The Media Hoax Phenomenon

Curator's Note

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."


Thanks very much for organizing this week and getting us off to such a great start with this post, Laurel. I'm particularly compelled by your idea that hoaxes--historic or contemporary--are not merely about tricking us into believing something false, but also about offering us the comfort of "the truth" being out there somewhere. In the freshman seminar I'm currently teaching on media hoaxes (look for comments from my students throughout this week!), we've been talking a bit about the purposes of hoaxes as it relates to this. However, we've also looked at some historic hoaxes (e.g., the Central Park Zoo Hoax of 1874) where the perpetrators stated different purposes: to warn the public of the potential for hoax to actually happen (so, in the case of the zoo, it was about the potential for the zoo animals to actually escape and wreak havoc on the city and its denizens). Though I'm skeptical that Jimmy Kimmel's twerking hoax, for example, was designed with the same public service in mind, I wonder whether some of today's Internet hoaxes could be seen as simultaneously manufacturing reality as well as warning us of its impending arrival?

Upon reviewing my post today, I am struck by my word slippages throughout. I interchange the words "hoax" "fraud" and "fake story." These are married to words like "conspiracy" and "fiction" and "scandal" (a word that I used originally and edited out, but that is still relevant here). I wonder if these words are truly interchangeable and what their relationship is (and their differences). For example, the phrase "fake story" implies its opposite: "true story." I am reminded of Alisa Lebow's article on the use of the phrase "fake documentary" versus the word "mockumentary." She argues that there is more at stake than just semantics. While some scholars have taken to using the phrase "fake documentary" when referring to films that borrow the aesthetics of documentary to tell a fictional story, she argues that we ought to stick to the word "mockumentary." The reason being is that the title "fake documentary" implies implicitly that there is an ideal, pure form of documentary out there. Instead "mockumentary" points to the ways that films--like Zelig, or The Watermelon Woman, or even This is Spinal Tap--are undoing documentary from within, or at least complicating our comfort zones by challenging our ideas of what documentary is or should be. With this in mind, is there something at stake in choosing what words we use to describe these media events? Does the word "hoax" say something different than "fake story" or "fraud"? Where do the words "conspiracy" "fiction" and "scandal" fit into the mix? What other words are out there that relate to this issue? See Lebow's article here:

Laurel, Your thoughts on the "mockumentary" and the cluster of words that surround "hoax" point to an interesting thought: how are satire, parody, and hoax in conversation with one another with regard to deceptive practices and the "truth"? Must these words be defined in terms of intent and outcomes? (And let's not get started on the possible influence of the television show Scandal on "scandal"!) As Elizabeth points out, there is something interesting here when we recast a hoax as content creation. Although we can certainly debate the ends to which such an effort is deployed, I think about how the act of the online hoax is related to the performance that occurs in shaping online identities (dating, Facebook, etc) in general--on some level aren't we all engaged in manipulating opinion in some form? Is there a way to think about the cognitive processes that go into creating a hoax and harness them for more pro-social ends? In conjunction with your point about how we want to believe in the hoax (on some level), there is something to be complimented in the successful hoax, then, as it accurately latches onto something in culture that might have previously been unacknowledged. Like the Piltdown Man, the Cardiff Giant wouldn't have been noteworthy unless it tapped into something deep with ourselves (in this case an ongoing negotiation about evolution). I'm still chewing on it but I am wondering if the hoaxes covered in this week evidence two major themes: concern with profit/labor and concern with confronting established thoughts. In some form does a "hoax" necessarily capitalize on uncritical thought? I would be interesting to get students' takes on the subject!

Laurel et al: My students have had troubles with the interface recognizing/accepting their registration requests, so I’m posting these comments (and I may have more), on their behalf. I’m sure they’d love to hear back from you, even though they weren’t able to post themselves: From Keith: Laurel one thing I loved about you post was your statement saying media hoaxes are not new is very true. But in our world today it is much easier to gain access about somebody and know a lot of information about him or her without even knowing him or her. The Manti Te’o case was a perfect hoax case because he was somebody that could gain easy access to just because of who he was. A “supposed” top 10 player in the NFL draft who wouldn’t know about him? Media can you get caught up no matter who you are. For example teenage problems such as boyfriend and girlfriend, one may see the other flirting with someone else on social media and this may cause friction between the two. NFL players tweeting something that is inappropriate or saying something they shouldn’t during an interview. As fast as that person says something the faster it will go viral through the Internet. Media is taking a step forward everyday because people are coming up with new and better ideas. So will hoaxes become more of an everyday thing or can we stop this from happening? If so how? From Tricia: With the increase in technology’s capabilities, it is certainly believable that this past year was dubbed the year of the Media Hoaxes. Laurel is completely right in stating that our natural human desire to engage in the thrill of these stories is a factor in our susceptibility to seeing truth in them. In addition to this, I think that another important contributor to our level of believability is the way the hoaxes are crafted. Today’s larger access to technology and its capabilities allows people to build layers of “truth” upon their hoaxes, ultimately burying their lies as deeply as possible. For example, in the case of the journalist Stephen Glass who fabricated a majority of his articles and presented them as truth, access to a computer let Glass take his lies as far as he could. He created a website for one of the made up sources he had referenced in his article and even fake voicemail accounts. Without this opportunity to create cover ups, Glass’s lies may have been foiled a lot earlier. As technology progresses, the prevalence of hoaxes that succeed in fooling us will increase. Upcoming years will trump 2013 in becoming the new year of Media Hoaxes.

Jasmine writes: Laurel, I also agree with your take on the idea that the falsifications of these media stories are effectively compelling because of the idea that there is some truth out there. And I wonder if that truth is, in response to Chris’s final question, the capitalization of uncritical thought, as he stated. What I mean to say is that while these media stories are proven to be illegitimate, there may be an underlying truth or popular opinion that is being indirectly suggested. Similar to how moral lessons are indirectly suggested through fables. Also, in the case of the AptiQuant hoax, journalists reported, blogged, tweeted and retweeted a “research study” which claimed that people with lower IQ levels used older versions of Internet Explorer and resisted upgrading, while those with higher IQ levels used the more updated and complex browsers, such as Camino, Opera, and Internet Explorer with Chrome Frame. This study had not actually been performed, and had the journalists fact-checked accordingly they would have known that before releasing the false information. However, they did not fact-check because they assumed it to be true based on their own bias. With that, the hoax was able to indirectly expose “the truth” that so compels the audience. It exposes the idea that people expect those with lower IQ levels to have lower standards compared to those with higher IQ levels. In some way, hoaxes are an advocate for society.

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