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“The Falwell Game”

As I was trying to fill in some gaps in my recollection regarding Faith Partners I stumbled across a reference to “The Falwell Game,” a short-lived bit of hacking/jamming/vandalism/what-have-you that I’d heard about from the other side and forgotten about.

The basic idea was for someone with time (but no money) on their hands to invest that time in wasting the resources of an organization they disliked. It exploited the fact that the target organization paid money up front for something (an 800 number, a “free gift”) and in exchange got contact information it used to target direct-mail marketing soliciting donations. The actor (perpetrator, activist, whatever) would call the target organization and either hang up and call again, thereby wasting the target’s money on 800 calls, or sign someone (real or bogus) up for the free gift that the target then wastes money buying and mailing. This only matters if each actor calls many times, or if there are many actors; otherwise the tactic is unlikely to make much difference to the target organization.

This surfaced in early 1986 in two communities: the punk community, where individual punks famously had no money and lots of time on their hands, and the gay community, which was relatively large and well-connected. Here’s a contemporaneous article by Bob Black from Boston Review of August 1986 describing how it spread via various punk zines:

“The Falwell Game,” which has been noticed by the mass media, is a marginals’ jape. Innumerable marginals’ ’zines published instructions on how to waste the Moral Majority’s money by calling its toll-free number and hanging up or, better yet, signing up as Faith Partners to get free Falwell Bibles. Later some gay papers picked up on the Game and Jerry Falwell’s threatening response was directed toward them. Even if the gays drop it, the sub-underground, which is as fat beneath Falwell’s notice as the earliest mammals were to the lordly dinosaurs, will keep it going.

Here’s another better-researched version from James Davison Hunter’s 1992 book Culture Wars:

Another example was “The Falwell Game” advertised throughout the gay community in 1986. See Eugene Curtin, “The Gays’ ‘Falwell Game’ is a Mean, Gloomy Business,” New York Tribune, 4 April 1986. This article was based upon an article entitled “Hey kids! Let’s All Play The Falwell Game,” Seattle Gay News, 17 January 1986. The object of the game was to “squander Jerry Falwell’s millions” by encouraging “players” to call his toll-free number repeatedly so that “there would be no calls getting through at all.” “Dedicated players” call the number and “pledge to become a faith partner, with the intent of not paying.” In return the caller would be sent a free Bible. By March of that year, the “Old-Time Gospel Hour” was getting roughly 50,000 harassing calls a month, costing the ministry about $2 million in phone calls, Bibles, other written materials, and postage, according to an Associated Press story, “Harassing Calls, ‘Crisis’ Plague Falwell Ministry,” Dallas Morning News, 31 March 1986.

I’ve also seen several items online where people claim to have actually participated in this back in the day and suggesting using against some contemporary target.

I remember hearing about several variants of this at the time, because of course this made for pretty good PR on behalf of the ministry inside the subculture. We heard about people using auto-dialers to keep the 800 number busy and about people sending e.g. bags of bricks attached to a business reply card. I wonder what the net cost to the ministry was: the numbers in the Hunter note are conveniently big and round, and are probably more sticky than they are strictly speaking accurate. It’s interesting to note that the list of items wasted doesn’t include staff time.

From the little bit I’ve gathered online the tactic died out because it was labor-intensive and because defensive measures, on the part of the phone company and postal service, mostly, proved effective.

Update: I might gently suggest that $40 per harassing call sounds a little high for a 1986 phone call, especially if a significant percentage of them were hangups. According to the West Egg Inflation calculator, that’s $77.23 in 2009 dollars.

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