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Technology creates a new "golden age" for the classic American hoax.




If you're ever driving after dark and see an oncoming car with no headlights turned on, DO NOT flash your lights at them! This is a common gang member "initiation game" that goes like this:

The new gang member under initiation drives along with no headlights and the first car to flash their headlights at him is now his "target." He is now required to turn around and chase that car and shoot at or into the car in order to complete his initiation requirements. Make sure you share this info with all the drivers in your family!!


Hoaxes through history
Hoaxes have long captivated the nation

Hoaxes in Richmond's past
Richmond history abounds in hoaxes

The art of hoaxing
P.T. Barnum meets academia in this touring exhibit.

If this looks familiar, then you've most likely been the recipient of an infamous hoax, spread via well-meaning e-mails. You're not alone. Police departments from San Diego to Boston have been flooded with calls from worried motorists since November of last year, when the message began to make its rounds. In January, some smaller police departments in the Midwest actually fanned the flames by issuing alerts to citizens.

Here in the Richmond area, the security offices at the University of Richmond and Randolph-Macon forwarded the "official" warning, and the State Corporation Commission was "alerted," as well. Worried viewers called NewsChannel 6 News convinced there was an immediate danger. The fact that the "headlight game" hoax is based on an old urban legend, dating back to the 1960s when it was Hell's Angels behind the wheel, was lost somewhere on the side of the information superhighway. Whoever first started this message on its way through our collective fears knew what he or she was doing. Capitalizing on an already existing belief, the hoaxer employed the classic "Hook, Threat and Request" model of Internet hoaxing. So prevalent and problematic are these hoaxes that the U.S. government tracks them through the Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability. Ultimately, thousands of Americans were driving in needless fear of the next car with no headlights, and all with just the touch of the "SEND" button.


Internet Hoaxes
Is it a hoax? This site tells you how to I.D. a hoax and what to do about it.
Another site dedicated to spreading the word on Internet hoaxing, including original articles and up to the minute hoax alerts.
A hoax alert site at the Department of Energy.
Parody site that educates as well as entertains.
A compendium of hoaxes and the urban legends they are often based upon.

Classic Hoaxes
Get the lowdown on what is sometimes called "The Greatest American Hoax."
Home of the "Jersey Devil," New Jersey's official state demon.
The official site of the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota.

Artistic Hoaxes
The home page of the Hokes Archives.

In mid-March, Richmond police arrested Carl Ray Banton Jr.for creating havoc with another kind of send button, this one on a cell phone. Police say the 21-year-old is suspected of making as many as a thousand fake 911 calls.

Whether by cell phone or through cyberspace, the desire to cry wolf and get away with it is just as strong today as it was for the apocryphal shepherd boy. The minor pranks of April Fool's Day will come and go this week, but hoaxes, both amusing and frightening, have become such a powerful part of our everyday culture that they are practically an American art form.

Perhaps the most famous of all modern hoaxes was played on the evening of Oct. 30, 1938, when Orson Welles broadcast his infamous "War of the Worlds" radio play. The dramatization of an alien invasion panicked nearly 1 million listeners despite numerous on-air disclaimers. Less well-known is an incident in 1949, when a radio station in Ecuador reprised "War of the Worlds" as an intentional hoax. The result was again mass hysteria. Tragically, when the broadcasters revealed the fictitious nature of the broadcast, mobs attacked the station, setting the building on fire and killing 20 people.

These days, though, the media shy away from such stunts, for fear the audience might not get the joke.

"In a way, there are a lot of similarities between gay men and the Mummers," Neil says. "I wonder about some of the guys, actually. They get into the feathers and sequins and stuff as much as I do."

Just this February, Eliot Kaplan, award-winning editor of Philadelphia Magazine, was fired in the wake of the publication of a satiric hoax about a homosexual Mummers Parade marcher. Kaplan apologized, stating that the story failed because "only 10 to 20 percent of the readers" realized the story was not real.

Rob Cizek, news editor at Richmond's WTVR-TV, says he's considered running humorous hoaxes in the past, but inevitably defers to caution. "Every April Fool's story produced by the media is fraught with the prospect that 99.5 percent of the audience will think it's funny, but that .5 percent won't, and it's just not worth risk of embarrassing or hurting that audience." Besides, Cizek points out, "real life is providing us enough comic relief."

