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How To fake a Terrorist-Attack without AI
Lessons from old media hoaxes, revisited
Yesterday, some cheapo Twitter-account faked a terrorist-attack on the Pentagon using Midjourney. Russia Today, a Kremlin run “media outlet“ spreading propaganda picked up the fake image, sharing them to its three million followers. I don’t think this hoax had a big impact, the only tweets i saw about this came from desinformation researcher Renee DiResta and afaik, nobody took this seriosly.
So, here’s how to do it right.
15 years ago a friend and colleague of mine who runs an agency for guerilla marketing called me up and asked if i was interested to take part in an elaborate media hoax.
He does this for a living, and he’s pretty good at it. Most of his clients come from the movie industry and, for instance, for the movie The Dictator with Sacha Borat Cohen, he hacked the international tourist faire in Berlin where he set up a booth for the fake country from the movie (which was coincidentally and fantastically suited right next to the booth of North Korea), organized a large military parade including camels and a tank, while german celebrity Olli Schulz moderated a fake news segment about that thing. It was pretty wild. (I found an old german posting on that one, but it didn’t really go viral back then, in contrast the media hoax I’m going to tell you about next.)
Welcome to Bluewater, California
The movie itself revolves around a guy who found himself in his thirties having nothing achieved in his life and who draws the conclusion to make it big in America, making his way to the top by faking a terrorist attack and finally cutting off his own limbs, bodypart by bodypart, for media attention. It’s a pretty nifty and underrated german media satire, and to promote it, we faked a terrorist attack in an imaginary town called Bluewater.
Beforehand, they produced short viral clips of a fake boyband from the movie who might or might not be connected to the attack. He hired actors who sat in his Berlin office and talked to journalists on the phone all day, pretending to work at a local TV station in the fake town of Bluewater in California. We played fake police sounds on the street outside the office to make it more convincing regarding background noises, there were actors involved in the office only to run around and ramp up the fake panic in that fake TV station.
I was the guy who designed the fake website for the fake town, and I ran roughly two dozen Twitter-accounts who talked to each other plus fake Twitter-accounts pretending to be from the local police department and beforementioned TV station. It was a different time back then, we didn’t talk too much about desinformation and making dozens of fake Twitter-accounts was as easy as 1 2 3.
We purposefully created an atmosphere of chaos and paranoia and tried to confuse the shit out of traditional media outlets, who, in this new digital environment, had to choose between “Publish This Piece Of Hot Breaking News Now“ or “Wait And Confirm From Independent Sources While Making Sure Those Sources Actually Exist In Real Life“.
They chose the former and after maybe 15 minutes or so, the press finally took the bait. For a good while that morning, our elaborate piece of fake news was pretty much everywhere.
Snip from the german wikipedia page on the incident, translated by ChatGPT with some small edits by me:
First, at 9:38 a.m., the German Press Agency (dpa) released the news, believing it to be an exclusive report. Within minutes, it was picked up and disseminated by other news outlets. Shortly after the initial report, the initiators published a correction, which was also fake: the individuals involved were not attackers but rather german rappers who stormed a restaurant with fake bombs to gain media attention. This corrected news too was disseminated by the German Press Agency at 10:06 a.m. Approximately four hours after the initial breaking news, the German Press Agency issued a retraction, alerting its customers that they had fallen for a forgery.
After the whole hoax was said and done and the dust had settled, a well known media-journalist who was involved from the beginning wrote two pieces on his blog, which already won him multiple awards for critizising yellowpress. You can find them here and here. Remarkably, later that week, editor in chief from the german press agency dpa released a note in the agencies intranet, containing “6 lessons from Bluewater“, introducing new rules for handling breaking news.
At least for germany, this was maybe the first time a big media hoax exposed the dangers of these new digital media environments, while also making fun of attention whores and junk journalism who will do anything for a buck.
That morning, we did Fake News before it was cool, and as we all can see today, we learned… not so much.
This is how you fake a terrorist attack.