What Is A Hoax?

A hoax is an outrageous, ingenious, dramatic, or sensational act of deception that captures the attention (and often the imagination) of the public. Great hoaxes, like the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 and the Cardiff Giant, manage to create a sense of mystery and astonishment. They force people to question their assumptions, to wonder what is real and what is not. Not so great hoaxes usually manage, at the very least, to be amusing. The worst kind of hoaxes can actually cause serious damage to people's lives and finances.

Hoaxes, as a broad category, can encompass a broad variety of phenomena. In particular, the term 'hoax' is often used to describe specialized forms of deception such as cases of fraud, pranks, and tall tales. Often, but not always. The crucial distinction seems to be that only when these forms of deception attract enough public attention, do they begin to be referred to as hoaxes. In other words, 'hoax' is a label that an act of deception is given if, and only if, it achieves a certain level of public notoriety. That's why garden-variety lies, common acts of fraud, minor practical jokes, etc. aren't referred to as hoaxes. They simply haven't crossed the threshold of attracting the public's attention. They're not outrageous or unusual enough.

Another interesting feature of hoaxes is that they're forms of deception which victims are often blamed for believing. In other words, in most cases of lying we condemn the liar and no one else. For instance, say you call your employer and tell him or her a lie to get out of work. If you later get caught, it's unlikely anyone is going to blame your employer for having believed you. The fault will fall on your head alone. But with hoaxes we do blame the person who believed the lie. In many cases we even celebrate the hoaxer while condemning the victim. This is because hoaxes, in a sense, are a form of social control. They're one method that society uses to punish instances of what it perceives to be false or mistaken belief. We laugh at the idiots who believe stupid things, thereby creating strong social pressure to dissuade others from being similarly foolish.

One important assumption of my definition is that hoaxes are deceptions which have been recognized by the public AS DECEPTIONS. In other words, a deception only transforms into a hoax the moment it is publicly unmasked as a lie. Before that, while it may in hindsight be seen as a "hoax-in-waiting," it is actually considered to be the truth.

This distinction, while it may seem obvious, has two important consequences.

First, it means that hoaxes paradoxically thrive more in cultures that prize open, public debate. A closed, repressive society may be built entirely on lies, but the lies are unlikely to be readily exposed or acknowledged. The potential hoaxes in such societies never come to the surface. By contrast, lies are constantly being exposed in open societies. This lends closed societies a false appearance of honesty and stability, and tarnishes open societies with a misleading appearance of scandal. The truth is that the presence of hoaxes is a good indicator of a society that is willing and eager to expose the untruths in its midst. Of course, common sense must be applied here. Too many hoaxes is probably a sign of a serious crisis of social confidence, and is therefore just as bad as no hoaxes at all.

Second, the fact that hoaxes are publicly recognized acts of deception offers a convenient (though highly relativistic) way of distinguishing true hoaxes from fake hoaxes. What do I mean by fake hoaxes? Well, there are an awful lot of people out there nursing the belief that one thing or another is a hoax. The most prominent such group is the community of people who insist that the moon landing of 1969 was faked. But should I actually list the lunar landing in the Museum as a hoax simply because some people say it was a hoax? My answer is no. But not because I've studied the evidence and decided that astronauts really did land on the moon (though this is what I do believe). Instead, my sense is that most people accept that the moon landing was real, and in this respect, regardless of whether or not the moon landing actually occurred, it has not been publicly recognized as a deception. Therefore, it is not a hoax.

Finally, I should make note of one genre of mistaken belief that often gets lumped together with hoaxes, even though the two are quite separate. I'm talking about urban legends. Urban legends are stories that get passed around that people initially believe to be true, but which turn out to be false. Examples include the claim that a man once strapped a rocket to his car and propelled himself into a nearby cliff, or that Neiman Marcus once charged a woman $250 for a cookie recipe. On the surface such stories appear to be hoaxes, but they're not. The difference is that urban legends have no identifiable author or creator. They are originless, created out of the culture itself. In fact, they're a form of modern folklore. Very often the same stories cycle through the culture for generation after generation, with details changing slightly to keep up with the times. Hoaxes, on the other hand, have authors (though it's not always possible to identify exactly who the author is). They're deliberate acts of deception, perpetrated in a specific time and place.

Because urban legends are not a form of deliberate deception, they're not included in the Museum. Anyway, there are a lot of sites which offer great resources for learning about urban legends, such as snopes.com. But sometimes things that appear to be urban legends turn out to have identifiable authors. In such cases they instantly transform into hoaxes and qualify for inclusion in the Museum.