|by Hazel Tyldesley|
|Published on: Oct 22, 2005|
|The internet is a fertile breeding ground for spoof sites and elaborate hoaxes and it’s not only naïve surfers who are fooled. Hazel Tyldesley takes a look at the pranks that hoodwink mainstream media.
Ever fancied modifying the shape of your pet? Visit Bonsai Kitten (www.bonsaikitten.com) and you’ll be given the opportunity to commission your own specially-molded cat. Choose your required shape - a pyramid or a sphere maybe - and in 3-4 months your unique bonsai kitten will be shipped to you.
The vast majority of users realize in seconds that this site is an elaborate spoof, albeit one in rather poor taste. A small minority, however, will be outraged. The site’s owner has received hundreds of abuse emails and has even found himself under investigation by the FBI for animal abuse.
Bonsai Kitten is just one of the thousands of sites on the World Wide Web that are hoaxes. At Afterlife Telegrams (www.afterlifetelegrams.com) you can have your message to a deceased loved one delivered by a terminally ill volunteer, meanwhile the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division (www.dhmo.org) provides full details of the suspected harmful effects of this dangerous chemical, more commonly known as water.
“The greatest medium for hoaxes ever created”
Alex Boese, author of the book Museum of Hoaxes and the website of the same name, claims that the internet is “the greatest medium for hoaxes ever created.” “Anyone with access to a computer can potentially communicate a message to millions of people without having to go through any media gatekeepers. And so hoaxers are coming out of the woodwork from all over the place and taking advantage of that access.”
Whilst hoax websites can fool millions of internet surfers, the scams really gain exposure when they are picked up by mainstream media. In December 2004, news providers across the world reported on a website - www.komar.org - that allowed visitors to control the Christmas lights which decorated the site owner’s home. Users would click on a button and see the lights on the house turn on and off, apparently controlled by their actions. After being hounded by media, site owner Alek Komarnitsky eventually decided his joke had gone far enough and revealed that the webcam images of his house displayed on his site were in fact doctored and that the users clicking on the switch were controlling the image they saw but not the actual lights on his house.
Tripping up the wires
By this point, media sources as diverse as The New York Times, The Guardian Australian Broadcasting Corporation and had all reported the story. But why had none of them actually checked to see if the story was for real? The answer seems to lie with an Associated Press news feed which covered the Komar story. Joey Skaggs (www.joeyskaggs.com), the prankster responsible for such cons as the bordello for canines and the portable confessional booth, does not doubt the power that lies in the hands of international news agencies. “If I'm successful in fooling a wire service,” he says, “I don't really have to do anything else to promote the story," he adds "because the media will feed off of itself. They all assume the original author did his or her homework!"
The misreporting of internet hoaxes by mainstream news providers in this way is very revealing. This is not because it reinforces the idea that journalists are fooled as easily as the rest of us but is because it demonstrates rather clearly how the leading news providers rely so heavily on second-hand news and fail to make even simple checks to verify the story. As Skaggs concludes, "The media's job is to question a premise, but information overload and the strain to get a story first get in the way of getting it right."
The Bhopal affair
The British Broadcasting Corporation must have felt such strain when in December 2004 it broke the story that Dow Chemical had accepted responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster. A representative of the company, interviewed on television, stated that full compensation would be offered to the victims and their families. The news made world headlines but was soon altered when Dow Chemical stepped forward to retract the offer denying any involvement with the interviewed ‘representative’. It emerged that the British Broadcasting Corporation had contacted the phony Dow representative from contact details on the company’s website (www.dowethics.com). The authentic-looking website was a spoof satirizing the genuine Dow Chemical website (www.dow.com). The ‘representative’ turned out to be a member of The Yes Men (www.theyesmen.org), the group of ‘identity correctors’ who impersonate ‘big time criminals’, notably the leaders of profit-greedy corporations.
If even the British Broadcasting Corporation, a source trusted by many, can make such a drastic error of judgment what degree of reliability can we hope to expect from our news providers? Has the Bhopal incident taught everyone in the profession a lesson, or are journalists in news agencies and broadcasting corporations still happily churning out received information without stopping to make checks?
As prominent US broadcast journalist Wes Nisker once famously said, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” His words echo in this era of blogging, citizen journalism and independent news sites, when the philosophy of the internet news-seeker is just that. Those in the profession of news reporting would do well to remember that amongst the goldmine of potential stories waiting to be plucked out from cyberspace there are many which are quite simply made out of thin air.