April Fools' Day was supposed to be canceled.
So when a web page in Google's graphics, fonts and voice appeared on April 1, announcing a significant change in company policy, many people fell for it, including some of Google's own employees.
"In lieu of our normal April Fools' joke, today we're getting serious," read the site copy, attributed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. "This crisis has caused Google to reflect on how critical it is to respond to another global emergency: climate change. Today, we would like to announce a small step in that direction: We will stop our funding of organizations that deny or work to block action on climate change, effective immediately."
The message went on to apologize to employees, shareholders, customers and users for "putting profit over the planet by funding climate change deniers." It then pledged also to meet the three other demands of the 2,500-plus Google employees who signed an open letter to the company last year: reaching zero emissions by 2030; halting contracts with the fossil fuel industry; and ceasing collaboration with human rights oppressors. The letter was penned by Google Workers for Action on Climate, a group formed last summer that coordinated walkouts at Google offices for the Global Climate Strike in September.
According to sources within Google, when the company reached out to file an abuse complaint with GoDaddy, the web hosting company responded: "Thanks so much for flagging. Our Sustainability, MarComms, Policy and GAPP teams are aware of this fake site. We've reviewed it, and at the moment, we have no plans to respond to this, but we're tracking internal and external coverage. We'd ask that you do not reach out to the email on the site or take any action. Thank you!" (Protocol reached out to Google for comment but did not receive a response by publication time.)
So what exactly did it take to prank Google — and why did the pranksters do it?
The group responsible is the tech community subgroup of Extinction Rebellion, an international climate activism organization that has been pushing for action from Google since October 2019, when The Guardian reported on the company's large financial contributions to climate change deniers.
The subgroup was launched by Tom Hoy and fellow XR member Bill Beckler in late 2019, and it quickly drew people with jobs that represented "a pretty broad swath of the tech industry," Hoy said. "In our group specifically … there's programmers, project managers, designers, graphic designers, digital marketers." He said Google employees were not involved in the project and, to his knowledge, were not tipped off ahead of time.
When Hoy saw Google employees' open letter on Medium last fall, he thought their four demands sounded similar to those of Extinction Rebellion, and he decided to use them as the basis of an April Fools' Day action targeting the company.
The group initially planned an in-person protest outside Google's Chelsea offices in New York: an April Fools' Day party to "celebrate" a fictitious Google announcement that the company would stop funding climate change deniers. Hoy was in talks with a band to play.
"Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, which kind of forced us to switch gears," Hoy said. "At that point, we were just saying, 'Well, we've got a huge pool of tech talent here, and we've wanted to explore digital and online disruptions.' So we took that concept and moved it into the digital world and then kind of ran with it."
Early in March, a core group of roughly 10 people began building out the site, designing graphics, writing copy and working on social media, Hoy said. Georgios, a 3D animator who did not want his last name used, created the site's "Google Doodle," which depicted characters walking away from an oil derrick and "towards a greener future." It took him more than seven hours because he had to learn Illustrator to do it, he says.
Genevieve Hoffman, a web designer and developer who helped build the site, worked on both design and tech for the project. Once the team narrowed down ideas and landed on the concept of the post appearing to come from Google itself, she looked at Google's official blog, The Keyword, and its recent posts as design inspiration. Then she inspected the company's site with Chrome Developer Tools and viewed the source code. But the "breakthrough," she said, was finding Google's CSS and unminifying it so she could use it in the most efficient way. Another team member had built up a bare-bones version of the site, but Hoffman thought it'd be faster to clone Google's: Since they could use Google's style sheet and existing responsive web design, all they had to do was make a few tweaks.
And then there were some last-minute updates to the site's copy — for instance, Hoffman said, the team chose to use more somber language in light of how serious the pandemic had become. "We were making edits at, like, 10:30 … the night before," said Hoy, who estimates the project took about 100 hours to complete.
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The site may have been a fake, but it had a real impact within Google, said Sam Kern, a UX engineer at Google's Seattle offices. "These companies put up such a wall between themselves and the world, so even if Google doesn't respond to Extinction Rebellion's post, I don't want them to think that means that they didn't accomplish anything," she said. "This was a huge morale boost for me and some of the other people who are working on climate at Google and other tech companies."
"Every time somebody does something like this," she added, "it's something we get to start a conversation with our co-workers about. That's the power of these actions that are a little more divisive and maybe not as self-explanatory. They really embolden future activism."
Or, as Google Workers for Action on Climate put it in a tweet: "What would it look like if Google committed to putting climate first? @XR_NYC shows us a glimpse of a beautiful future in AGreenerGoogle.com."