School For Pranks

Status: True (news item)
A couple of people emailed me about this. (Thanks to everyone who did!) The artist Ray Beldner has been teaching a class at St. Mary's College titled "Pranks: Culture jamming as social activism." One of the class requirements is to try to hoax the media. One hoax created by the students involved "the distribution of a news release touting a fictional bar to be opened near the Moraga campus." However, the media didn't fall for it. (Evidently it wasn't sensational or salacious enough... make a story sufficiently shocking or weird and the media will usually print it first and ask questions later.) Not everyone is happy with the class. A professor of journalism ethics has charged that Beldner "is teaching students to try to screw up an important system that has enough trouble getting things right." I wouldn't agree (based on the limited quotation from the ethics professor... he may well have given a more nuanced response which isn't being reported). My understanding of the ethical rules for hoaxes is that it's wrong to make up lies that people have no reason not to believe or to take seriously (i.e. bomb threats, slander, puffing up your résumé with phony accomplishments, etc.). But it's acceptable to make up stuff if a) what you've made up is ridiculous or absurd enough that common sense would dictate people should question it before uncritically believing it, and b) the dissemination of the false information will do no harm (beyond embarrassment to those who fall for it). If you follow those rules, I think pranks and hoaxes are perfectly legitimate and can serve a useful social function.


Posted on Fri Dec 09, 2005


"If you follow those rules, I think pranks and hoaxes are perfectly legitimate and can serve a useful social function."

Besides, if people didn't pull pranks and hoaxes, you'd be out of a job. smile
Posted by Sakano  in  Ohio  on  Fri Dec 09, 2005  at  10:30 AM
I'd have to do something real to earn a living! (shudders at the thought)
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Fri Dec 09, 2005  at  11:57 AM
I would like to agree pranks and hoaxes serve the useful social function of keeping our critical thinking skills sharp but it doesn't seem to be working. The general public is no better at using their common sense to filter out the real from the unreal than they were centuries ago. So now we keep on doing it just for personal enjoyment.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Fri Dec 09, 2005  at  01:30 PM
Yeah, that's pretty much the way I understand the (unwritten) rules, Alex. It's kind of like "do no harm" from the Hippocratic Oath.

What makes me laugh is how every time the news media is hoaxed, they make a big show of decrying the bastard hoaxers but there's never any public examination of whether they should have been a wee bit more vigilant in the first place, also known as "doing their damn jobs."

Also, in a lot of follow-up stories about media hoaxes they've fallen for, newspapers will throw in a paragraph about how much the hoaxer allegedly spent on the prank, along with how many accomplices he had and how long it took to set up the gag. This serves the dual purpose of telling the average Joe that media hoaxing is too expensive and elaborate for him to take up as a hobby AND to show how the poor little mom-and-pop New York Times (or whatever paper you're reading) couldn't possibly have defended itself against the juggernaut of the wily hoaxer, armed as he was with a phone and computer.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Sat Dec 10, 2005  at  03:02 AM
If you've got to take a class to learn how to pull off a hoax, hoaxing is probably not your true calling.
Posted by Big Gary in a fictional location  in  Dallas, Texas  on  Sat Dec 10, 2005  at  01:17 PM
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