How bloggers worked the Boston 'bomb hoax'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The latest bomb scare to upset a major US city wasn't the handiwork of the Al Qaeda terror network. This time, it was the Cartoon Network.

It all began Wednesday morning when a transit worker spotted a wired device on a girder underneath Interstate 93. After police found similar devices across the city, they shut down key roads and subway stations and called in federal officials with Homeland Security.

It took most of the day before a worried public would learn that the suspicious devices were merely electronically lit signs depicting a cartoon character known as a Mooninite – and were part of a "guerrilla marketing" campaign by Turner Broadcasting, gone awry. But even as security officials labored to get to the bottom of the incident, a parallel investigation was under way and open to all – in the blogosphere.

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Bloggers claim they were the first to suspect that the "suspicious packages" weren't bombs. In fact, some had been blogging about the Mooninite marketing campaign for weeks, given that similar Mooninite signs had been sighted in other cities over the past couple of weeks.

Online investigators

Boston police haven't said whether the blogs or bloggers played any role in their own investigation, but some security analysts say such online social networks ought to be a prime law-enforcement tool during emergencies – or perceived emergencies.

"Increasingly networked personal communications, combined with the new understandings we have now of the power of social networks, should actually be harnessed for good in terms of dealing with terrorism [or] a situation like Katrina," says W. David Stephenson, a homeland security consultant based in Medfield, Mass.

Police have arrested two local men, Peter Berdvosky and Sean Stevens, and charged them each with one count of planting a hoax device and one count of disorderly conduct. They pleaded not guilty Thursday. If convicted, the men could face up to five years in prison.

Mr. Berdvosky told The Boston Globe he had placed the devices for a marketing firm in New York hired by Cartoon Network and that he considered them to be art installations.

Outside the courthouse Thursday, protesters gathered, arguing against prosecuting the two men. Some bloggers have criticized police officials for overreacting. Some websites even found levity in the situations: Online entrepreneurs were selling "I survived the Mooninite attack" T-shirts, and devices found in other cities were going for as much as $5,000 on eBay.

But, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, the governor, mayor, and police commissioner weren't laughing.

"This has taken a significant toll on our resources," said Ed Davis, Boston police commissioner. He cited the mobilization of emergency teams, bomb-squad units, and state and local police, as well as the shutdowns of major highways and rail traffic. "This has created enormous inconvenience to people in the city."

A costly stunt

The costs of this "Mooninite attack" may be more than $500,000, said Mayor Thomas Menino.

"It's a hoax – and it's not funny," said Gov. Deval Patrick.

Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of Cartoon Network, claimed responsibility Wednesday – some eight hours after the first device came to police attention. The company, in a statement, said the devices were part of a promotion for an animated show called "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and were not meant to resemble bombs.

Chairman and CEO Phil Kent issued an apology to Bostonians and said the ads would be taken down in Boston and nine other cities where they'd been placed.

The show is part of the Cartoon Network's late-night "Adult Swim" lineup that is geared toward college students and young adults. The content includes violence and profanity, though it doesn't push the envelope nearly as much as Comedy Central's "South Park," says Jerry Beck, an animation historian and co-writer on cartoonbrew.com.

The show's main characters are a carton of French fries named Fryloc, a milkshake named Master Shake, and a ball of meat named, appropriately, Meatwad. "It's zany, non sequitur humor," says Mr. Beck. "It's more funny to laugh at it, than with it."

The channel has produced a feature-length "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" film to be released in March, which he expects will benefit from this controversy.

"What could be more subversive than the Man mistaking their publicity material for a terrorist plot?" says Beck. "I'm sure there's a marketing guy – the one who isn't going to prison – who is going to 'fail upward.' "

Several marketing experts, however, disagreed that Cartoon Network would ultimately benefit.

"The notion that all publicity is good publicity made a little more sense when there was very narrow bandwidth for attention, when only a few people got to comment on the event – then you can manage spin," says David Weinberger, a co-author of "The Cluetrain Manifesto," a book about the impact of the Internet on marketing. "If it's just scary or shocking, then we get to see through that and talk about it together."

Even if the publicity results in more revenue, the company faces possible fines as Boston's mayor vows to recover the costs of the police operation.

Hoaxes and fake terror alerts can cost big money.

During the height of the scare over the anthrax letters, one state worker in Connecticut falsely reported finding a powder on his desk. The resulting evacuation and testing cost $1.5 million in lost workers' time and $400,000 in decontamination costs.

Something as simple as hoax e-mails can also take up enormous amounts of time – and therefore money – when factored over millions of recipients. The potential cost of a hoax e-mail that makes the rounds of the Internet could be $41.7 million in lost productivity, according to one rough estimate by William Orvis, head of Hoaxbusters at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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