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View What is a hoax

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What Is A Hoax?

Our culture describes many different activities as hoaxes. When a newspaper knowingly prints a fake story, we call it a hoax. We also describe misleading publicity stunts, false bomb threats, scientific frauds, business scams, and bogus political claims as hoaxes.

One common thread that runs through all this activities is that they are all deceptive acts, or lies. But not just any deceptive act qualifies as a hoax. A small white lie, such as when an employee falsely calls in sick to take a day off work, doesn’t qualify as a hoax. Nor do most forms of criminal deception, such as identity theft, counterfeiting, perjury, or plagiarism. To become a hoax a lie must have something extra. It must be somehow outrageous, ingenious, dramatic, or sensational. Most of all, it must command the attention of the public. A hoax, then, is a deliberately deceptive act that has succeeded in capturing the attention (and, ideally, the imagination) of the public.

The key word in this definition is “public.” There is no such thing as a private hoax. A deception rises to the level of a hoax by achieving public notoriety. The broader the public impact a hoax achieves, the higher it ranks in the hoax honor roll of infamy. This characteristic can be used to mark out the similarities and differences between hoaxes and four other forms of deception: frauds, pranks, urban legends, and tall tales.

Frauds are a criminal form of deception. Often people draw a sharp distinction between hoaxes and frauds. Frauds, they say, are perpetrated simply to make money, whereas hoaxes touch on something deeper. But a fraud can become a hoax when the method of acquiring financial return generates a broad enough public impact, or is unusual enough to capture the public’s imagination. In this sense, the only element differentiating frauds and hoaxes is the reaction of the public. For this reason, a variety of notorious stock-market frauds whose motive was solely financial gain have achieved the status of hoax, such as the Great Stock Exchange Hoax of 1814 and the Emulex Hoax of 2000.

It is the same with pranks. A prank is defined as a mischievous trick, such as putting a whoopee cushion beneath a chair, or short-sheeting a bed. However, if a prank attracts the attention of a wide public audience, it can rise to the level of a hoax. For instance, making a prank phone call to a friend might generate a few laughs, but it will never be reported on the front page of a newspaper. It will always remain just a prank. But making a prank phone call to the Queen of England, and broadcasting that call over the radio to millions of people, certainly would raise that prank to the level of a hoax. It is a question of the degree of public interest in the act.

Urban legends are false stories that circulate throughout the culture, often spread via email or word of mouth. Like hoaxes, they are examples of falsehoods that people swallow, and, like them, often achieve broad public notoriety. The difference is that urban legends are unintentionally deceptive, whereas hoaxes are intentionally so. Urban legends do not have single authors. Instead, they seem to spring from the society itself. Often they are old stories that have been subtly recycled to match new circumstances. People tell these stories to their friends and acquaintances not out of a deliberate desire to fool, but because they think the stories might be true. Hoaxes, by contrast, are purposeful acts. There is always a hoaxer who deliberately perpetrates them, intending to fool other people. If it were discovered that an urban legend had a single author who created the story with an intent to deceive, then it would cease to be a legend and become a hoax.

Finally, there are tall tales. Whereas the standard hoax is an act of deception perpetrated by a single person (or sometimes a group of people), tall tales are acts of deception in which entire communities winkingly participate. For instance, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, jackalopes, and fur-bearing trout may not exist in a literal sense, but large sections of the population collaborate in maintaining the fiction that they do. When individuals invent tall tales, the larger community will often recognize what they are up to and play along with the jest. Standard hoaxes, by contrast, will eventually be debunked.

Origin of the word

The word hoax first came into popular use sometime in the middle to late eighteenth century. It is thought to have been a contraction of the word hocus from the conjuror’s term hocus pocus. The term hocus pocus itself first appeared in the early seventeenth century. It might have derived from the assumed name of a conjuror in the time of King James who called himself ‘The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus’ because with the performance of every trick he used to call out the nonsense phrase, “Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo” (later magicians were known to use the phrase “Hax pax max deus adimax”). This phrase was itself probably an imitation (or mockery) of the phrase used by priests of the Church of Rome when they performed the act of transubstantiation, “hoc est corpus.”

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