For an hour, at least 300 million people believe the impossible has occurred. And then they're left wondering: why didn't it?
On November 29, 2004, an email comes in to DowEthics.com, our fake Dow Chemical website. (Coming soon: the long and twisting story of how that website came to be, and how it came to be often mistaken for the real thing. Hint: it was Dow's fault!)
The email, from a staffer at BBC World Television, is asking Dow Chemical whether a company representative could come in to discuss Dow's position on the 1984 Bhopal tragedy—on Dec. 3, the catastrophe's 20th anniversary, and just 6 days from then.
We can hardly believe our eyes. If it's real, it's the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to say, in front of 350 million people (the viewership of BBC World, according to our email invitation)... well, something. And that something, if we decide well, could change the lives of thousands of survivors of the 1984 tragedy, and maybe millions of others. But if it's fake....
We're pretty sure it's fake, actually. We decide it's a police trap, an irresistible honeypot that will get us into a place where the police can easily nab us (as if they couldn't just find us at home). There's no evidence for this theory, but it's easier to believe it than to believe the actual truth: that we're headed into a golden opportunity to do something so valuable, so useful, that if we flub it, we've really flubbed huge and will probably regret it intensely for years.
Knowing underneath our useful paranoia that it actually is most likely real, we act accordingly. We write back and let the BBC know—to their immense surprise—that Dow would be absolutely delighted to appear. We let them know that the BBC's "usual spokesperson" will be in Paris on Dec. 3, so could we do it there? Andy is already living in Paris, for one thing. For another, we figure there will be a lot less scrutiny of the "Dow representative" at a subsidiary office in France than at the big central HQ in London. It's settled: Mr. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth's end) will represent Dow on Dec. 3, in less than one week.
What to do?
We scramble to figure out what to do. We immediately call up our friend Gillo at Greenpeace, who got the whole thing started back in 2002, and he puts us in touch with the Greenpeace Bhopal campaign folks. They help us to brainstorm what exactly to do with the five or so minutes we'll be allotted.
We consider embodying the psychopathic monster that is Dow by explaining in frank terms how they (a) don't give a rat's ass about the people of Bhopal and (b) wouldn't do anything to help them even if they did. Which they don't. This would be familiar territory for Andy: he did something similar representing the WTO on CNBC's Marketwrap, but no one seemed to notice it had happened, and no press resulted. Also, that was basically what our 2002 Dow Chemical press release had stated, and although that did garner a New York Times story and the infiltration of search engines that resulted in this current mistake, it wasn't exactly a viral sensation...
The idea this time being to get coverage of the anniversary in the US—specifically, coverage linking "Dow" and "Bhopal," since most people at that point don't even know that Dow purchased Union Carbide, the company originally responsible for the catastrophe—we decide on a different approach: Jude will announce a radical new direction for the company, one in which Dow takes full responsibility for the disaster. We will lay out a straightforward ethical path for Dow to follow to compensate the victims, clean up the plant site, and otherwise help make amends for the worst industrial disaster in history. It will be impossible for Dow not to react in some way, which should generate tons of press.
There are some risks to this approach. It could offer false hope—or rather, false certainty—to people who have suffered 20 years of false hopes that Dow and Union Carbide would do the right thing. But all hopes are false until they're realized, and what's an hour of false hope to 20 years of unrealized ones? If it works, this could focus a great deal of media attention on the issue, especially in the US, where the Bhopal anniversary has often gone completely unnoticed. Who knows—it could even somehow force Dow's hand.
We decide to show how another world is possible, and to direct any questions about false hopes for justice in Bhopal directly to Dow.
Another problem we anticipate is that this could result in some backlash for the BBC. This is bothersome, because they have covered Bhopal very well, infinitely better than what we're used to in the US. We would much rather hoax CBS, ABC, NBC, or Fox, but none of those could give that rat's ass about Bhopal, which is why none of those has approached us.
In any case, it didn't seem to hurt CNBC when "Granwyth Hulatberi" appeared as WTO spokesperson. It had been a simple mistake, we told ourselves. Intelligent people would not question the excellence of BBC's overall coverage because of an unavoidable error, especially if it were caught quickly and provided for some interesting discussion that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
The day of the interview
On the day of the interview, we wake up early and put on our thrift-store suits. Andy nervously runs through his answers once more while Mike fumbles with cameras. A crowded metro ride later, we arrive at the BBC's Paris studio. "Jude" is seated in front of a green screen and waits.
