Recently, CNN’s Doug Gross declared 2013 as “the Year of the Online Hoax,” implicitly suggesting that we've seen an increase in the number of mass-circulated hoaxes, and that we as media users welcome this phenomenon, eagerly consuming these stories despite their false origins. To his point, when I started to catalogue 2013 hoaxes I realized there were far too many to include in this post (you can find the “top 10” hoaxes listed here).
But we should remember that media hoaxes are not new: take the Piltdown Man. Not only was it a surprisingly successful case of scientific fraud, but also a media phenomenon in its own right. Granted, there does seem to be something unique about the online hoax, but what exactly?
For starters, the current Internet advertising model depends on content going "viral." Eyes on the page mean advertising dollars in the media industry, no matter what those eyes are looking at. In fact, there are people whose job it is to produce content that is specifically designed to go viral—the more sensational, the better. In this "attention economy," it is not the media content that is the commodity, but us the viewers. It is our viewing "labor" that drives this economy.
But this alone does not explain the media hoax phenomenon. Why do we have such an appetite for these fake stories to begin with? The fake story has to be compelling--we want to believe it. Take the story of tragic loss and human triumph offered by Notre Dame’s star player Manti Te’o and the death of his non-existent girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. In "The Full Manti," Sports Illustrated describes Te'o's athleticism, integrity and genial leadership as reviving a languishing college football program. Numerous news outlets portrayed Te'o and Kekua’s romance as an ideal love affair. We are told they are both perfectly devout, loving, and selfless people, and so her death becomes a perfect tragedy. Oh, and it’s a perfect news story too. Except that it’s not true.
What is bizarre and compelling about this hoax is how extensive it is. Arguably, many media hoaxes are contained online. Te’o’s story, on the other hand, seems to derive its power from the off-line world—from the parents, coaches, teammates, and even religious leaders, who recall in great detail the ways that this fictional person Kekua intersected with their own lives (albiet through Te'o as an intermediary). And once Deadspin broke the story endless questions followed, and the answers seem like overly-elaborate conspiracy theories.
No matter how you look at it, whether Te'o was an unwitting victim or perpetrator, his story points to the fundamental problem and potential of the hoax--they are simulacra, drawing our attention to the ways the media manufactures our reality in our everyday lives. At the same time, their "fakery" reassures us that somewhere there exists "the truth."