But as the media avoid the role of prankster, their own desire to be first with a story in a world of 24-hour cable networks and the Internet can thrust them into the role of victim.

"Dog is good food. Dog is good medicine. Our business getting very big. Need more dog."

In May 1994, some 1,500 animal shelters received this request on official-looking letterhead with the logo of a Korean Company, Keo So Joo. The letters were a request for surplus dogs to be processed into canned meat, at 10 cents a pound. The letter promised free pickup and a painless death: "Dog no suffer. We have quick death for dog." The letters were quickly decried in the news media. WWOR-TV in New York went so far as to make "Dogs for Food?" their "exclusive" lead story on the 10 o'clock news.

Yes, it was all a hoax, created by Joey Skaggs, a New York-based media critic and performance artist. Skaggs has several successful hoaxes to his credit. As Joe Bones, he was interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning America" as the leader of the Fat Squad, a group of commandos who would forcibly stop dieters from eating. He was quoted in the New York Times as a gypsy leading a protest against the term "gypsy moth." News organizations have readily reported his other inventions as true, everything from a pill made from cockroaches that cures acne to the opening of a canine bordello called "The Cathouse for Dogs."

But the Keo So Joo hoax (meaning "dog meat soup") may be his most successful to date. To support the ruse, Skaggs set up a phone line with a recorded message in both Korean and English, with dogs barking in the background. The line was flooded with calls from police, reporters and concerned pet owners, some leaving racial epithets on his machine. At the height of the story, Skaggs exposed his own hoax in a fax to major news outlets.

Skaggs created the hoax "to bring to light issues of cultural bias, intolerance and racism," as well as to demonstrate the media's tendency to be "reactionary, gullible and irresponsible."

Steve Nash, a journalism professor at University of Richmond, appreciates Skaggs' message, but also sees the potential for harm in media-fed hoaxes. "They play to the wrong audiences," he says, "or the reality never catches up to the lie." Hoaxers, like Skaggs, often play on reporters' rush for stories, and Nash sees the job of journalist increasingly emphasizing speed over research. "My guess is that we'll keep seeing ... stories about dog bordellos and cockroach pills and magic missile systems until we're no longer amused. Then we'll insist the news media allow journalists time to research, rather than regurgitate."

"Here is some important information. Beware of a file called Good Times. Happy Chanukah everyone, and be careful out there. There is a virus on America Online being sent by e-mail. If you get anything called "Good Times," DON'T read it or download it. It is a virus that will erase your hard drive. Forward this to all your friends. It may help them a lot."

In November 1994, this simple but scary message began to circulate through cyberspace.

The "Good Times" virus warning would become one of the first nationwide Internet hoaxes, but not the last. In recent years, the Internet has replaced the newspaper as the mass medium of choice for hoaxers intent on disruption. E-mail warnings mushroom, as worried recipients quickly pass along the latest scare. "Good Times" has spawned at least a dozen copycats, warning against e-mails or files labeled "Deeyenda" or "It takes guts to say Jesus." There's even a spoof, "Bad Times," that threatens to ruin your kitchen appliances and lose your car keys. Such hoaxes are not limited to your online safety. Heard the one about the Procter and Gamble "killer sponges" made with a derivative of Agent Orange? Or the tale of moviegoers finding needles in the seats with a note welcoming them to "the world of AIDS?" While both are false, the publicity surrounding the "needles" hoax has led to a rash of real incidents in Virginia, where needles have been found in coin slots and mailboxes in Pulaski and Speedwell.

Often, these hoaxes cash in on the authority or fame of falsified "sources" in order to dupe users into forwarding these online chain letters. The "Good Times" computer virus hoax, which still circulates, initially appeared to originate from government agencies and computer companies. A phony message claiming to be from Virginia's own Dave Matthews, promising his AOL account name to those who would pass along a chain letter for a little girl with cancer, has found its way across the Internet, along with letters from "your friend, Bill Gates" and "Walt Disney Jr.," promising cash and prizes for helping them test a new e-mail tracking program that does not exist.

