Mayor, 'The Wire,' Politics Entangled In Fake Web Site

August 29, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Baltimore officials are investigating a fake City Hall Web page that duped news media on both sides of the Atlantic into reporting that Mayor Sheila Dixon had chastised a high-ranking British official for comparing crime there to that in Baltimore.

British blogger and liberal political activist Alex Hilton, 33, took credit for the hoax, saying it was meant as a joke among friends as a debate raged there over comments from Conservative politician Chris Grayling that the Baltimore-based HBO drama "The Wire" had crossed over from a "work of fiction for British viewers" to a "part of real life in this country."

Hilton said he began imagining how Baltimore's mayor would respond to the comparison, then whipped up a fake statement and posted it on a virtually identical copy of the city's Web page he created under the "mayorofbaltimore.org." (The real Web site for City Hall is ci.baltimore.md.us.)

Mimicking the array of Internet tools used by government to spread its message, Hilton also used Twitter and YouTube pages to promote the concoction.

In the phony statement, peppered with British spelling, Dixon was quoted as saying: "The television show failed to reflect the best we have in this city. ... To present a television show as the real Baltimore is to perpetuate a fiction that dishonours our city."

Hilton said in a phone interview that he "just mocked up a little fun thing to amuse a few political friends."

The fictional site caught the attention of police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi when Hilton linked it to the Police Department's Twitter page, a process known as "following." Guglielmi visited Hilton's site and thought it looked real, then spread the word that the mayor was now on Twitter. He mentioned it to a city official, as well as to Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann, who had previously blogged about the British controversy over Grayling's comments. Hermann then linked to the faux mayoral Twitter page.

"It didn't raise my suspicion," Guglielmi said. "It looked and felt like the existing page, and the statement was something [Dixon] could very well have said to stick up for Baltimore."

In addition to The Sun's Baltimore Crime Beat blog, the Guardian and the Independent newspapers in London reported on the alleged Dixon comments in their Friday editions. The Baltimore City Paper blogged about Hilton's YouTube video, erroneously reporting that it was produced by the city's Visit Baltimore tourism arm.

All issued retractions Friday after learning Hilton was behind the sites.

"The Wire" began airing earlier this year on BBC2 and has become "an obsession for the Westminster chattering class," said Kevin Anderson, a media reporter for The Guardian. With an election approaching, conservative politicians have rallied around a theme of "broken Britain," claiming 10 years of Labor rule has resulted in higher crime and poverty, Anderson said.

Grayling's comments "have been a hot topic, because it plays into the broader issues of British views on American gun culture," Anderson said. "Whenever things go wrong, there's this notion of 'things might be bad here, but at least it's not as bad as across the pond.' "

Grayling holds the position of Shadow Home Secretary, "shadowing" the country's home secretary on issues of national security, immigration and criminal justice. His remarks came after touring Manchester, a city of 400,000, which recorded 35 homicides last year. Baltimore, with a population of 630,000 people, saw 234 homicides last year.

Dixon issued a statement saying that the city law office and office of information technology were investigating possible copyright infringement issues related to Hilton's re-creating the city Web page. City officials said they also had broader concerns that someone could spoof the city's home page for more malicious purposes.

"The perpetrator of this crude joke has wasted the time and money of the city as well as the local and international media with this distraction," Dixon said.

Hilton, a Labor candidate for Parliament in the next election, apologized to Dixon on Friday, as did Grayling.

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