WA 98682 US Registrar: Domain.com

Domain Name: ARCTICREADY.COM Created on: 29-APR-12

Expires on: 29-APR-13 Last Updated on: 09-MAY-12

Administrative Contact: UIzZJb@PRIVACYPOST.COM c/o ARCTICREADY.COM P.O. Box 821650 Vancouver, WA 98682 US +1.360-449-5933

Technical Contact: KHJlKb@PRIVACYPOST.COM c/o ARCTICREADY.COM P.O. Box 821650 Vancouver, WA 98682 US +1.360-449-5933

Domain servers in listed order: A.NS.MAYFIRST.ORG B.NS.MAYFIRST.ORG

Here is the key information that the WHOIS record provides you. Firstly, the organisers who registered their domain did a reasonable amount of work to hide who they were.

The privacypost.com domain name used in the email address belongs to a company that provides privacy services to domain name registrars. For someone like Shell I would have expected a contact detail of sorts or maybe even the details of the agency responsible. But I’ve used privacy offerings by registrars before so this isn’t completely out of the question.

The name servers that point to where the website sites was more interesting. Mayfirst.org is a ‘politically progressive’ internet service provider. Whoever set the website up chose to use a hosting provider that wasn’t likely to buckle on first contact with the legal department of a large oil company. They aren’t the kind of provider that Shell or an agency would go to.  This is the big telltale sign.

Greenpeace then showed their hand as reports of closed Shell service stations affected by direct action started to appear on the news.

Ethics

Whilst the environment is important, and the issues surrounding deep-sea drilling in the Arctic deserve greater analysis; I was concerned about the quality of the site. It was not obvious that it was fake or satire fooling many of the the great and the good in the industry.

Instead it masqueraded as a groundswell of community action – what I would have called sock puppetry. As for the site itself, I have seen apparently successful phishing attacks built with less convincing sites.

Which brings me to a larger point. I am concerned the way organisations like Greenpeace are prepared to deceive the general public through online stunts like this. Yet if an opponent used similarly deceptive tactics there would be hell to pay. In the war of public opinion the first casualty is truth, if organisations are prepared to trample on that, how much further are they prepared to go?

There is no moral high ground of conduct, no discourse, there is only the dogmatic belief of the religious extremist; and it is that dogmatism which I find so distasteful. A website like this is the first step on a slippery slope. Not one that was slide down at great speed but in salami slices over time, which is the way moral transgressions usually progress – until you reach a place you never thought you would be and don’t really understand how you got there.