Media Taken In By Fake General Electric Press Release

It would appear that once again, a Yes Men-style prank has caught us all napping. Earlier today, news broke that General Electric had agreed, amid public outcry, to "donate" the entirety of their $3.2 billion tax refund to the federal government.

It would appear that once again, a Yes Men-style prank has caught us all napping. Earlier today, news broke that General Electric (GE) had agreed, amid public outcry, to "donate" the entirety of their $3.2 billion tax refund to the federal government. The Associated Press was the largest media organization to be taken in by the subterfuge, but they should feel not alone -- here's our own Sam Stein tweeting the "news," as well.

The Huffington Post spoke to satirical activist Andrew Boyd, who confirmed that this is the work of Yes Lab -- an incubator for ideas that dovetail with the Yes Men's stunts. According to the Yes Lab website:

In a typical Yes Lab project, an activist organization will come to the Yes Lab with a target--e.g. Monsanto, or war profiteers, or one of those "too big to fail" banks, or greedy health insurance companies, or a bad government policy--as well as a goal: to affect public debate, push for legislation, embarrass an evildoer, etc. Depending on ability, they will pay a fee to help the Yes Lab keep going.

We'll work with the group to develop the smartest, most effective plan to accomplish it. We'll help assemble the team from within the group as well as our mailing list, we'll train folks as necessary, and we'll check in on the project until it's successful.

This GE dupe fits that bill.

Here's the basics: A fake press release -- purporting to be from GE's "assistant director Samuel Winnacker," an -- went live this morning at The site, which has already been taken down, was a sophisticated and well-rendered fake of General Electric's actual website (which -- one letter off the fake site address -- redirects to), and is similar to previous Yes Men efforts.

The hoax press release -- also removed, likely at the behest of GE -- read:

Fairfield, CT, 13th April, 2011 - GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt has informed the Obama administration that the company will be gifting its entire 2010 tax refund, worth $3.2 Billion, to the US Treasury on April 18, Tax Day, and will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility.

"We want the public to know that we've heard them, and that we know many Americans are going through tough times," said GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. "GE will therefore give our 2010 tax refund back to the public and allow the public to decide how to spend it."

Immelt acknowledged no wrongdoing. "All seven of our foreign tax havens are entirely legal," Immelt noted. "But Americans have made it clear that they deplore laws that enable tax avoidance. While we owe it to our shareholders to use every legal loophole to maximize returns - we also owe something to the American people. We didn't write the laws that let us legally avoid paying taxes. Congress did. But we benefit from those laws, and now we'd like to share those benefits. We are proud to be giving something back to America, and we are proud to set an example for all industry to follow."

Over the coming weeks, GE will conduct a nationwide survey to determine how the company's $3.2 billion returned refund is to be allocated. The survey will be conducted both online and offline, and will permit the public to weigh in on which of the recently-enacted budget cuts they would like to see reversed.

In tandem with the gift, the company is also announcing a host of new policies to restore public faith in the GE brand, including a commitment to keep American jobs in America, and to create one U.S. job for each new job created abroad. The ambitious plan will overhaul accounting systems to allow public transparency and phase out the use of tax havens in five years. "Given my recent appointment as President Obama's Chairman of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, it is no longer appropriate for GE to engage in practices that, whether by fact or perception, are at odds with the greater good of the nation," Immelt said.

Immelt outlined several concrete steps he would take to push for modernized tax policies that reflect the realities of the global economy. "I will personally ask President Obama to work with Congress to require country-by-country reporting by multi-national corporations of the sales made, profits earned and taxes paid in every jurisdiction where an entity operates. Instead of moving money via "transfer pricing," corporations ought to pay taxes in the jurisdictions where profits are actually made. If Congress is able to establish standard industry-wide solutions, GE will close our tax haven operations abroad, including our subsidiaries in Bermuda, Singapore and Luxembourg."

Further details on GE's new policy will be released in the coming weeks.

According to the Associated Press, it obtained this fake press release by email. The hoax came bearing a "GE logo" and including "a link to a website designed to look like GE's website," the AP said.

AP withdrew the story 35 minutes after it was published and released the following statement from Business Editor Hal Ritter: "The AP did not follow its own standards in this case for verifying the authenticity of a news release."

This is all obviously inspired by the Yes Men's approach to social activism. If satire exposes the distance between the world we live in and the world the satirist would prefer, the Yes Lab takes it a step further by closing that distance. In these pranks, the targets are depicted as behaving in the moral fashion they usually avoid, and take actions they normally wouldn't. Add to that this sophisticated fakery, and suddenly there's a news story about how GE is gifting their tax refund back to the taxpayer.

The effect is transportive. By briefly creating a world in which the possibility that GE might do such a thing, it instills an argument for that world and that sort of corporate behavior. And the friction caused by the prank itself helps to draw attention to to the issue at hand -- tax shelters, offshoring, and unemployment. (And let's remember, it's GE's Immelt who is supposed to be working with the White House to put us all back to work.)

And, on a practical level, these stunts have a material impact. Per Reuters: "GE shares slipped after at least two news organizations reported the hoax as fact."

I spoke this morning with "Samuel Winnacker," who was not willing to drop character even after I let him know that I was aware that Yes Lab was behind this bit of agitprop. The man posing as Winnacker told me that that GE was supposedly rejecting a "limited notion of self-interest" and that he saw the company's decision as "the patriotic thing to do." Hopefully, I'll hear back from Winnacker's alter ego after all the dust settles.

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