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January 7, 2001

The Long and Winding Cyberhoax: Political Theater on the Web


IT'S well known that some regions of cyberspace — Internet chat rooms, for instance — are rife with poseurs and imaginary characters. But the World Wide Web is also a breeding ground for more elaborate deceptions, as demonstrated by the following cautionary tale about gall and gullibility in the information age.

The story begins with www.gatt.org, which looks at first glance like an official Web site of the World Trade Organization, the five-year-old Switzerland-based successor to the organization that oversaw the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Unfortunately for the organizers of an October legal seminar on international trade in Salzburg, Austria, a glance was all they gave it before clicking on the "contact" link and sending a speaking invitation to Mike Moore, the W.T.O.'s director-general.

Big mistake: it turns out the site is run by the Yes Men, a loose-knit group of anti-free-trade activists that views hoaxes as a legitimate weapon of protest.

Excerpts of what transpired follow, culled from e-mail correspondence and faxes posted at www.theyesmen.org/wto.


It didn't take long for the Yes Men to accept the invitation in Mr. Moore's name, with a caveat:

Thank you for your kind invitation.

I may not be able to attend personally, but I would like very much to send a substitute. Would this be possible? Please let me know and I will begin the search process.

Thank you,

Mike Moore

The director of the seminar's sponsor was happy to oblige:

Dear Mr. Moore:

Michael Devine advises me that you wish to send a staff member to speak at the 26-29 October conference in Salzburg.

If you will confirm name of the individual and contact information, I will have further information sent.

Regards, Dennis Campbell

Center for International Legal Studies

At this point, Charles Cushen, a computer programmer in Los Angeles who had been masquerading as Mr. Moore and "Alice Foley," Mr. Moore's secretary, created Andreas Bichlbauer (choosing the name at random from a Vienna phone book), and made travel arrangements for Dr. Bichlbauer and two "security agents," including a cameraman. Dr. Bichlbauer raised eyebrows with his speech, titled "Trade Regulation Relaxation and Concepts of Incremental Improvement: Governing Perspectives from 1970 to the Present":

Dear Ms. Foley:

We were somewhat puzzled by Dr. Bichlbauer's participation at the conference. . . .

The essential thrust of his speech appeared to be that Italians have a lesser work ethic than the Dutch, that Americans would be better off auctioning their votes in the presidential election to the highest bidder and that the primary role of the W.T.O. was to create a one-world culture.

In the late afternoon, a cameraman (I think it was the same one who filmed Dr. Bichlbauer's speech) appeared at the hotel and sought to interview our delegates. He said Dr. Bichlbauer had been hit in the face with a pie outside the hotel and wanted to know if the delegates thought Dr. Bichlbauer's speech had provoked the attack. . . .

Several of our delegates (including work-ethic impaired Italians) approached me to express concern about the speech, the alleged pie incident and the cameraman who sought interviews in the late afternoon.

Your clarification will be appreciated.

Regards, Dennis Campbell

Alice Foley's immediate reply:

Indeed you are correct, Dr. Bichlbauer was in fact "pied" after speaking at the Salzburg C.I.L.S. conference. At present we are not completely certain of all the details, but it appears that the cameraman you mention had something to do with it. . . . This cameraman . . . seems to have essentially been an agent provocateur who planned the pieing from the start. . . .

We hope you understand that this sort of incident reflects primarily the unfortunate circumstances under which the W.T.O. must accomplish its work, and that our security can never be entirely adequate to the situations we face.

After another message from Mr. Campbell in which he reiterated that some delegates found Dr. Bichlbauer's remarks offensive or flippant, the doctor offered his side of the story:

I was disappointed to hear from Alice Foley that some people in the audience on Saturday disliked my lecture. . . . Those who were upset by the lecture were clearly unreceptive to any message departing from the simple W.T.O. "party line" as it is presented in larger arenas. At this conference we hoped to examine this "party line" through repackaging in a clearer and more carefully delineated fashion, for the sake of more lucid examination and a greater awareness of "issue extremes" for use in more politic descriptions — those intended for the consumption of larger blocs of the consuming public. . . .

Two days later, hoping to elicit further response, Mr. Cushen slipped again into his Mr. Moore persona:

Dear Professor Campbell:

I was dismayed to learn of your unfortunate experience with our representative, Andreas Bichlbauer. . . . I will recommend that Dr. Bichlbauer be required to attend a refresher course on public speaking, communication and policy before any further appearances on behalf of the W.T.O. . . .

However, having examined the presentation exhaustively, I am forced to conclude that never in any particulars do Dr. Bichlbauer's statements . . . depart from the spirit — if not the precise letter — of our intentions and aims. That is, while we of course do not advocate vote-selling or siesta-banning at the present time, it is quite true that efficiency and the streamlining of culture and politics in the interests of economic liberalization is at the core of the W.T.O.'s programme, and such practices as described by Dr. Bichlbauer are useful in clarifying the long-range interests of global development as promoted by our organization and others.

On Nov. 1, Alice Foley had more bad news for Professor Campbell:

The situation has, I regret to say, somewhat deteriorated from an already unpleasant state of affairs: Dr. Bichlbauer has contracted a rather serious infection from the pie, which forensic analysis shows contained an active bacillus agent. It is not certain whether foul play was involved. . . . I know that this question will sound harsh, but could any of the lawyers present have been angry enough at Dr. Bichlbauer's lecture to do this? . . .

On Nov. 6, using addresses collected in Salzburg, Alice Foley e-mailed six conference participants with the message that Dr. Bichlbauer was near death from his infection and concluding:

Please, please let us know if anything at the conference struck you as strange, or if you can imagine anyone performing this masterpiece of cowardice, that so threatens to delete Dr. Bichlbauer from our midst in the prime of his usefulness.

A similar e-mail message sent two weeks later to 77 delegates elicited a range of responses, most indicating that the insult to Italian work habits had made the biggest impression. Dr. Bichlbauer's death was announced via e-mail on Nov. 27. The legal center's response on Nov. 29 provided the first clear sign that it finally recognized the hoax and asked the Yes Men to "let it rest." Alice Foley issued the following pseudo-clarification to the delegates:

Those who found Dr. Bichlbauer's talk "peculiar," "puzzling" and so on were alert to a situation that has only now become clear to our overcentralized eyes: Dr. Bichlbauer was an impostor! . . . He, his "security guard" and his "cameraman" . . . belong, it turns out, to an anti-trade cabal called "The Yes Men," whose interests run exactly counter to our own, and who will stoop to any level whatsoever to make points. (The point they were attempting to make with this trickery, according to the handwritten letter which we received by this morning's post, had something to do with "corporate power" and "democracy," though the syntax and handwriting of the letter are, truth be told, too execrable to make much of. . . . It is of course extremely embarrassing to us that we can have been conned, like common dowagers, in this way. . . .

Postscript: A W.T.O. spokesman said last week that while his organization deplored the Yes Men's deceptive Web site and the hoax, it respects the nature of the Internet as a forum for free expression. Mr. Cushen said "Mr. Moore" had recently received an invitation to a textile conference in Finland and that his group was hoping to scrape together the money needed to send a successor to Dr. Bichlbauer. "We think the ethical thing to do is to represent the W.T.O. more honestly than they represent themselves," he said.

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