OAKLAND, Calif. -- The woman now known to most of us solely as Botox Mom admitted last week that it was all a hoax, that she'd lied about injecting her young daughter with the toxin for a British tabloid article and an interview on "Good Morning America." Once again, the world was duped.
Also last week, it was reported that the parents who said their daughters had a rare immunodeficiency disease and received truckloads of sympathy and a new house on a 2009 episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," apparently fabricated the whole story about the girls' illness and are now being investigated for fraud and child abuse. They fooled us all. Ty Pennington too.
And of course, the planet wasn't ravaged with quakes and despair last weekend as Oakland radio evangelist Harold Camping so famously predicted. Hoax? Or conviction gone wrong? After all, he didn't jet off to the Bahamas with people's donations, but remained in town, sincerely baffled that his biblical calculations were off.
But one thing's for sure: Whether a "Balloon Boy" floats across the Colorado sky, Internet scams offer banzai kittens and petite lap giraffes for sale, the occasional Bigfoot body is "discovered" or a Doomsday date is declared, people fall for these things all the time. Hoaxes are part of a long and undignified tradition in our culture -- for every sucker born, there's a pack of scam artists barging in the delivery-room door. Scams, hoaxes and cons are not going away any time soon, and our modern age of instant information -- mainstream and otherwise -- only makes it all worse.
"Hoaxes, or flights of fancy to embellish a story in the press, have been with us since the beginning of journalism," said Tom Leonard, university librarian and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism, citing historic instances such as Benjamin Franklin publishing wild stories to enliven his papers, and famous hoaxes in Civil War times about discoveries on the moon and fierce animals escaping from a New York zoo.
Indeed, the media clearly play a huge role in disseminating real, and often false, information. Just look at the snowball effect of Botox Mom. When "Good Morning America" legitimized the woman's claim, the story spread through media outlets and websites faster than a Hollywood zombie infestation until it was discovered she had provided a false name, and later medically proven that she had not injected her daughter with Botox.
But news agencies and trusted websites also play a key role in correcting falsehoods, said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York.
"Stuff spreads so quickly with billions of blogs reporting things that could be made out of whole cloth," he said. "At the same time, things are debunked just as fast as they spread, on TV and on watchdog sites like Snopes.com."
He points out that for big stories, there's a self-correcting process. The insidious problem comes when it's a smaller story and you don't always see the correction in the next day's paper.
Hoaxes are so prevalent in our society there's even an online Museum of Hoaxes (www.museumofhoaxes.com) established in 1997 by curator Alex Boese of San Diego, devoted to "a variety of humbugs and hoodwinks, from ancient deceptions all the way up to modern schemes, dupes and dodges," the site says. It includes a gallery of April Fool's pranks (including a Taco Bell ad announcing the purchase of the Liberty Bell) and an interactive Gullibility Test.
Most often the motives for hoaxes are pretty clear: money. Some just do it for attention, eager to curl up in the limelight and purr. Then there are the ones with no discernible advantage to the perpetrator, such as radio shows announcing the death of a non-dead celebrity. Poor Adam Sandler wasn't really killed in a car crash a few months ago. Same for Owen Wilson.
"Why post such information when the truth will be revealed immediately?" Thompson asked. "The world may never know."
Let's relive some classic hoaxes from the last few decades that weaseled their way into our lives and got stuck in our collective craw:
--Spaghetti trees. On April 1, 1957, a British news show broadcast a three-minute segment about a "bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland," according to the Museum of Hoaxes. The show aired footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off "spaghetti trees." To this day the broadcast remains one of the most famous and popular April Fool's Day hoaxes of all time.
--Big footsteps to follow. Bigfoot hoaxes have stomped through the decades, but the most recent one in August of 2008 attracted every major media outlet and Bigfoot blogger to a news conference in Palo Alto, Calif., as two Georgia men -- one a former cop -- told of finding a dead Bigfoot in the woods and stuffing it in a big freezer to preserve it. The next day, it was revealed to be a rubber Halloween ape costume. The men quickly left town.
--Up, up and away! In October 2009, a Colorado couple said their silver saucer-shaped balloon broke loose from its moorings, flying away with their 6-year-old son, Falcon, inside. The drama unfolded on every news channel, and Falcon was quickly nicknamed "Balloon Boy." The balloon eventually landed -- with no boy -- about 50 miles away with National Guard helicopters and local police in pursuit. Falcon was fine at home, and the whole thing was a publicity stunt to get on a reality TV show.
--How many little lies? In 2005 for her book club, Oprah Winfrey chose author James Frey's book, "A Million Little Pieces," said to be a heart-wrenching nonfiction tale of substance abuse. It wasn't nonfiction. Frey went on "Oprah" and admitted his fabrications and Winfrey's response was, "I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." A still-contrite Frey recently appeared again on one of Oprah's final shows, saying the 2005 interview "definitely wasn't my finest day."
--"Paul is dead." This urban legend started in 1969 alleging Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and was secretly replaced by a look-alike Beatle. College students published articles claiming that clues to his death could be found among The Beatles' lyrics and album artwork. To this day, McCartney remains alive.
(c) 2011, The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.).
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