Remember Pooper, the Uber for scooping up after your dog? When the Observer was first pitched this new “company” last summer, we answered the email with skepticism to inquire, but we ultimately didn’t publish anything because we couldn’t verify it was real. It turned out to be a hoax.
Recently, the same guys behind Pooper decided to give pranking the media another go. They launched a Kickstarter campaign for Adoptly, an app they claimed, through partnerships with adoption agencies, would make it easier for prospective parents to adopt kids. The duo (now appearing as themselves and not the fictitious founder Alex Nawrocki) just now sent us a cute email revealing this too was a prank. But the thing is, they put Adoptly on Kickstarter and then Indiegogo where they intended to collect real money from real backers.
That’s not a hoax—that’s fraud. (And note we say “intended” because while backers pledged money, it doesn’t actually change hands until the campaign is complete. Kickstarter stopped Adoptly for a reason it won’t reveal).
They even admit this was a “legal concept.” Regarding the collection of money, they claim:
Although this may have been a distasteful (to some) idea, the fundraising itself was based on a legal ‘concept’ and linked to an actual person and real bank account. That being said, we always intended to end the fundraising early and refund all donations regardless of the outcome.
But how can we believe they weren’t going to keep the money?
The Observer did publish a skeptical piece on Adoptly that included insight from adoption experts, who weighed in on the problems with this idea and if it would actually come to fruit and find a place in the industry (their responses ranged from very skeptical to downright outraged). We admit we were conned, but we did our due diligence to verify what was just an idea, because that’s really all an app on a crowdfunding site is. We only got fooled after asking a lot of questions and getting back a lot of lies.
Rather than just posting a zero-source “look at this crazy campaign”-type take after discovering Adoptly, we interviewed the “founder” and went back and forth with him over email for six days before publishing anything. The duo, Ben Becker and Elliot Glass, went to great lengths to trick the media, hiring several actors to star in their professional quality video, creating a website, launching on multiple crowdfunding sites and lying throughout a 30-minute interview and in follow-up questions for several days after.
What really drove it home was the fact that Adoptly was on Kickstarter, which claims to review projects prior to launch, according to its FAQ. If this were just an email pitch with no crowdfunding campaign, we wouldn’t have published anything.
In their email, Becker and Glass wrote they launched on Kickstarter with the specific goal of making their hoax more believable:
So we decided to launch it on Kickstarter, rather than frame it as a company that was already funded or in beta, as a way to add a tinge more believability that this was a group of naive entrepreneurs launching a misguided startup.
Their goal for the entire prank, they write, “was purely meant as a jarring affront to everyday tech-users, and not as an assault on the adoption industry itself.”
But surely there are other ways to make such a commentary. In this age of fake news where people are increasingly critical and skeptical of reporters, what is the point of spending hours creating fake websites, campaigns and high production videos and also posing for interviews to intentionally derail reporters who are trying to deliver real news?
“Their end goal is manipulating or delegitimizing the media (or perhaps this is simply the consolation prize when the first two goals fail),” said Observer contributor Ryan Holiday, who is known for detailing his own manipulation of the media in his book Trust Me, I’m Lying.
“In this case, the manipulators created a real Kickstarter campaign for what is now a fake idea,” he said. “This campaign—until it was deleted by Kickstarter—was collecting real dollars from real backers. The creators claim they weren’t going to keep the money, but that depends on whether we believe them now. Hoaxes like these are sobering and bewildering. They should make us question all the assumptions we take for granted when speaking to sources (that they are inherently honest, that things are always what they seem) and perhaps make us question how quickly we rush to report so early on projects, ideas, policies and products.”
Becker and Glass have yet to respond to our phone calls and emails, even though we reached out immediately after receiving their reveal email. We will update if we hear back.