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Why hoax?

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Mark Easton | 14:34 UK time, Thursday, 24 July 2008

Shortly after news broke of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic (aka alternative healer Dragan Dabic) this week, someone apparently went to the trouble of registering the domain name in order to perpetrate a hoax on the world. The prankster found photographs of the man, manufactured a biography in Serbian and English and with a flourish, posted Dr Dabic's 10 favourite ancient Chinese proverbs.

My question is why? websiteSome hoaxes are for financial gain. Others for revenge or to make some political point. But this falls into that category of hoax motivated by the sheer pleasure of seeing people all around the world fall for it.

Crop circles are in the same group of global hoax: nothing in it for the hoaxer other than the amusement at seeing others scratch their heads and jump to daft conclusions.

One of my favourites is the story of big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell's search for the Loch Ness monster in the 1930s. Strolling along the bonny banks one day, he spotted some strange footprints. Excitement mounted - they were large and relatively fresh. Casts were made and sent for analysis at the Natural History Museum. The world waited in anticipation for the results which showed they were the footprints... of a hippopotamus. The hoaxer had used a hippopotamus foot umbrella-stand to bag himself a Marmaduke.

The internet has inspired a new generation of hoaxers who often claim their activities are designed to illustrate people's gullibility. My guess is that the real motivation is actually the sense of power it can give - the same psychological driver behind spreading viruses or hacking secure sites.

SurferIn November 2004, the press pack traipsed down to Portreath in Cornwall to cover the story of 'Surf Rage'. Disgruntled Cornish surfers were apparently taking direct action against visitors who used local beaches. The source of the story, which was covered by the BBC, The Times, The Independent and the Press Association, was a website called which called for "guerrilla tactics" against tourists. The site was in fact created by a group of journalism students. (You cannot trust the media.)

More recently there was the story of a 13-year-old Texan boy who was convicted of stealing his dad's credit card and using it to hire two prostitutes with whom to play PlayStation. An amended version of the tale can be found here.

The Sun, the Telegraph and London's Metro paper all ran the story which was later revealed to be a complete hoax. The author was a blogger who calls himself Lyndon Antcliff and claims it was an exercise in "linkbaiting".

The BBC now runs courses on how to avoid being hoaxed - not least because we have been rather spectacularly fooled in the past. Some viewers get satisfaction, apparently, by seeing their fake or retouched photographs being published.

I get plenty of e-mails tipping me off about extraordinary conspiracy stories which, if only they were true, would win me a Bafta.

The most troubling hoax which got through was in 2004 when the BBC broadcast a false report that the US company Dow Chemical had admitted blame for the Bhopal disaster and set up a massive compensation fund.

The source for the story was a bogus, but very convincing, website which had been set up much earlier by anti-capitalist anarchists called The Yes Men. The group has written a book ("Improperganda - The Art of the Publicity Stunt", Mark Borowski, 2000), which details the success of their various anti-capitalist hoaxes.

The BBC producer who had stumbled across the webpage e-mailed the address on the site, and arranged an interview with the "CEO of Dow Chemicals". The interviewee was, in fact, Yes Men activist Jude Finisterra, who went on air live to publicly acknowledge Dow's "responsibility" for the disaster. This led to an immediate loss of $2 billion from the share price of the company, money recovered fully later in the day, but a huge lesson about the sophistication of the contemporary hoaxer.

Other classic hoaxes include a campaign against dihydrogen monoxide - a highly reactive chemical which is one of the main waste products from nuclear power plants, is present in pesticides, has been used by ALL students responsible for school shootings in the US, is used by athletes to improve performance and contributes to global warming.

All the statements are true, but the calls for a ban was a stunt. Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water. Plenty fell for it, including a New Zealand MP who demanded to know from the health minister whether there were any plans to outlaw the chemical.

Another amusing hoax was perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist and mathematician. He penned an article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". It was utter nonsense - a collection of postmodern phrases and academic jargon which meant precisely nothing.

Here is an example:
"It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality", no less than social "reality", is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities."

The article was duly published in the academic journal Social Text who were not too pleased to see Mr Sokal reveal the truth in the rival magazine Dissent.

I can see his motivation, but what of those individuals who get a thrill from anonymously spoofing the media? Perhaps there is simply enormous self-satisfaction from seeing the global village chatter about your little joke.


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