A tiny little movie making fun of Al Gore, supposedly made by an amateur filmmaker, recently appeared on the popular Web site YouTube.com.
At first blush, the spoof seemed like a scrappy little homemade film poking fun at Gore and his anti-global warming crusade.
In the movie, Gore is seen boring an army of penguins with his lecture and blaming global warming for everything, including Lindsay Lohan's thinness.
But when the Wall Street Journal tried to find the guy who posted the film "Al Gore's Penguin Army" -- listed on YouTube as a 29-year-old -- they found the movie didn't come from an amateur working out of his basement.
The film actually came from a slick Republican public relations firm called DCI, which just happens to have oil giant Exxon as a client.
Exxon denies knowing anything about the film, and DCI says, "We do not disclose the names of our clients, nor do we discuss the work we do on behalf of our clients."
Media ethicists say that if DCI is behind the spoof, they should fess up.
"Without the disclosure, it's really ethically questionable," said Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy.
Another question is why would this movie be done in a seemingly unprofessional way, to be shown alongside YouTube's mostly amateur videos, which feature lip-synching, odd performances and funny satires?
"They want it to look like this came from someone who really believes this, who is really critical of Al Gore and global warming," Farsetta said.
Ana Marie Cox, the Washington editor of Time.com, said Americans have come to distrust the mainstream media.
"They're more likely to believe something that comes straight from the horse's mouth," Cox said.
Public relations firms have long used computer technology to create bogus grassroots campaigns, which are called "Astroturf."
Now these firms are being hired to push illusions on the Internet to create the false impression of real people blogging, e-mailing and making films.
"People will become more savvy, and then the people who are making the fake videos will become more savvy about how to cover it up," Cox said.
So next time you're reading something on the Internet from a "real person" pushing a movie or defending an actor's alcohol-fueled rant -- be wary. That real person might actually be a hired gun, selling you an idea through deception.