You're 'avin' a laugh ain't yer?
From Beadle to Edmonds, wind-up merchants have been conning the public for years. Kieren McCarthy gets inside the mind of a twenty-first century trickster and explores the world of Net hoaxes
Issue 81, June 2003
Everyone loves a laugh. And two of the things we most enjoy laughing at are other people's misfortune and raw, naked stupidity. Hoaxes supply both of these in heavy doses, which no doubt explains why we love them so much.
As it happens, the Internet is a prime medium for hoaxing. Emails and particularly Web sites can contain huge amounts of persuasive information with the added bonus that people can't judge someone's voice or body language to discern whether they're having you on. You can't ask any difficult questions directly either, giving the hoaxer time to think and come up with clever answers.
So whether it's getting people into a frenzy over abusing animals, or selling human flesh, or the chance to 'watch two virgins lose their innocence live!!!', the Net is the ideal way in which to allow life's thick people to apply their energy. It gives direct access to the main vein of human gullibility.
And what makes the best hoaxes all the better is that people only tend to believe them out of selfish motives - that's why hoaxes often seem so blindingly obvious when the perpertrator finally coughs up. And so we can laugh at those sucked in all the louder.
But, of course, hoaxes also show the sicker side of all our natures. They are clearly cruel and sado-masochistic - why go to so much trouble to persuade someone to believe something, just so they can be laughed at when they fall for it?
But it's just as well that you're not like that. And you've never fallen for a hoax yet, have you? Of course not...
It's a known fact that people get more upset about abuse of animals than humans - and Bonsai Kitten certainly created a stink. Offering the 'animal complement' to the art of bonsai plants, the site purported to sell kittens contained within tiny glass containers. 'By constraining the growth of a developing living thing, it can be directed to take the shape of the vessel that constrains it. Just as a topiary gardener produces bushes that take the form of animals or any other thing, you need no longer be satisfied with a housepet having the same shape as other members of its species,’ the site suggested. Such was the outrage, the FBI officially investigated the site. It was nothing but the twisted imagination of an MIT student, and remains on the Web as a testament to the sick side of the Net
Most hoaxes are discovered fairly quickly but the case of Kaycee Nicole continued for years - right up to her death from leukaemia. Until her very last days, Kaycee had kept an online diary talking of her disease. Even her mum started writing a diary talking about her emotions. However, it was only when details about the funeral were a bit hazy that people became suspicious. It soon transpired that 'Kaycee' was one Debbie Swenson from Kansas who had made the whole thing up and was the person who had written thousands of emails purporting to be fictitious Kaycee. Sick.
The other thing that drives people's gullibility is greed. Freewheelz said it would offer free cars to people on condition the owners agreed that the car was plastered with large ads and the radio in the car played selected adverts. The site got coverage from Esquire magazine mostly because Esquire was behind it - and this being 2000, several Internet companies immediately thought they had found their dream ticket. They of course are now bust, like every other Net company and Freewheelz is now a(nother) porn site. Shame because it could work, you know. No, really.
OUR FIRST TIME
As soon as sex is mentioned, people stop thinking clearly. 'Mike and Diane', two 18-year-olds, were going to lose their virginity live on the Web. The dual deflowering was 'an exercise in free speech and a lesson in sex education' apparently, and not a commercial venture - even though it would cost $5 to see it on the Our First Time.com site (now a porn site). It never happened of course, and the two 'virgins' were phoney. They believed it would be their big break into Hollywood. Angry reporters at the press conference soon put them straight.
THE SPUD SERVER
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. When a bunch of geeks announced they had built a Web sever powered by potatoes, it rang a bell in people's minds. Wasn't there a school experiment where you got a current from a lemon or something? Before you could say 'crap', the BBC, Ananova and various other online and offline publications had reported it as fact. 'The craziness continued as protagonist Steve Harris started muttering about hamsters powering his next server, but eventually sanity prevailed.
THE HONEST THIEF
Most hoaxes only manage to con the general (gullible) public. However, two Dutchmen who fancied coinciding April Fools Day 2003 with some free publicity for their management book succeeded in bamboozling some of the most Net-sawy media outlets on the planet. On 21 February, the Wall Street Journal ran with the headline 'Music Industry Faces New Threats On Web', in which it spoke about a new file-sharing business called The Honest Thief' that would take advantage of a recent ruling in a Dutch court and provide a safe haven for file-sharing programs from across the globe. It wasn't long before numerous other media outlets had run with the story, lauding the threat this posed to the music industry. But, yes, it was all a hoax and a cleverly packaged one. Even the PR company representing The Honest Thief had no idea until a few days before 1 April. A beautifully executed hoax.
