Hoaxes Throughout History
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Hoaxes of 2014

A crop circle was discovered in a barley field in Chualar, California, near Salinas. The pattern of the circle resembled a microchip. Small dots inside the circle spelled out the number 192, in braille. Also, three large dots on the outer perimeter of the circle were positioned at the clock-hand positions of 1, 9, and 2. The mysterious circle attracted global attention, but within a week it was revealed to be a marketing stunt created in order to promote a new mobile processor by NVIDIA — a processor with 192 cores (thus the references to 192). The CEO of NVIDIA, Jen-Hsun Huang, admitted to the stunt during a presentation in Las Vegas.
A photo was widely shared on social media with a caption claiming that it showed a "Syrian boy sleeping between parents' grave." But in fact, nothing about the photo was as it seemed. The photo was taken in Saudi Arabia, not Syria. The mounds of pebbles weren't actually graves. And the boy was only pretending to be asleep. The shot had been staged by a photographer as a conceptual art project. The boy was his nephew. The false caption was traced to a Syrian opposition leader who had added it when tweeting the photo. More…
A viral news story claimed that, due to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Philip Morris had decided to start selling Marlboro Marijuana Cigarettes, marketed under the brand name "Marlboro M." And since only the advertisement of tobacco products (not marijuana) was banned in the United States, the company had supposedly set aside a huge $15 billion advertising budget to promote the new product. In reality, the story originated from a "satirical" fake news site, Abril Uno. The false story echoed an urban legend popular in the 1960s, alleging that the big tobacco companies were eagerly anticipating the day when pot would be legal, and that many of them had already registered names for their planned marijuana cigarettes. More…
When Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi went completely deaf at the age of 35, he continued to compose music, explaining that he was able to do so because of his "absolute pitch." He composed some of his most popular works while deaf. On account of this, he was often referred to as the "Japanese Beethoven." But in February 2014 it came to light that all the music attributed to Samuragochi since 1996 had actually been ghostwritten by Takashi Niigaki, a part-time lecturer at the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo. Nor was Samuragochi deaf. He was merely slightly hearing impaired. He had been faking deafness in order to enhance his mystique. [New Yorker, Wikipedia]

The Sochi Wolf (Feb 2014)

During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, US luger Kate Hansen posted a video to YouTube and Twitter showing a wolf wandering the halls in the dormitory where she was housed. The video quickly went viral. There had been many reports and complaints about the numerous stray dogs loose in the streets of Sochi, so it seemed somewhat plausible that a wolf might have gotten into the dormitory. However, the footage turned out to be a hoax by the late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel (with Hansen's assistance). His crew had built a replica of an Olympic Village dorm in their LA studio, then shot footage of a wolf wandering through its hallway. The wolf was actually a rescued North American timber wolf named Rugby that Kimmel's crew had hired.

HUVr Board (Mar 2014)

The future seemed to have arrived when a video ad appeared online announcing the invention of the world's first working hoverboard — just like the one famously featured in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II. The floating antigravity "HUVr board" was supposedly created by a team of MIT physics graduates. Particularly noteworthy was the number of celebrities in the video shown riding the board, including Moby, Tony Hawk, Terrell Owens, and Christopher Lloyd (who played Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies). Their presence gave a veneer of believability to the otherwise fantastical invention. The video quickly racked up over 12 million views on YouTube and generated enormous speculation about whether the HUVr board could possibly be real, or if it was all some kind of publicity stunt (and if so, for what?). Within a few days the mystery was solved when comedy website Funny or Die admitted to being the creative team behind the video, which they explained as simply a prank. Skateboarder Tony Hawk apologized to his fans for his participation in the prank, noting that he "thought it would be obvious that it was fake, but a lot of people believed it." More…

Gay Village (June 2014)

