By definition, a state-owned monopoly doesn't face any competition. So when Quebec vlogger Murphy Cooper invented a fictional rival for the hydro-electric energy service Hydro-Quebec last month, thousands of naive onlookers flocked towards the imaginary alternative, Hydro-Jeanson.
"I've been using this service for the past eight years," he says in a video viewed almost 125,000 times on Facebook, since it was posted on May 21. "And they're great, really. There's no such thing as a state monopoly guys, try this alternative. It costs me only $20 a month." That is compared to the hundreds Quebecers usually pay for their only energy option.
The prospect of a cheaper (though, again, non-existent) alternative was enough to make the hoax go viral. At first, Cooper had just given an email for the service, and was flooded with dozens, then hundreds, of emails from people asking for more information, craving the chance to switch to Hydro-Jeanson.
Hydro-Québec bashing has become somewhat of a go-to practice for many vloggers in certain Québec Facebook communities. People often feel cheated by the service, since its administrators make tons of cash for an essential and monopolized service.
The hoax clearly struck a chord with many Quebecers who were unhappy with their energy service. As the false campaign grew, fans took the initiative to create a logo for Hydro-Jeanson, scan a fake electricity bill and even create a website that is, actually,just a single tumblr post.
"They're all completely independent initiatives." Cooper told VICE. "Even the guy who made the Facebook page. I talk to him, but I don't know him, and I never know what he'll do next."
Cooper was doing very little work on his end, besides the obsessive back-and-forth between fans and the usual haters that show up when someone puts something disruptive on the internet. To some, this endeavour might seem like a monumental waste of time, but according to Matthieu Dugal, web expert and Radio-Canada host of tech show La Sphère, it's part of Cooper's success.
"One of the criteria for web success is authenticity, the proof that you are actually interacting with your fans," Dugal says. "And this guy is clearly one of the best community managers out there."
Cooper has been doing this for a long time. Last summer, he released a faceless video where he revealed that the Saint-Laurent river had been sold to Americans by ex-Parti Quebecois premier Pauline Marois. It went viral.
Every new video and stunt gets him more fans and followers, and some of these people have spread the message of the Hydro-Jeanson alternative knowing very well that it's a hoax. While not all of the sharing can be taken at face value, scrolling down among the thousands of shares reveals that some people really fell into it. It takes about two or three comments though before someone posts the hoax-stopper.
The buck stopped when a blogger called François Charron felt the need to clarify that Hydro-Jeanson didn't actually exist, which is sort of testament to the hoax's virality.
"Everything you need to know about Hydro-Jeanson" the headline reads, explaining briefly how this hydro-electric alternative does not exist.
This single article pops up almost automatically under each new share of Murphy's original video. The general response is, "Yeah, it was too good to be true" or "Haha, I knew it was a joke I just wanted to see who could believe it."
"That clearly put an end to the momentum," Cooper laughs, "but if you look on François Charron's official page, people are still asking for the prices on the alternative, because they don't care to click and learn."
It would be easy to dismiss Cooper's initiatives as attention-whoring or basic trolling, but there's definitely a philosophy behind the experiment.
"First and foremost, it's an artistic process," Cooper says. "I love recreating this sort of accident... I try to create this kind of chaos, but it's not easy."
Cooper wasn't expecting another Saint-Laurent River viral hoax.
"Here I am saying there was never any nationalisation, that there is no monopoly. I'm invalidating the Levesque and Lesage governments that founded Hydro-Québec. These people have access to search engines yet they have no idea that Hydro-Québec belongs to them. I have to say, getting all those emails made me sad," Cooper admits. "Here we are online, we're always up in arms about a lot of things, but there are basic principles so many people just don't understand. This is a state-owned monopoly. Its governance is an electoral issue. And these people probably vote!"
"People ask me if I'm a rip-off. They give me their phone numbers, their addresses. It's incredible how easily people can be fooled."
Dugal suggests this gullibility is inherent online.
"I think it's really revealing of a real-time web-culture" Dugal says. "People have knee-jerk reactions without asking any questions. All they want to do is participate. And it feeds into this fantasy of conspiracy theorists that are craving shaky videos from authentic sources confirming the existence of chemtrails or the Illuminati. Part of the reason why his videos are so successful is that, deep down, you want to believe them."
As for the inevitable haters, Dugal thinks that it's a predictable reaction.
"You have to look at this with a certain amount of respect. He's been working on his character and his vocabulary for a long time. There's an interesting thought process about what's wrong, what's right, and how to fact-check the information that we're exposed to on a daily basis, all the while being critical of things even if they get massive likes on Facebook," Dugal says.
"Even if the guy probably only thinks in terms of Facebook likes."
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