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WikiLeaks punks The New York Times with op-ed hoax

Two columnists unwittingly spread fake editorial

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Early on Sunday, columnists Nick Bilton and Bill Keller of The New York Times both reposted Twitter links to an essay by Keller on the subject of WikiLeaks. There was just one problem: The linked essay wasn't actually Keller's, but an elaborate hoax designed to discredit both him and the newspaper.

WikiLeaks itself has since taken credit for the prank on its own Twitter feed, saying, "Yes. We admit it. WikiLeaks (Assange & co) and our great supporters where [sic] behind the successful NYTimes banking blockade hoax on @nytkeller."

The pranksters published the essay to the URL "www.opinion-nytimes.com" using a web layout identical to that of the newspaper's opinion pages, then promoted it using a Twitter account disguised to look like Keller's.

Where Keller's actual account is @nytkeller, the fake account replaced one of the lowercase Ls with an uppercase I, a change that's almost invisible when rendered in sans-serif type. Twitter users noticed the post and passed it on without properly verifying it – including, it seems, the unwitting columnists.

All three Twitter @nytkeller-lookalike accounts using Is in place of Ls have since been blocked.

The fake essay, entitled, "WikiLeaks, A Post Postscript," was styled as a follow-up to "WikiLeaks, A Postscript," an earlier, legitimate editorial in which Keller derided WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as "a B-list celebrity" and argued that the whistleblower outfit had not changed the world all that much.

"The most palpable legacy of the WikiLeaks campaign for transparency is that the US government is more secretive than ever," Keller wrote.

The hoax editorial pretends Keller has done something of an about-face on the WikiLeaks issue, in light of calls by Republican legislators for The New York Times journalists to be tried under the Espionage Act for recent investigative reports on US foreign policy.

It further paints Keller as a government patsy who has butted heads with WikiLeaks in the past, not because of how he feels about its efficacy as an organization, but because he believes news reporting should only be done with "government checks and balances" in place:

Had The Times had exclusive access to the WikiLeaks cables, we could have pursued a similar government-review-before-publication policy, thus safeguarding national security from legal and public scrutiny. Though I must say I have yet to hear of any actual harm or consequences from the nearly 260,000 cables released in 2010.

The fake Keller goes on to say that although he believes journalism "should work in unison with government," he believes it is wrong for MasterCard, PayPal, Visa, and other payment-processing companies to block funds intended for WikiPedia, and he worries that they may soon do the same to his employer.

Once Bilton and the real Keller realized their mistake in helping to publicize the hoax, they quickly deleted their original Twitter posts and Keller posted a correction EMPHASIZING THAT THE ESSAY REALLY, REALLY WASN'T BY HIM.

For many WikiLeaks supporters, however, the point had been made, and loudly. Twitter poster @JLLLOW wrote, "The joke is that many found 'fake' Keller's stunning self-interest and professional hypocrisy believable enough to attribute to him."

But others felt that for WikiLeaks to cross the line into Anonymous-style "pranktivism" was a serious misstep.

"I say it's a nadir for Wikileaks," Jay Rosen, media critic and professor of journalism at New York University, wrote in a Twitter post. "Their ship was launched on the sea of verification. They just sunk it. For attention." ®

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