At 9am GMT, Dow's spokesperson appears live on the BBC World Service in front of the Eiffel Tower. He is ecstatic to make the announcement: Dow will accept full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, and has a $12 billion dollar plan to compensate the victims and remediate the site. (Dow will raise the $12 billion by liquidating Union Carbide, which cost them that much to acquire.) Also, to provide a sense of closure to the victims, Dow will push for the extradition of Warren Anderson, former Union Carbide CEO, to India, which he fled following his arrest 20 years ago on multiple homicide charges. (Watch the broadcast.)
When it's over, the studio technician is happy about what she has heard. "What a nice thing to announce," she says.
"I wouldn't work for Dow if I didn't believe in it," replies Andy matter-of-factly.
We expect the story to be retracted immediately, but Dow takes two hours to notice that alas and alack, it's done the right thing. The full interview therefore runs twice, and for two hours the story is the top item on news.google.com. CNN reports a Dow stock loss of 2 billion dollars on the German exchange. After Dow notes emphatically that it is not in fact going to do right by those non-shareholders in Bhopal, the retraction remains the top Google story for the rest of the day.
Back at Andy's apartment, we help Dow express itself more fully by mailing out a more formal retraction: "Dow will NOT commit ANY funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care.... Dow will NOT remediate (clean up) the Bhopal plant site.... Dow's sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law." For a while, this—as reprinted in Men's News Daily, a reactionary drivel bucket that doesn't realize our Dow release is fake, and doesn't mind what it says—becomes the top story on news.google.com.
"Whatever be the circumstances under which the news was aired, we will get $12 billion from Dow sooner than later," one Bhopali activist is quoted as saying. But the "false hope" question does come up in some pieces, especially in the UK. Much as we try to convince ourselves it was worth it, we cannot get rid of the nagging doubt. Did we deeply upset many Bhopalis?
We're also bothered that the BBC has taken the fall, and that this has somehow called the BBC's credibility into question. It shouldn't. The BBC, as soon as Dow finally noticed that "Jude Finisterra" wasn't theirs, promptly and prominently retracted the story. There was no net misinformation. In fact there was significantly more information as a result, since more people knew about Bhopal and Dow, especially in the US. (We believe that the real credibility problem is when big media outlets systematically and for months on end unquestioningly mouth the assertions of a lying, scheming crook of a president—which they did with George W. Bush's lies about WMDs, for example. It's thanks to those well-amplified lies that the crook in question was able to wage a war with 100,000 civilian casualties on a country that very clearly posed zero threat. Some outlets did issue quiet, late apologies and mea culpas—but that hardly mattered.)
Throughout the day, we are deluged with email, almost all of it positive. Later, the BBC calls again: they want us back at the studio. Yeah, right! No, really—they want us on for another show, to talk about what has happened. Against our better judgment we go—and arrive to find four smiling staffers. "Where are the cops?" Andy asks, and the staffers actually laugh. Another interview on Channel 4, and the day is finally over.
For a month we worry that we created "false hopes" and upset any Bhopalis. Did we deeply upset many Bhopalis? Then, at an anti-WEF meeting in Davos, we learn the truth. There, as we're telling our story, and trying as best we can to respond to an audience question about the "false hopes," Rachna Dhingra stands up and lets us know very clearly that our action was enormously appreciated in Bhopal—at least by that evening, when they understood just why we had done it.
We also come to realize just why the UK press focused so much on the "false hopes" angle: everyone in the UK seems to know about Bhopal and Dow, perhaps because of their historical connection to India and large Indian population. From the POV of the British public, indeed our action made little sense, and news reports raised the "why" as an obvious question.
But Brits weren't the audience for whom it was intended. It was intended for Americans, to publicize the fact that Dow, rather than Union Carbide, was responsible for this disaster. And indeed, there were 600 articles in the US press about the hoax. Each of those articles had to explain from the ground up what the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe was, and just why Dow was the target rather than the defunct Union Carbide. That was the whole point of the exercise, so in a way we can consider it a huge success.
One year later, we visited London on the way to Bhopal, India (see excerpt for the Bhopal visit). Andy decided to go around asking regular Londoners whether they remembered the hoax Dow announcement on the BBC World Service from about one year ago. With one or two exceptions, nobody did. Even those who knew the Dow anniversary was coming up had trouble remembering anything about it.
Which goes to show: even the biggest news story is just a blip. Most people who remember this hoax today do so not because it was top of the news way back when, but because it was featured in our second movie, as the key element of our narrative.
And that's a lesson about documentation, and why it's so critical. Whether it's a movie, or a little video, or a written piece, your own storytelling is ultimately all that will be left of your action. Everything else will evaporate.