You would think that a site that opens with the line: 'Have you recently committed a murder and just don't know what to with the body let alone the mess? If so you need Cadaver Inc!' would be picked out as a fake straight away. And it was. However, the people behind the site - a new band to be called, you've guessed it, Cadaver Inc - were smart enough to include a telephone number (1-866-BODYBAG) that someone actually answered. People started freaking out and the band continued the hoax, giving interviews in which they promised to remove corpses and sort out witnesses for a very reasonable $5,000.
The humorists at Despair.com couldn't believe their luck when their application to trademark the frownie emoticon - :-( - actually went through (registration no. 2347676). And so, of course, they immediately set about threatening to sue everyone who illegally used their trademark without permission in emails. It was all done with tongue firmly in cheek; however, never underestimate the stupidity of the public. Apparently the site's frownie shopping basket I (you can buy three types of frownie for $0.00) is still finding new customers to this day.
“Welcome to ronsangels.com - the only Web site that provides you with the unique opportunity to bid on eggs from beautiful, healthy and intelligent women.” Yep, you check out which woman you like the look of and then bid for her eggs to knock up your own sexy baby. The problem was that it was all too feasible - it is a fact that female college students in the US regularly sell some of their eggs to pay off tuition fees. So some people started bidding big money and others started ranting and raving. Fortunately for all of us, it's just a front.
What is wrong with people? ManBeef.com sold itself as 'the world's leading human meat distributor'. 'We have established a reputation for having only the highest quality human meat products and dedicated customer service representatives' etc. It is - or rather was - a clever and complex site, but of course people wanted to believe it was true so they could become outraged. Eventually, the US Food & Drug Administration was forced into action. They found no evidence of human meat. You need only look at the number of articles on the Web that pointed to the fact that it was a hoax to grasp just how many stupid souls there are out there.
Stranger than fiction
Golf played with an oval-shaped ball and in which nets are used instead of holes. That’s got to be utter rubbish, surely? Well, apparently not. Mind you, this is New 'Zealand, where they are so rugby crazy that it.seems they reinvent centuries-old games to be more like it.
A bloke who plans to visit every Denny's in America (there are thousands and thousands of 'em). This can't be true. Surely no one would ever bother to embark on such a lengthy and utterly worthless crusade? Of course they would, and he's becoming a bit of a media star as well. Oh God.
The now legendary recorders of the stunningly stupid ways people manage to kill themselves. Never a dull moment. Interestingly, an apparent award to a man who stuck a jet engine on top of his car was in fact a hoax. You’d be amazed at the stupid stories that turn out to be true, though.
The gullibility virus causes people to believe every piece of nonsense they read in emails or online. However, it has become self-perpetuating, with billions of emails and Web sites warning about it every year. Don’t think about this one for too long...
MICROSOFT AND DISNEY
Sceptics mocked when an email from Bill Gates and Disney offered people $5,000 if they just forwarded on the email to others. Both companies wanted to test some new email tracking system. Anyway, turned out it was all true. The cheques are in the post as we speak.
Case study: Wind-up merchant
There have been a number of famous hoaxers in recent years. Whether it's Tony Blair getting an unexpected phone call from William Hague (aka Steve Penk) or Jimmy Saville's premature death announced on radio by Chris Morris, there has always been a special place in our hearts for those that confound, confuse and bamboozle.
Robin Galloway is one such character. He is a DJ for Real Radio in Scotland and his breakfast show has become famous thanks to Robin's crank and prank phone calls. There are several characters that make up the show, including Old Mrs Galloway - an 89-year-old geriatric inmate at the Galashiels nursing home - and Hector Brocklebank, who phones people at random and tells them he's outside their house with 25 tons of fish.
We asked Robin what attributes a successful hoaxer needs to have. "A hoaxer needs to possess a warped sense of humour, a mental age of five and the knowledge that someone might garrotte you as you walk down Sauchiehall Street [a main street in Glasgow]”
And his favourite hoaxes? "The best victims have been Ronnie Biggs, whom I got to agree to do an advert for the Royal Mail, and Chris Evans, whom I phoned as Ally McCoist and got on his Radio One show live.”
You can find out more about Robin and listen to some of his hoaxes at his site: www.robingalloway.com