Satire, George Kaufman once said, is what closes on Saturday night. And if that doesn’t happen, some corporations may try to close it down in court.
In December, a fake news release was sent out by a group claiming to be Koch Industries, the oil processing company owned by Charles and David Koch, the Republican donors, arts benefactors and global warming skeptics.
Under the headline “Koch Industries Announces New Environmental Commitments,” the fake release said that after “a recent internal and thorough company review,” the company would be “restructuring its support of climate change research and advocacy initiatives.”
Months later, the company, based in Wichita, Kansas, is still pursuing the identities of the members of the group that claimed responsibility for the prank, Youth for Climate Truth.
In a lawsuit, it is demanding damages including “costs -associated with spending time and money to respond to inquiries about the fake release,” as well as “investigative and legal expenses” in pursuing the tricksters.
A first step for Koch was to go to court in Utah to compel an Internet service provider (ISP) to provide information on who set up the Web site cited in the release and thus determine who could be sued. (The group’s lawyer, Deepak Gupta of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, is so confident that its actions are protected by the Constitution that he contends that lifting anonymity must be the purpose of the lawsuit.)
The episode goes to the heart of the one of paradoxes of the digital age. On the Internet, parody and mockery have never been easier to pull off. During the BP oil spill last year, the Twitter feed BPGlobalPR, with stinging, oafish comments purporting to represent the company’s public relations staff, had more than 10 times as many followers as the official one, BP_America.
However, the digital age also makes it possible to trace the parody to its origins in a way that wasn’t possible in an analog world. The English pamphleteer and -rabble-rouser who wrote as Junius in the 18th century has never been definitively identified, but then, Junius didn’t have to register with an ISP.
“We assumed they would be upset about it, but we had no guess that they would go to the level of a lawsuit. It’s ridiculous and overblown. What we did is completely acceptable, as parody,” said one of the anonymous pranksters in a telephone interview arranged by Gupta.
As spoofs go, the fake Koch news release wasn’t particularly spoofy. Tom Zeller Jr, who covers environmental issues, was among the reporters who immediately sussed out the release’s bogusness, noting that its content was quite implausible, that the affiliated Web site had only recently been registered and that its address was the clunky koch-inc.com.
Zeller’s first reporting on the release was to note that it was a spoof, though he conceded the fake news “might have caused some climate campaigners’ hearts to flutter momentarily.”
Koch is used to sparring with environmentalists about its financing of climate change skeptics. A couple of weeks ago, Greenpeace sent an airship with the message “Koch Brothers: Dirty Money” over the Kochs’ property in California, where they were having a strategy meeting about financing conservative causes.
However, parody is a well--protected form of free speech, so in this case, the Koch company is resorting to an indirect legal theory in order to get private information from the ISP.