A Dutch real estate company announced plans to develop a utopian "protected" community specifically for gay people on the north side of Tilburg. It would be named "Gay Village." The company said it had come up with the idea after seeing research showing that 22% of gay men didn't feel safe in their own neighborhood. The concept immediately generated controversy, with many denouncing it as a "gay ghetto". But a day later, the gay rights organization Roze Maandag (Pink Monday) admitted it was the mastermind behind the plan, which was all a hoax designed to highlight the problem of homophobia and "create awareness." [guardian]
Edinburgh police went out to investigate after receiving a report from someone who had been browsing Google Street View and spotted what appeared to be a murder on a city street recorded by the Google car's camera. In the street view scene, a man lay face down on the ground as another man holding an axe-handle stood over him. But when the police arrived at the scene, they thankfully found the victim still alive, and happily working with his "murderer" at a car repair shop. The two explained that, back in August 2012, they had noticed the Google car coming down the street. So, on the spur of the moment, they staged a fake murder scene for the benefit of the camera. The images of the "murder" made it onto Google maps a few months later, but it took more than a year before someone noticed the scene and reported it to the police.
The Internet went into full outrage mode after Kelly Mullins posted on Facebook that her 3-year-old granddaughter, Victoria, had been asked to leave a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Jackson, Mississippi because her facial scars, caused by a recent dog attack, "scared the other diners." "Does this face look scary to you?" the furious grandmother asked. KFC's Facebook page was flooded with angry comments, prompting the embarrassed company, as a gesture of goodwill, to pledge $30,000 to help fund Victoria's ongoing medical costs. More than $100,000 in donations was also given to the family by members of the public. However, subsequent investigation found no evidence that the family had ever been in the KFC where the incident supposedly occurred. Footage from the surveillance cameras showed no sign of them on the day in question. KFC said that, no matter, it stood by its offer of financial support. Young Victoria's family, for their part, continued to insist that the incident really had taken place.
Star USC football player Josh Shaw was hailed as a hero when he explained that he injured both his ankles after leaping from a second-story balcony to save his young nephew from drowning in a pool. USC was so impressed that it issued a press release detailing his heroics. For a moment Shaw was a national hero. But his tale quickly soured when a police report from the night of his accident placed him at his girlfriend's apartment where neighbors reported hearing screaming as well as seeing a man that looked like Shaw jumping from her balcony. Shaw confessed that his heroism tale was a lie. But exactly what he was doing that night remains unknown. More…
A picture of a "pumpkin spice" condom supposedly soon-to-be offered by Durex went viral, accompanied by the tagline "Because safe sex is important, no matter what season it is." Given that Durex has a line of "Taste Me" condoms that come in the flavors banana, strawberry, orange and apple, a pumpkin spice flavor didn't seem all that ridiculous. But Durex soon threw cold water on people's hopes by tweeting, "We've heard talk that we launched a Pumpkin Spice condom. We can't claim this one, but we do love it when people spice it up in the bedroom." The faux pumpkin spice condom turned out to be the work of web developer Cosmo Catalono who created the image as a joke, in response to an online conversation about the proliferation of pumpkin-spiced products. He didn't intend people to think it was real, but when the image went viral it took on a life of its own.
In late September, actress Emma Watson gave a speech at the UN advocating gender equality. Soon after, a website ominously named EmmaYouAreNext.com appeared online. The site simply showed a countdown clock, a picture of Emma Watson wiping away a tear, and the logo of 4chan, a website popular in the hacker community whose members had recently released a collection of hundreds of private pictures of celebrities, illegally obtained. The implication was clear. Private pictures of Watson would soon be released as well. Media around the world, incuding the BBC, Washington Post, and NBC, reported on the site, and generally assumed that 4chan was behind the threat, since, after all, the 4chan logo appeared on the site. But when the countdown clock reached zero, instead of photos being released, the site redirected to Rantic, an internet marketing firm. Rantic claimed that it created the site as a kind of public-service campaign to help gain support for shutting down sites such as 4chan, thereby preventing more private pictures from being leaked. But skeptics note that the hoax served the double purpose of raising awareness about Rantic itself and its viral marketing services.
Florida resident Jasmine Tridevil made international headlines by claiming to have undergone an operation to give herself a third breast. She did it, she said, in order to make herself "unattractive to men," as well as to land an MTV reality series. She posted photos of herself in a bikini, showing off her extra breast. However, her story quickly fell apart upon investigation. She was exposed as Alisha Hessler, a Tampa-area massage therapist who had boasted on her website of being a "provider of internet hoaxes." Also, local reporters discovered a Tampa airport police report for a bag stolen from Hessler (and subsequently recovered). The report stated that the bag contained a "3 breast prosthesis."
CBC Radio's satirical This is That show ran a segment about artist Lana Newstrom who was supposedly making millions by selling invisible art. The show quoted Newstrom as saying, "Art is about imagination and that is what my work demands of the people interacting with it. You have to imagine a painting or sculpture is in front of you." The show's web page for the segment included a photo of art enthusiasts staring at blank walls in a gallery, apparently admiring Newstrom's paintings. Soon after it aired, the story went viral, fooling many people (who didn't realize This is That is a comedy show) into believing that Lana Newstrom was an actual artist and that people really were paying millions for invisible art. Although Lana Newstrom was a hoax, there is an actual history of artists exhibiting blank canvases and claiming (with tongue somewhat in cheek) that they're works of art. More…
On her wedding blog, Norwegian bride-to-be Thea Bryllupet talked about planning for her nuptials, sending out invitations, and shopping for dresses. Normal things for a young woman engaged to be married. But her blog nevertheless shocked and outraged millions of people. The reason: Thea was 12 and her husband-to-be, Geir, was 37. But before any wedding actually took place, the charity Plan International confessed that it had created the blog as a publicity stunt to focus attention on the global issue of child marriage. Thea wasn't really getting married, it assured everyone, but noted that around the world "39,000 children every day" really are forced into marriage.
In October, a viral video documented the numerous catcalls a young woman had to endure as she walked through the streets of New York City. Several weeks later, a video response (created by a different production company) showed a similar, but even more extreme "social experiment." It followed a woman as she pretended to be drunk and stumbled down Hollywood Boulevard. A series of men were shown approaching her and, taking advantage of her condition, trying to convince her to go home with them. The video soon had over 7 million views. But whatever significance the video might have had as a social experiment fell apart when it came to light that the entire thing had been staged. The men had been asked to participate and given their lines, told it was for a comedic, hidden-camera skit. The actress in the video also subsequently apologized for her participation, explaining that when she had been hired she had been told the video was for a "lighthearted prank show."

