H for Hoax

Admitting to an interest in hoaxes and fakery is probably not something a reader really wants a blogger to do. After all, the genre’s history is littered with stories of bloggers who made claims about themselves that turned out, on investigation, not to be true. There’ve been various blogs by people with cancer or other diseases who actually didn’t, for example (“dying” just when things start to get controversial seems a theme with those). More recently, a blog by a gay Syrian woman about the crisis there attracted some attention – then got even more when it turned out to be written by a heterosexual American man who’d  never even been to Syria. So anyone could be forgiven for reading “mentions being interested in hoaxes” as “confessions of a big time faker who’s probably about to be exposed.”

Anyway, I’ve been reading a lot about hoaxes lately. And would I lie to you about myself? (On a more serious note, on the whole, I avoid writing about what’s going on in my life in detail anyway). It’s amazing what stuff people have made up and got away with, at least for a time, and there’s no magic formula to avoid being fooled. Anyone can be scammed, the dark side of hoaxing where the hoaxer’s straight-up after your money. It has happened to me, although I am mildly proud of one time I didn’t fall for the  old “help, I’ve lost all my money and need you to give me some so I can get home” line because I thought the guy was over-acting and seemed fake.

The one common thing behind all hoaxes seems to be the thought – “What is it that will get the attention of my audience?” A hoaxer needs to get our attention first, so his information can interest us in doing something that he wants us to do, whether it’s hand over cash, buy his latest book on how he was abducted by aliens in Tibet or do something stupid for the benefit of the hidden camera. If the process sounds kind of familiar, it should be, because it’s the process of selling something, as summarised by Alec Baldwin’s character in the film Glengarry Glen Ross – “A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action.” Hoaxers are salespeople (and some salespeople, like the movie characters, are pretty much hoaxers).

Both also have a lot in common with actors. That’s one reason Glengarry Glenn Ross has such a starry cast, although interestingly a lot of real-life hoaxes seem to fall down at the point where someone is actually required to pretend to be someone else. Anthony Godby  Johnson, a teenager who, in the early 90s, “wrote” a fake memoir about his abused childhood, was revealed not to exist when it was realised that no-one but his “adoptive mother” had ever met him and that recorded phone calls from “him” were in fact in her voice. In fact, reading about literary hoaxes just tends to reinforce the stereotype of writers as people with a limited capacity for complex social interaction (I’m saying nothing on the subject).

The way the hoaxer often gets an audience’s attention is either by telling them exactly what they want to hear, or exactly what they don’t want to hear. The first is more obvious. “Hey, look at all these completely unconnected people playing my totally non-rigged three-card monte game! You too could win some easy money!” “Hey, Christians, you really want to believe in Jesus? Look, I have some very credible artefacts that seem to be connected with Him!” “Hey, Ufologists, you really want to believe in UFOs? Here’s my very believable book about the time I met aliens who told me they built the Pyramids.”

Telling people what they don’t want to hear is a rather more devious process. Essentially, it relies on manipulating people’s fear. A lot of the more questionably scientific “science” stories you read in newspapers run on this. A headline reading “Science proves red wine causes cancer” is guaranteed to get the attention of everyone who drinks red wine, even if the “evidence” consists of some study that concluded “well, lots of people who had cancer used to drink red wine.”

My favourite real-life example of this is the forger Mark Hoffman. In the 1980s he forged a series of historical documents, many of which had as a common theme the apparent casting of doubt on the officially-approved version of Mormon history. Hoffman counted on the Church of Latter Day Saints and/or loyal Mormons buying these so they could suppress them or at least have some control over the relevant stories when they came out, and he succeeded, for a while anyway. He was playing on the suppressed fears of his victims that actually, Mormonism might just turn out not to be true.

The best defence against being hoaxed, then, is to ask yourself – “Why am I, specifically, being told this information? Is there anything in me that makes me more likely to believe this than others would, and if I do believe it, what does the person telling me get out of it?” This is not an easy thing to do, because it requires a degree of knowledge of yourself, your prejudices and weaknesses, that we all struggle to attain. In an ideal world, if this triggers your suspicions, you then go off and look at the evidence to see if the information is well-founded.

Of course, in reality, most of us don’t have the time to investigate every possible hoax that comes our way (and hoaxers know that). Also, some are done well enough that it takes investigative journalists, police officers or other experts to pull them apart. However, just searching Google will probably be enough for the simpler ones, like the bogus news stories circulating social media, and not enough people make even that limited effort.





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