How do you hijack corporate culture, demoralize employees and derail multi-million dollar marketing campaigns? All too easily, it turns out.
Fueled by the internet and the public’s growing distain for corporate greed, hacktivism is a trend on the rise. Today’s hacktivists use increasingly clever tactics in order to elevate public debate about the way corporations do business. In more cases than not, they succeed.
“What we do—and what you can do too—is impersonate captains of industry, infiltrate corporate events, give absurd and revealing presentations, and then escape to tell the story in the press, hopefully to the great embarrassment of the target,” say the Yes Men, a group of hacktivists that recently punked the likes of Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton, Dow, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the United Nations, among others. “You don’t have to be a James Bond for this. But what you might need is a fake email address and a business card.”
Armed with little other than a fake business card, letterhead and a masterfully worded news release, the Yes Men made a big point 2009 after a U.S. Chamber of Commerce “representative” dramatically announced during a National Press Club event that the Chamber would be changing its position on climate change policy.
“We believe that climate legislation currently being considered by the U.S. Senate is a great start towards a bill that will spur American innovation, create jobs, and give us all a good chance of survival,” the forged news release said. “We at the Chamber have tried to keep climate science from interfering with business. But without a stable climate, there will be no business.”
The hoax circulated virally on You Tube and mainstream television, calling public attention to the growing number of corporations – including Nike, Apple, Exelon, PNM Resources, PG&E, PSEG and Levi Strauss & Co – that had distanced themselves from the Chamber as a result of its conservative stance on climate change. But rather than publicly confront deeper issues and heed to the demands of its forward-thinking members, the Chamber filed a lawsuit against Yes Men and insisted that all videos of the hoax event be suppressed.
Perhaps Chevron will decide go the same way. Just last week the Yes Men targeted the company’s glossy new “We Agree” ad campaign with a satirical version of their own. Whereas Chevron’s campaign asks rhetorical questions like: “Should oil companies support the communities they work in?” and “Do oil companies need to get real?” Yes Men’s questions dig deeper and call attention to the company’s controversial past.
“Chevron’s super-expensive fake street art is a cynical attempt to gloss over the human rights abuses and environmental degradation that is the legacy of Chevron’s operations in Ecuador, Nigeria, Burma and throughout the world,” says Ginger Cassady, a campaigner at Rainforest Action Network, which collaborated with the Yes Men on the Chevron campaign. “They must think we’re stupid.”
Judging from Chevron’s own issued statement about the hoax, Cassady might be right. “There are some who are not interested in engaging in a constructive dialogue, and instead have resorted to rhetoric and stunts,” the company says, in full-blown denial of its own use of rhetoric and, yes, stunts.
Federal courts are now beginning to raise questions regarding Chevron’s persistent efforts to manipulate the U.S. legal system for its own gain. In an apparent effort to derail a potential multi-billion dollar environmental lawsuit against it, Chevron has filed discovery lawsuits against 23 people in the United States, including several lawyers associated with the ongoing Ecuador case. Chevron is also accused of submitting inaccurate and misleading translations to U.S. federal courts.
Legal antics aside, it is all too commonplace for corporations to respond to hacktivists in a gruff and humorless manner. But very often, such responses backfire. That’s because hacktivists are a persistent bunch. They are a professional and tactical force that leverages real data, overtakes live airwaves and mobilizes the masses. Corporate dissidence just furthers their resolve.
In response to Chevron’s issued statement, the Yes Men recently stepped up their campaign with a mock statement of their own and a plea to followers to post additional spoof print, web and TV ads online. “It’s been working,” the group says. “Search Chevron in the news and all you get is our spoof. Fifty million spent to keep our eyes off Chevron’s dirt… and it all just went down the drain!”
Lost advertising revenues are hard enough to recuperate. But what about lost corporate reputation? Some of the hardest hit companies of late leverage wholesome values, providing an easy target for hacktivists on a mission to elevate standards.
For instance, last month Hershey released its first CSR Report. Less than 24-hours later, labor rights groups Global Exchange, Green America, the International Labor Rights Forum and Oasis USA launched a counter report (convincingly titled “Raising the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for the Hershey Company”) and accompanying web campaign.
“In the United States, Hershey conjures up innocent childhood pleasures and enjoyable snacks,” the counter report says. “However, halfway across the globe, there is a dark side to Hershey. In West Africa, where Hershey sources much of its cocoa, the scene is one of child labor, trafﬁcking, and forced labor.”
According to Global Exchange, despite the fact that Hershey is a brand that both targets and supports youth through its marketing and philanthropy, the company seems unwilling or unable to adequately address the countless children harmed by its supply chain practices. Whereas competitors including Cadbury and Nestlé have at least made tentative steps toward labor reform, Hershey lags behind.
“Maybe Hershey is unaware of how this story has played out before and that some kind of reform is inevitable,” says fair trade chocolate company Equal Exchange’s Rodney North. “Or perhaps they are cynically stalling and trying to put off real reforms for as long as possible.”
Hershey’s real motive for stalled progress is anyone’s guess. The company has done little if anything to publicly acknowledge labor problems, let alone address the burgeoning online crusade against it.
“Hershey has not responded to any part of our campaign,” says Global Exchange’s Adrienne Fitch-Frankel. “We haven’t gotten a response to our repeated requests for meetings either, which is disappointing since this is a company that’s using child labor and child slavery. Their silence is really quite disturbing.”
You can run. But you can’t hide.
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