Syrian Hero Boy (Nov 2014)

It looked like a remarkable act of heroism caught on video. A young boy braves rifle fire in order to run to the aid of a girl cowering behind a burnt-out truck. With bullets still flying around them, he pulls her to safety. The video, titled "Syria! Syrian HERO BOY rescue girl in shootout," was viewed over 5 million times in a matter of days, and provoked enormous debate. However, many skeptics questioned the authenticity of the video, noting that the boy appeared to be shot near the beginning, but then got up and continued on, as if unhurt. The skeptics were right. Within a few days, the filmmaker, Lars Klevberg of Oslo, stepped forward. He had filmed the video on a movie set in Malta. He explained that the reason he disguised the video as genuine footage from the conflict in Syria was that he wanted to generate discussion about children in war zones.
The rumor at New York's Stuyvesant High School was that 17-year-old student Mohammed Islam was a financial genius who had made $72 Million in the stock market. This might have remained just a high-school rumor, except that New York Magazine got wind of it and arranged an interview with the young whiz kid. Over a lunch of caviar and apple juice, "Mo" Islam told reporter Jessica Pressler that he had already rented an apartment in Manhattan, bought a BMW, and planned to start his own hedge fund. Pressler seemed impressed. In her subsequent article, headlined "A Stuyvesant senior made $72 million trading stocks on his lunch break," she said the rumor of his wealth "seemed legit." Naturally, such a remarkable story attracted attention, and that's when it all began to unravel. Faced with the prospect of telling his rags-to-riches story in front of TV cameras, Mo Islam panicked and admitted it was all a lie. The reality was he hadn't made a cent. He had never even traded real stocks, only simulated ones as part of an investment club. More…