BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a New Yorker cartoon of a dog sitting in front of a computer tapping a keyboard, and the caption reads: On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. It turns out no one knows if you're Dow Chemical either. Activists have learned the fine art of perfectly mimicking corporate web sites and filling them with ironic, caustic, would-be promotional copy. For example the very official-looking fake Dow Chemical web site crassly excuses that company's involvement in the gas leak that killed over 20,000 people in Bhopal, India in December of '84. The fake web site has enraged the real Dow Chemical and the PR firm that represents it, Burson-Marsteller, which also by the way has its very own fake web site courtesy of our guest, Hampshire College sophomore Paul Hardwin. Burson-Marsteller is now suing Hardwin and it's easy to see why. The fake web sites are filled with incriminating copy, but they look identical to the real ones.
PAUL HARDWIN: Well, it's interesting because as an imposter you have a lot more credibility on the internet. So if I was walking around, claiming to be Burson-Marsteller in person it, it wouldn't go over too well. I'd, I'd get arrested pretty quickly. [LAUGHTER] But on the net companies are still just sort of figuring out how to flex their muscle. They're being outsmarted a lot faster than they can respond. The, the purpose of this project is to highlight what happened in Bhopal on the anniversary and to highlight the involvement of the public relations industry and specifically of Burson-Marsteller which did business with all sorts of foreign dictatorships, various corporations with, you know, unethical business practices, etc, etc. So-- But, but it, it began as a project just sort of for fun. I mean a domain named coststendollarstoregister or something like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well what does your fake web site say about Burson-Marsteller that you think enraged them the most?
PAUL HARDWIN:The Dow Chemical site is one of many sites created with a software called Dreamweaver [sp?]. The way it works is you give the software a web site address and you tell it words that you want to switch around, so I have some examples here of words that were switched around. Whenever the software found the term "work force" it replaced it with the term "profit army." The word "community" was replaced with the word "marketplace." The word "peace" was replaced with the words "cheap oil." Basically it's an automated process, so-- you know whereas activism takes a lot of time, you know, you have to make your banner, your puppets, your posters, whatever -- you have to get in a bus - drive to a big city - it's noisy - there's a lot of police around - they beat you up - etc. - this thing, you know, you do it from the comfort of your home - your own home, and it looks like the site is current and-- you know it pulls the site automatically and switches out the words, and so you have a fairly automatic parody machine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well what struck me is how similar the -- your fake web sites are to the original corporate web sites. I was looking at the Dow web site. The real one has a little script at the top that said "Did you know" and then it says "Dow manufacturing experts produce life-saving pharmaceutical products such as Renagel [sp?], a promising new drug for kidney failure patients." Now on your web site, under "Did you know" you write: "Dow is responsible for the birth of the modern environmental movement. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring about the side-effects of a Dow product, DDT -- another example of Dow's commitment to living, improved daily."
PAUL HARDWIN: Improved daily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean that one isn't very subtle, but do you ever wonder that occasionally you are being too subtle for your target audience?
PAUL HARDWIN:Well it's a very specific kind of activism, I think. It's a, it's a new "market" -- it's an "emerging market." [LAUGHTER] I think the, the experience of viewing the web site is, is supposed to be a little bit unsettling. It's not supposed to jump out at you -- so you're supposed to read it and you're supposed to, you know, think about it a little bit and say well-- why are they being so honest? [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And the people that you're reaching are actually people who presumably are looking for the Burson-Marsteller web site or the Dow Chemical web site. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
PAUL HARDWIN: That's right. That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you are certainly not preaching to the converted. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
PAUL HARDWIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Which I guess is why you've elicited some responses like these: Somebody writing "You are evil incarnate! Have you no sense of decency?" And "Is this supposed to make me feel better or is this some mentally deranged person's idea of a joke?" Are you glad you're getting responses like that?
PAUL HARDWIN:There's a lot of lunatics out there. I, I have to think that I'm more credible than Burson-Marsteller, honestly, so I, I trust what I'm putting out there. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well tell me how is the lawsuit going? Are there enough free speech loopholes to let you slip past? Do they have a case?
PAUL HARDWIN: I think they have a really poor case, but I think they are Burson-Marsteller. But it's very difficult to make a case in front of the World Intellectual Property organization that is successful and that successfully counteracts one of these complaints. They, they almost always rule in favor of the complainant, so. It's really about remembering this incident in Bhopal, and it's really about getting some publicity out about this sort of activism and the way that, that corporations are able to shut it down really with a snap of their fingers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what other 900 pound gorillas are you planning to incite?
PAUL HARDWIN:I'm working on several of these sites; I have been for a while. But there's really hundreds of these web sites out there, so-- my advice is if you're going to be contacting a major corporation you, you should use the telephone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Paul Hardwin, good luck and thank you very much.
PAUL HARDWIN: It was great to be here. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Hardwin is a sophomore at Hampshire College and-- he has a big career ahead of him as a troublemaker. [MUSIC TAG]