Written by: Margaret Jacobi
The proliferation of social media has many advantages. Information can be gathered, posted, and shared in a matter of minutes, allowing people to connect with one another in potentially meaningful ways with the mere click of a button. The development has resulted in a shift from the traditional reliance on news agencies by consumers, in order to filter and separate nonsense from real stories, to a reliance on their own journalistic sensibilities (or lack thereof). The speed at which tweets and Facebook updates are shared leaves little room for verification, simplifying the viral spread of content and, by consequence, lifting the barrier between facts and rumors.
Videos and pictures seem legitimate by their very nature, but in an era where any image can be photoshopped as easily as any video can be staged, it’s hard to know whom or what to trust. A picture is worth a thousand words and just about anyone will believe something that their friends post. Innovative marketers and straight-up jokesters have banked on the growing trend, spreading their pranks like wildfire. Here are some of the most popular viral hoaxes of ages past:
Bride Wig Out:
Appealing to the inner sadist in us all, this video remains a classic among Internet hoaxes. The video surfaced in 2007 depicting an incredibly manic bridezilla’s freak out after receiving an unsavory haircut. Losing her mind, the bride shrieks and hacks off her hair hours before the wedding, while her bridesmaids mercilessly film and silently chuckle.
The six-minute clip was so well staged that the original video had 2 million views within two weeks and 12 million or more views from copies. Originally intended as a marketing campaign for Unilever’s Sunsilk hair product, the video was subsequently featured on talk show circuits including The Today Show and Good Morning America. Apparently the video was created to instigate buzz around a TV ad about “hair wig outs” that was released around the same time in the U.S. and Canada. Needless to say, the video garnered more than the intended share of attention for the hair products.
This photo and the one below are from the since removed Bonsai Kitten website.
The incredible backlash this hoax created is evidence of the power of a photo. This no longer active site, created in 2000 as a joke by MIT graduate students, claimed it was possible, or even desirable, to grow a kitten in a jar.
The intro page to the site that supposedly offered the equipment and instructions on how to accomplish this feat explained, “One of the most fascinating of the visual techniques to emerge from this highly cultured region is the Oriental art of miniature sculpture. Who has not been stricken with the expressive grace of Japanese Bonsai? Though once the sole province of Bonsai masters within Japan, Bonsai plants have been available to fortunate consumers throughout the world for some time. With this in mind, we are proud to now offer to you the animal complement of this art form; the Bonsai Kitten.”
The site produced a stir that resulted in anti-Bonsai Kitten Yahoo groups, thousands of hate-mail messages, a denunciation from the Humane Society of the United States, and even an animal cruelty investigation by the FBI. Apparently no kittens were hurt in the creation of the site — joke’s on you, taxpayers! But the hoax proved that kittens can be adorable in any capacity, even jarred.
Bird Poop in live Reporter’s Mouth:
This video that duped several news sources, including The Huffington Post, was a prank created by comedian Bob Odenkirk (co-creator of Mr. Show) in 2008. The video, that now has millions of views, depicts a reporter being fecally assaulted by birds, the droppings landing first on his head, then in his mouth. Gawker ended up debunking the video and embarrassing The Huffington Post in one fell swoop. Turns out the whole thing was part of a mockumentary, reports Gawker, “in which a fake reporter gives a fake report about a fake bird in a fake documentary for a fake Nigerian soda company commercial.” It’s still kind of funny. Though Hitchcock’s The Birds outlines most people’s worst fears when it comes to avian creatures, I think I’d much rather have a peck on my head than a turd in my mouth.
Image by Michael Mandiberg, questioning the nature of the famed “Montauk Monster.”
Further evidence of the power of a photo, the real origins of this viral phenomenon have yet to be discovered. The creature, New York’s own version of the chupacabra, was allegedly discovered in 2008 on the shores near Montauk, NY. Speculation still surrounds the photo that has become the catalyst of the strange website Montauk-Monster.com; a site that posts pictures periodically of dead animals seemingly transformed by long periods spent in the water.
There are three theories regarding the photo. One is that it is just a waterlogged corpse of a raccoon (according to Jeff Corwin), a dog, a rodent, or even a capybara. Another is that the creature was a science experiment at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the coast of Orient Point. The last, perhaps most obvious theory, is that the creature’s emergence was merely an elaborate marketing hoax for an upcoming film. Later it was revealed that Rachel Goldberg, one of the three people who discovered the creature, was the sister of film producer Darren Goldberg, who was then working on a movie called Splinterheads that would include the monster. Further arguments in favor of the hoax theory include the movie’s crew taking credit for the monster. There was never an examination by scientists and the body went missing. Sounds fishy to me.
Photo from the web archive of the Derbyshire Fairy website.
A 2007 April Fool’s day prank, conceived by UK resident Dan Baines, enthralled the fairy community when he posted photos of the fairy on a website, contending that the magical being had been found by a person walking their dog. The fairy, created by the 31-year-old sculptor and illusion designer based out of London, was 8 inches long, complete with wings, skin, and a navel. According to the BBC, the site received 20,000 hits in one day, while Baines’ email inbox began to fill. “One person told me to return the remains to the grave site as soon as possible or face the consequences,” said Baines to the BBC. He later revealed the fairy, now the subject of many conspiracy theories, was merely a prank. A lucrative one at that — Baines put the fairy up for auction later that year and earned nearly £300. A private art collector from the US outbid 40 others and won the controversial sculpture for £280. Well played, Dan Baines, well played.
Photo courtesy of funnyjunk.com
One of the most recent hoaxes, this prank became viral on the Twittersphere last summer. The rumors revolved around a picture depicting a sign in a McDonald’s that states, as an insurance measure, “African-American customers are now required to pay an additional fee of $1.50 per transaction.” The company, dealing with a litany PR issues ranging from their creepy mascot to unethical food preparation, repeatedly denied any responsibility for the sign. Gawker once again debunked this photo as an old 4chan.com meme of ages past that had resurfaced. I’d almost feel sorry for the company and their PR reps if I didn’t already think they were so evil.