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Fake website, press release target Missouri coal company

By Ashley Hayes, CNN
The bogus news release said the new initiative was "designed to combat the stigma of asthma among American children."
The bogus news release said the new initiative was "designed to combat the stigma of asthma among American children."
  • The spoof was engineered by a group concerned about kids' health
  • Peabody Energy says it's "a global leader in clean coal solutions"
  • The fake website says Peabody will give free inhalers to children

(CNN) -- A Missouri-based coal company was the victim of a hoax Tuesday after activists set up a fake website saying the company would offer free, custom-branded inhalers to children.

A press release supposedly from Peabody Energy said it was creating a new public health initiative "designed to combat the stigma of asthma among American children." Under the so-called "Coal Cares" initiative, the false statement said, the inhaler actuators would be given to children living within 200 miles of a coal plant, along with coupons good toward purchase of asthma medication.

"Earlier today, an activist group released a 'spoof' website claiming to be sponsored by Peabody Energy," the real company said in a statement. "The site is in fact a hoax, making inaccurate claims about Peabody and coal."

A group called Coal is Killing Kids issued a claim of responsibility for the hoax, calling itself "an environmental and public health group that aims to challenge Big Coal's expensive lobbying against sensible updates to the Clean Air Act."

The actual Peabody Energy, based in St. Louis, said in its statement, "Peabody is proud to help hundreds of millions of people live longer and better through coal-fueled electricity. A growing collection of studies demonstrate the correlation between electricity fueled by low-cost coal and improvement in health, longevity and quality of life."

Government statistics show that coal use in the United States has more than tripled in the past several decades, while regulated emissions have declined 84%, the company said. "Peabody Energy is a global leader in clean coal solutions and is advancing more than a dozen clean coal projects around the world, leading to our ultimate goal of near-zero emissions from coal."

But Coal is Killing Kids said that Peabody Energy is "lobbying ferociously against new pollution standards for power plants proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, standards the agency says will prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma each year in the United States."

A Peabody Energy spokeswoman did not immediately return a call or an e-mail from CNN.

The hoax press release said children could choose from a variety of youth-themed inhaler cases, "from tween faves like 'the Bieber' and 'My Little Pony,' to the 'Emo' and 'Diamond' inhalers for older, style-conscious youth. There's even 'My First Inhaler' for tots."

The hoax statement included a "quote" from real-life Peabody Energy Chairman and CEO Gregory Boyce, saying, "Our actions are guided by a single mission: to be a leading worldwide producer and supplier of balanced energy solutions, which power economic prosperity and well-being. Coal Cares brings this mission to life, empowering children everywhere to take control of their destinies, beginning with their own lungs."

The fake statement pointed readers to the "Coal Cares" website. "We at Peabody want to make asthma-related bullying a thing of the past," says the site's Frequently Asked Questions section. "... Kids should never be ashamed of having asthma -- after all, many of their classmates likely have it as well."

"Coal is a $7 billion per year industry, producing more than half of all U.S. electricity," the site says. "We know we can't do this without you, the consumer, and especially without your children, who will continue consuming coal long after you're gone. We depend on your children's mental well-being and goodwill."

The site also offers a kids' section, where a word-search puzzle features words like "sickness," "propaganda" and "lies."

The phony press release listed a contact name and number at the bottom. Callers to the number reached a recording identifying it as the "communications and investor relations department."

Coal is Killing Kids said in its statement that it worked with the Yes Lab, a project of The Yes Men. The Yes Men says on its website it aims to impersonate "big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

Asked whether the group is concerned about potential consequences, Janet Bellamy, a spokeswoman for Coal is Killing Kids, told CNN on Tuesday, "We're really not. Most companies just leave it alone. They're just worried about their public image, and they don't want to look like the bad guys."

She said the attention surrounding the hoax has been "quite interesting."

"We're very passionate, just because we know there are millions of people out there with sick kids, and we know the coal companies are getting away with this and they want families to pay the price," Bellamy said.

In the Coal is Killing Kids statement, Bellamy said, "People may laugh at our sick jokes, but they also understand the real health impacts of burning coal. That's exactly what the coal industry doesn't want people to think about, because if enough of us were aware of it, we would shut down these plants once and for all."

Tuesday's hoax statement was posted on the spoof Coal Cares website and appeared to have been distributed by PR Newswire.

.. people get tricked every day on the internet. ... I don't know that people are that alarmed about it anymore, which is what's really scary.
--Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute

But "PR Newswire did not issue the hoax release," said PR Newswire spokeswoman Rachel Meranus in an e-mail to CNN. "It appears that whoever is behind setting up the spoof website also posted that hoax release on the site and added PR Newswire's name to the release."

In this digital age, such hoaxes are becoming more common, said Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute, an independent school with a focus on educating journalists.

"A fake press release is actually a fairly unsophisticated way of getting out information," she said. "But building a website to support it allows you to bypass the middleman, the media, and go right to the consumer, and so it's a lot easier nowadays to get out information that is deliberately distorted."

She noted that more than 3,000 people had recommended the fake website on Facebook. "This is pretty elaborate, and people are definitely going to be fooled by this," she said. But, she added, "people get tricked every day on the internet. ... I don't know that people are that alarmed about it anymore, which is what's really scary."

Last month, The Yes Men put out a hoax press release saying that General Electric would pay a $3.2 billion tax refund to the U.S. Treasury. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sued the group over an October 2009 hoax press release and fake press conference staged at the National Press Club, claiming the Chamber had changed its position on climate change legislation and would support cap-and-trade legislation introduced by Democrats in the Senate.

"Coal is just an outdated technology," Bellamy said Tuesday. "It's something we started using in the 19th century. ... Nobody ever caught asthma from a solar panel."

CNN's Jennifer Bixler contributed to this report.