Alternative Energy

Case Study: Using a hoax lens to understand media coverage of green innovations


The media is expected to expose hoaxes, not perpetuate them.  However, history has shown that at times, the media dupes the public simply by ignoring its due diligence and publishing a story when all the facts aren't in.  In doing so, the media loses credibility, and care must be taken to rebuild the public's trust.

One example of media falling for and perpetuating a hoax began in Chennai, India. On September 15, 1996, a press conference was called for the demonstration of a bio-fuel invention by Ramar Pillai, a school drop-out. The chief minister of the state, many of his ministers, and scientists from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) were present.

Pillai added what he said was an herbal mixture to water and stirred it with a rod, claiming the liquid had turned into petrol. The ministers and scientists were invited to see if it would burn. It did. Pillai then poured the liquid into the tank of a journalist’s scooter, which ran without any fuss. Pillai was a hero.

An independent scientists’ body decided to test Pillai’s liquid again, but under strict supervision. During the test, Pillai used his own rod instead of the stirrer provided by the scientists to mix his potion. An alert scientist spotted something oily oozing from the rod. It was found to be hollow with a hole in the bottom. It is conjecture as to what substance Pillai stuffed inside the rod because he would not say. The scientists concluded he was a fraud. He was arrested and taken to court, all facilities withdrawn.

The incident left the DST scientists shamefaced, but it was the media which also received harsh criticism. The media initially projected the invention as a success, quoting the scientists who were present at the demonstration. Even prominent science journals and newspapers worldwide took note of it.

Later, when the fraud was exposed, the media simply blamed the scientists, saying there was no reason to disbelieve them when they described the invention as a success. The media never explained exactly how Pillai had succeeded in hoodwinking journalists, the public, and the scientific community. Eventually, media did report on the findings of a scientific test that concluded the invention to be a fraud but did not explain why they had jumped the gun in the first place. Years later, a section of the media obliquely referred to the Pillai case when finding fault with the media’s lack of critical inquiry when dealing with specialized subjects.