Ever since someone tricked Occupy Wall Street organizers—and us!—into believing Radiohead was performing a secret show for protesters at Zuccotti Park in September, we've wondered who was behind it. Now we know.
Turns out it was Malcolm Harris, a writer and editor at The New Inquiry—a literary journal you may remember from that New York Times trend piece about pretentious book clubs. In the spirit of transparency, here's Harris' story of how he made us look like chumps and ensured nobody would take Occupy Wall Street's press team seriously ever again. (To ensure this wasn't some meta-prank, we had Harris send us an email from the same fake gmail address he used to email with Occupy Wall Street's organizers.)
It started like this: an autonomous group of Occupy Wall Street activists were sitting around brainstorming ways to get more people out to Zuccotti Park over beer and pizza. This was a little over a week into the occupation, before the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, and it still wasn't clear whether the whole thing would catch on. Someone suggested we should get Radiohead to play a free concert – they were in town for a couple small shows and fans were ready to sell pounds of flesh for tickets. The band wouldn't even have to play the thing, people just had to think they were going to.
The first move was extremely low-risk. In a post about Occupy Wall Street for the blog at Jacobin magazine, I claimed I had "heard unconfirmed reports that Radiohead is planning a concert at the occupation this week, which if true could make it uncontrollable and attract more folks to a relatively uninhabited part of the city." Bound by blogger ethics I would never fabricate a story, but that's a claim that really doesn't mean anything at all. Gawker's Adrian Chen saw my post and figured (correctly) the rumor was almost certainly bullshit.
This was the opening I was hoping for, actually better than that. I responded.
He bit just a little. It did sound plausible, after all. Radiohead is an outspokenly left band; with the good they could do for the demonstrations, it seemed wrong of them not to play the occupation. The seed of truthiness was big enough that when I sent him a Direct Message with a contrived story about an editor who wouldn't let me run an uncomfirmed rumor that the OWS Radiohead concert was on, even though this time I knew it was true, Adrian posted it on Gawker right away.
I had figured there would be some fact-checking involved, at least a little bit, so I had looked up the name of Radiohead's manager and, using a play on an April Fools prank I used against my family in middle school, reserved a Gmail account under his name, Bryce Edge. It's amazing what people will believe when it comes from a clean-looking Gmail account. My friend Willie Osterweil, who was involved since the early planning of the prank and knew much more than I did about the OWS bureaucracy, suggested I notify the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Culture Committee. He found the email address, and I sent a friendly email from "Bryce."S
The Arts and Culture committee bought it completely, and the prank was helped along by their concentrated authority. Had we tried this stunt on a larger group in which individuals weren't empowered to speak for the collective like the General Assembly, which operated through consensus, they probably would have left the media to figure it out for themselves. Instead, the Arts and Culture committee very quickly held a press conference. When Willie called me from the park to tell me about the press conference, I thought the jig was up. We and Russell Simmons, who had excitedly tweeted the Radiohead rumor to his million-plus followers, would be made to look like fools, or even worse, saboteurs. But organizers used the press conference to "officially confirm" the scheduled performance based on the email above.
Now I want to say that it was never the goal to troll the OWS bureaucracy (or popular music celebrity Russell Simmons), I was honestly hoping they would just keep their mouths shut and let the gossip mills work. But that didn't stop me from laughing my ass off when I heard Willie's incredulous voice on the phone: "They just confirmed it. Officially. 'It is confirmed.'" What the hell were the words "confirm" or "official" supposed to mean? It was a pompous exercise in the exact sort of discourse the occupations are about undermining. I don't know how much of that conference was a genius exercise in publicity through Zizekian over-identification on their part, and how much was just rogue organization kids getting bamboozled. Either way, once it was confirmed, there was no stopping.
I sat on my couch staring open-mouthed at Twitter, only snapping out of it when I realized I wouldn't be able to get into the park if I waited any longer. When I arrived, Zuccotti was as packed as I had seen it. People were buzzing, but I never overheard anyone admit to being there just for the concert. There was a lot of: "I was looking for an excuse to check it out, this seemed like a good one."
I believe Pitchfork published the first official denial from Radiohead's people, the counter-revolutionary bastards. But by that point people were already gathering in the park, and the media wasn't sure what to believe. The supposed wall between speculation and reporting collapsed, with reputable news outlets declaring that Radiohead was spreading false information in an attempt to dampen the crowd, or that they would show up but not play. In the hustle to keep up with high-traffic sites that openly publish rumors, reporters had to find something truer than the truth, even when faced with an unambiguous denial from the band itself.
It might have helped that Bryce reconfirmed in an email sent from inside a noticeably more fashionable Zuccotti Park to a member of the Arts and Culture Committee:S
Eventually the rumor died with a whimper, and was completely eclipsed almost immediately by the takeover of the Brooklyn Bridge and the resulting mass arrests the next day. But what we might call the nascent "occupy spectacle" tactic has taken off in earnest with the occupation of Law and Order's fake occupation. The point of occupying space isn't just to have it, it's also to use it for fun. Now that truth is effectively crowd-sourced, it's about time we made up some better ones.S