Strange but true: This is the golden age of hoaxes
Whatever else can be said about hoaxes, they do have a wonderfully democratizing effect. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, even (who are we kidding; especially) the media, are all just as susceptible to polished patter and an appealing story as the rawest Victorian rube shelling out his wages for a barker's snake oil cure-all medicine. The "hook," as it's known in the trade, is often a plausible story, tailored to fit the victim's prejudices, or to play on greed, vanity, or desperation. In the early 20th century, a crudely faked fossil skull tricked anthropologists into believing that modern humans originated in England--an appealing thought to European scientists (story, Page 69). And in 1983, Newsweek and the German magazine Der Stern paid millions to print excerpts from a bogus diary, purportedly the private musings of Adolf Hitler (story, Page 62). "People saw great big headlines and pats on the back, and perhaps something more substantive as well," says one former Newsweeker. "It was just too tempting to pass up." Sometimes, it turns out, believing is really just seeing what you want to be true.
Are we more vulnerable to hoaxes in the information age, or less so? With modern communications, hoaxes can be debunked as rapidly as they are created. Several Web sites track electronic hoaxes (hoaxbusters.ciac.org is a good one), but if the number of phony virus alert E-mails I receive is any indication, the Internet's power is more readily harnessed to proliferate hoaxes than to quash them. For the record, Bill Gates will not give you a thousand dollars for testing an E-mail tracking application, and you shouldn't trust that dude in Nigeria who swears he needs your help to transfer millions out of the country. With E-mail, notes Boese, "anybody can potentially have access to millions of people." When that anybody happens to be a hoaxer, the results can spread for years.
The events of September 11 have proved to be particularly rich fodder for Internet hoaxes. The most famous features a photo of a tourist on a World Trade Center observation deck, a mere instant before an airliner slams into the building. Even if the film could have survived the horrific fires that day, the image is an obvious fabrication. The airplane is approaching from the wrong direction, the WTC observation deck was closed when the attacks took place, and the tourist is wearing winter clothes on a warm day. The photo, phony as it was, worked as a hoax not because it was believable but because it captured the public mood perfectly; the hapless tourist stood in for all of us, sucker-punched out of the blue on a perfect late-summer morning.
Fertile ground. Other 9/11 hoaxes were more sinister. False claims of lost relatives, designed to elicit sympathy or claim undeserved compensation, were the most tawdry. A series of anthrax hoaxes, following the all too real postal attacks, exploited people's justifiable fear. And 21st-century spins on the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax (story, Page 45) abounded. That Israel was behind the attacks and that Jewish employees were warned to stay home that day are patently ridiculous claims. When lies are planted in a field of ugly prejudice, even the most insidious hoaxes can take root.