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The Hoax Is the New Viral, and it Infuriates Us

on December 11, 2013

People like being fooled by magicians. When we watch a magician we open ourselves up to enjoy the trickery. We accept the premise that this person is about to fool us, prepare ourselves mentally, and get ready to play the game.

When we’re not prepared to be tricked, and we are fooled, we feel like idiots, and that makes us angry. This is quite the opposite response from being tricked by a magician which is usually that of delight. Ironically, before any story is revealed to be a hoax we’re often delighted, intellectually inspired, humored, or even politically agitated. As soon as the story is proven to be a hoax any positive emotion we previously felt often turns into anger.

Recently, there’s been a flurry of high profile hoaxes, with each generating endless social media responses that have stirred up a mountain of controversy and debate. What I also noticed is that all three took advantage of different media to create the reality of the story. For example:

Not only did we not realize that these elements were fake, but they added to the realism of the story making us believe even more.

Our anger at hoaxes causes us to demand retribution

When these stories are revealed to be hoaxes, almost universally people get unbelievably angry, wanting some retribution they can’t actually have. One comment on the Google protest video hoax stated, “People who pull that kind of shit should be slapped – both with an open hand and figuratively with fines.”

He’s furious because he’s fallen for the hoax, as if it was a virus on his sense of reason.

In a profanity-laden post, Dave Weigel, a political reporter for Slate, slammed Buzzfeed and others for shoddy reporting of the Elan Gale story, and referred to Elan Gale as “one of the worst people on the planet.” The criticism was laid out after the story had been revealed as a hoax. Weigel “oh so smartly” said we should have seen it was a hoax as he watched it play out. If Weigel knew before everyone else that it was a hoax, why wasn’t he the one who exposed it? It’s very easy to tell people you screwed up when all the pieces are laid out in front of you. At that point you don’t need Weigel or anyone else telling you what you did wrong. It’s pretty clear.

Embrace the hoax as an effective means to tell a story, and convey a message

In response to everyone’s reaction to this and other hoaxes, Weigel posted a rather astute tweet:

While Weigel’s tweet was meant to be that of disdain, I see the hoax format of using multiple media as real elements as an incredibly effective means to tell a very believable story that invites delight, discussion, and controversy.

We saw this play out years ago with LonelyGirl15, a series of supposedly personal videos produced by a teenage girl as told to her webcam and posted on YouTube (read and listen to: “The LonelyGirl15 Model of Interactive Storytelling”). Even after it was discovered that this was a fully produced series, and not the creation of the teenage girl, people still enjoyed the storytelling format of short video snippets via YouTube.

What can’t be squelched are the sentiments these hoaxes raise. Even after a story is revealed to be a hoax people still can’t stop debating the issues:

  • Elan Gale story: Obnoxious passengers and bullying
  • Google protest video: Annoyance of San Francisco’s tech elite
  • Lesbian waitress: Homophobia

What I’m discovering is it only takes a little bit of realism to make a story very believable. This is not to say that you need to create a hoax with a lot of fake elements to make a story, but rather you need to focus on the small details, like a receipt, a note, a video of an argument, to make your story that much more believable, and more importantly, to spur a discussion on that topic.

According to a recent article by the NYTimes, those stories that have the highest potential to go viral are actually false. When a hoax goes viral it infuriates us because we’re responsible for its success. It appears people aren’t falling for truth is stranger than fiction but are rather finding fiction rather entertaining on its own merits.

Next time you’re fooled by a hoax, instead of being angry at the hoaxer, look at what they did and what you can learn from it. Could your stories become more realistic with just a few more visual and audible details? Would there be value to telling a story that’s not true? Not every story has to be truthful, and the false ones don’t need to be hoaxes (Read and listen to: “Hacking Media Production: Fiction in Content Marketing”).

Your thoughts?


“Fooled You” image courtesy of the Johnson-Smith catalog of practical jokes from Technologizer.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott P December 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm

David, the key here is that each hoax cynically exploits an emotionally charged preconceived notion held by a large number of people. To wit: that the tech employee is a rich geek/snob/jerk or that the waitress suffers lifestyle discrimination. We just know in our guts that this happens, so our emotions suspend our disbelief.

David Spark December 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Right on the money Scott. I think not only our emotions suspend our disbelief, but our professionalism to be journalists and determine whether this story is real or not is suspended as well.

Joe Colburn December 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm

I don’t think you read my whole comment on Facebook. This statement you made is completely untrue: “He’s furious because he’s fallen for the hoax, as if it was a virus on his sense of reason.”. I didn’t fall for any hoax. It’s possible that I could have if id had not already been uncovered as a hoax by time I read it. My anger at the hoax’s perpetrator stemmed from the fact that he took advantage of people and the media in order to make computer programmers look bad.

David Spark December 11, 2013 at 6:42 pm

I stand corrected then. Regardless, you’re angry at the hoax in itself, correct? And therefore you’re angry at the use of the hoax as a means to generated controversy and debate, because it was false and played on people’s emotions. This reminds me of the 80s when people got so angry at Andrew Dice Clay’s misogynistic, homophobic, and racist rants. I’d always say, “Don’t be yelling at Dice. He just exploited an obvious existing desire in people.” Be angry with the thousands of people who purchased tickets to see him in Madison Square Garden. I would say the same here. Don’t be angry with the perpetrator. If you want to be angry, which I don’t think is necessary, direct it at the people who can’t control their reaction.

Joe Colburn December 11, 2013 at 6:53 pm

No. I’m still angry at the guy who perpetrated the hoax. I’m angry at him, specifically, for intentionally turning people against a demographic I belong to. The way he did it just makes him an even worse person. It sounds like you’re saying he and Andrew Dice Clay should both be off the hook and I disagree. Sure, we should lay some blame with the people who support their actions (with money or viral attention), but you can’t put halo on this guy’s head and just call everyone stupid for believing him. Honestly, I hadn’t given any more thought to the hoax or the perpetrator until you wrote this and I just wanted to make my position a bit clearer.

David Spark December 12, 2013 at 11:27 am

I’m not putting a halo on the guy’s head. You have to realize all who participate are complacent. What he, Andrew Dice Clay, and other hoaxers see is an opening in the market to exploit sentiments and behavior that already exist. My article points to the fact that these hoaxers are using storytelling techniques that could be of value to others. I’m not saying you have to pull the wool over people’s eyes, but rather use real elements to increase the believability and memorability of your story.

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