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One hoax to rule them all: The Hobbit movie tar sands story revealed

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One hoax to rule them all: The Hobbit movie tar sands hoax revealed. Photo: Erin Byrnes

Travellers at Terminal 3 in the Toronto airport were astounded Tuesday morning to see Gandalf the Grey and several hobbits march their handcuffed prisoner Stephen Harper, dressed as the evil lord Sauron, into a Syncrude Ltd. recruiting meeting. They demanded that Synacrude take him back to Mordor aka the Alberta tar sands, "the hell on earth that he created."

The performance was the culmination of a series of media reports that director Peter Jackson is shooting scenes from "The Hobbit" film in the tar sands. In a press release issued today, a troupe of Toronto activists calling themselves Black Flood, working alongside the infamous pranksters of The Yes Lab, confirmed their role in the events for "the purpose of stirring up some hot and bubbly controversy on the Alberta tar sands."

It all started on Saturday when Stop Mordor appeared on Facebook demanding that the Alberta government stop the plans to use the Alberta tar sands as Mordor in the new Hobbit film. At the same time there were some tweets claiming sightings of Elijah Wood, reprising his role as Frodo Baggins, in Fort McMurray.

Using their extensive networks, the group starting pushing the news through social media. Naomi Klein, posted the first tweet "Apex of disaster capitalism: Hobbit being filmed in Alberta, with tar sands as Mordor. G8 way to save $ on sets." Naomi's tweet was followed in minutes by famed environmental activist Bill McKibben: "Hobbits in hot tar? It sure looks like mordor. Say it ain't so." Twitter was abuzz.

The first responses on Twitter and Facebook were from tar sands supporters lauding the plans and then from Tolkien geeks who insisted that Mordor was not in The Hobbit and therefore the story couldn't be true. A debate then ensued as to whether it was a good thing to film Mordor in the tar sands. Some argued it would be a good thing so that millions of people would learn how devastated the land was. Others said it would lead to disaster tourism. Some of controversy was contributed by the troupe but a lot of it wasn't. I couldn't tell the difference so it got pretty confusing at times.

The next day, a video blog from Peter Jackson emerged explaining why he chose to film in Alberta posted on a very professional looking Black Flood Productions website. At that point, some people charged that it was a hoax. Others weren't so sure. Soon afterwards more amateurish videos appeared, some from fans debating whether or not it was a good thing. The most hilarious video was from a young woman who chased Elijah Wood into a bathroom in Fort McMurray.

I had never been in on a project like this before but I introduced a talk by Yes Man Andy Bicklbaum a couple of weeks ago, so I knew they were up to something. I was one of the first people to post about it. I was astounded by the reaction to it from my Facebook friends as well as the people posting on the Stop Filming Hobbit in Tar Sands page. Some people who were taken in by the hoax and then realized it were very angry. They didn't see the point of fooling activists. Some people claimed the Yes Men just fool corporations and that's funny but not when you fool activists too. Others didn't see the point at all, claiming that this kind of hoax doesn't do anything to educate people about the tar sands. Some people were mad at me because they rely on my posts for finding out the truth and it upset them that I would knowingly post a hoax. Watching it unfold was like a rollercoaster ride.

When Syed Hussan blogged on rabble about the speculation that filming was taking place, using the opportunity to write about the devastation of the tar sands, rabble editors worried that his and their credibility might be compromised if it looked like they were taken in by the hoax. 

A lot of Yes Men hoaxes rely on the slow burn. Remember the Yes Men hoax at the Copenhagen UN Climate Change conference? They issued a phoney press release saying the Canadian government would support the developing countries demands on climate change. No-one believed that. Then they had a press conference with a phoney Uganda delegate thanking the Canadian government for their action and some people, including activists believed that. Then they issued a release from Canada denying the first release and almost everyone fell for that.

This worked the same way. By Sunday, traditional news media in Canada and the United Kingdom had begun picking up the story, offering contradicting reports to the rumours. A Sun columnist checked with Peter Jackson's production company and published a piece attacking Naomi Klein for his falling for a hoax, while admitting that it was pretty sophisticated.

The hoax was now outed, so Naomi admitted to being in on it but that didn't stop the debate which was by now raging. The U.K. Guardian picked it up too in a story on the tar sands and ran the video on their website. Then YouTube pulled the video "due to a copyright claim from Warner Brothers."

As to whether or not it was useful, just check the Facebook page. It's the most discussion I've seen on the Alberta tar sands on Facebook and many of the activists used the page to post lots of articles and links on the tar sands.

Maybe in this case, the pranksters put a mirror up to us as well showing that we could all take ourselves a little less seriously. Not to mention that I will forever see Stephen Harper now as the Evil Lord Sauron.

Thanks guys!

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