Virus hoaxes and phony chain letters can crash servers and create havoc. Ken Guyre is VCU's webmaster, and he occasionally instructs computer users on Internet dangers, including hoaxes. He says VCU has had its share of virus hoaxes, including "Good Times," often resulting in a flurry of calls to the computer helpline from concerned students. "In a worst-case scenario," says Guyre, "[forwarded warnings] can completely fill the disc for incoming mail." Such incidents shut down e-mail operations and can take days to repair. Guyre points out that such hoaxes are essentially chain letters and passing them along is a violation of VCU's computer ethics policy, but he admits the policy does little to prevent the problem.

Internet hoaxes can damage organizations and businesses in more direct ways, as well. A recent message claiming that virtual greeting cards sent from Blue Mountain Arts have a virus and will crash the recipient's system is a complete fabrication, but the family-run, nonprofit site has been reeling ever since. E-mail hoaxes reveal that Tommy Hilfiger and Liz Claiborne denigrated minority consumers on (nonexistent) episodes of "Oprah," forcing their companies to wage public relations campaigns to offset the damage. Another hoax claims Gerber Baby Foods recently lost a class action suit and is now giving $500 savings bonds to every child born between 1985 and 1997.

Neil Henry, an associate professor of sociology at VCU, believes that many Internet hoaxes are limited by their success. "The fact that it gets some publicity now and then probably works to keep it under control." Henry says. "With more experience, e-mail users are going to be less likely to react with panic to an e-mail warning." It helps that most Internet hoaxes are simply recycled rather than newly minted. "While any one carefully crafted hoax or chain letter can cause someone or some organization a lot of grief," asserts Henry, "the phenomenon, as a whole, is pretty banal."

Yet despite a growing skepticism, the American public still is being had. Fear of the unknown is one major factor. "Hoaxes work best when there's the idea that evil is afoot, that there are those out there who wish to do us harm," says David Bromley, a professor of sociology at VCU. He adds that hoaxes involving bizarre gang initiations and satanic cults work so well because victims see such groups as operating on a very different and incomprehensible social wavelength, and thus are capable of acts they cannot fathom. Both hackers and faceless corporations can easily fall into this category.

But most hoaxes are designed to separate the public from its money in the most entertaining way possible. Whether in terms of ratings, increased circulation, or ticket sales, a good hoax always gets attention.

So why do we want to believe? At their best, hoaxes act as a mirror held up to our collective hopes and beliefs. The Internet hoax that promises big money with the click of a button taps directly into the same desires for the "American Dream" that sent 49ers to California and Sooners to Oklahoma.

Hoaxes can speak to our pride. The "Kensington Runestone" of Minnesota is such a case. In 1898, a Scandinavian farmer in central Minnesota dug up a slab of rock with Nordic runes on it, describing a Viking expedition to the Midwest in 1362, beating Columbus by 130 years. Despite the farmer's deathbed confession of a hoax and numerous rejections of its authenticity by experts, the "Kensington Runestone" has been exhibited at the Smithsonian and the 1960 World's Fair. In a state where a majority of citizens are of Scandinavian descent, "proof" that their ancestors discovered North America and explored all the way to their home state fueled ethnic pride.

Hoaxes can speak to our prejudices. Joey Skaggs' "dog meat" hoax played successfully (and intentionally) to American stereotypes of Asians. The citizens of Richmond during the Civil War could easily imagine a Yankee foe bent on assassination and wholesale slaughter, and the Dahlgren Affair fueled that fire. (See "Hoaxes in Richmond's Past")

Hoaxes can speak to our anxieties. The e-mail hoax, warning of the next devastating computer virus, is strengthened by the fact that computer viruses are a problem. But it also plays to our fears of technology, fears we cannot escape because technology has become so much a part of our daily lives.

So, in a strange way, hoaxes provide us with a kind of cultural therapy. They get our shared baggage out in the open and get us talking about it.

They may create embarrassment and even chaos, but hoaxes let us know who we are and where we stand, even what we most desire. In our heart of hearts, far away from the logical areas of our minds, we seem to have a need to believe in impossible things, whether they're aliens, Viking runestones or Bill Gates' generosity. Hoaxes thrive by giving us what we want and keep us guessing that the next time, for better or worse, it might just be

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