A tragic anniversary, and a bizarre Internet hoax

Two weeks ago, December 3, 2004, was the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. (Which you all know already, because of all the media coverage this event receives every year, right? Ah, I thought not.)

Here’s the facts. Just after midnight on December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, began to leak 27 tons of a deadly gas, methyl isocynate:

None of the six safety systems designed to contain such a leak were operational, allowing the gas to spread throughout the city of Bhopal. Half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. These ailments include blindness, extreme difficulty in breathing, and gynecological disorders. The site has never been properly cleaned up and it continues to poison the residents of Bhopal.

Every year, protestors demand justice, accountability, and a clean up of the still polluted site from Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide’s liablities in 2001. Every year they don’t get it.

While the anniversary itself sadly garnered very little in the way of American press, the bizarre internet hoax that followed got lots of attention on the BBC.

The BBC, preparing to do a story on the anniversary, came across this site, which, at very quick glance, appears to be an authentic Dow site. They emailed the contact listed at the site, and requested an on-air interview. The request was simply too tempting to pass up.

See, the hoax/activist site, www.dowethics.com is run by the Yes Men, social activist pranksters. In the past, they set up a hoax WTO website, got taken seriously, and found themselves invited to all sorts of important events where they posed as WTO spokesmen:

At an international trade law conference in Salzburg, Austria, they (i.e. the WTO) proposed a free-market solution to democracy: auctioning votes to the highest bidder…At a textiles conference in Tampere, Finland the WTO unveiled a 3-foot phallus for administering electric shocks to sweatshop employees. At a university in Plattsburgh, New York the WTO proposed that to solve global hunger, the poor should have to eat hamburger–and then recycle them up to ten times.

In fact, there’s even a movie about their hijinks.

So, a live television interview was set-up, between the BBC and the “Dow spokesman”, Mr. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth’s end). Live, Mr. Finisterra gave the shocking announcement that Dow was taking full responsibility for the catastrophe, would immediately clean up the site, and set up a twelve billion dollar fund for restitution of the victims.

It took two hours for Dow, and BBC, to realize they’d been had.

The hoax sent Dow stock plummeting, when investors, presumably panicked that the company would take responsibility and financially compensate victims, sold off their Dow stock in droves, wiping 2 billion off its market value in the next half hour. After BBC issued an apology, the stock recovered fully, over the next few days.

Unfortunately, the hoax also created false hope for Bhopal victims, who thought that after years of struggle for corporate responsibility, their day had finally come. They were grieved to discover that it was not true.

The Yes Men explain:

There are some risks to this approach. It could offer false hope to people who have suffered 20 years because of Dow and Union Carbide. But all hopes are false until they’re realized, and what’s an hour of false hope to 20 years of unrealized ones? If it works, this could focus a great deal of media attention on the issue, especially in the US, where the Bhopal anniversary has often gone completely unnoticed. Who know–it could even somehow force Dow’s hand.

After all, the real hoax here is Dow’s claim that they can’t do anything to help. They have conned the world into thinking they can’t end the crisis, when in fact it would be quite simple. What would it cost to clean up the Bhopal plant site, which continues to poison the water people drink, causing an estimated one death per day?

We decide to show how another world is possible, and to direct any questions about false hopes for justice in Bhopal directly to Dow.

Another problem we anticipate is that this could result in some backlash for the BBC. This is bothersome, because they have covered Bhopal very well, infinitely better than what we’re used to in the US. We would much rather hoax CBS, ABC, NBC, or Fox, but none of those could give that rat’s ass about Bhopal, and so none of those has approached us.

While I’m not sure that raising the hopes of the victims is really worth sticking it to Dow, you’ve got to admire these guy’s nerve. And what’s worse is that they’re right: the hoax generated the lion’s share of the press. The people of Bhopal still aren’t getting what they deserve.

Learn more about Bhopal here.

I leave you with this last, truly disturbing image from a more naive past.


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