It's been a hot time for hoaxing thanks to the Internet. With Photoshop, citizen journalism sites, YouTube, and postboards for the latest photo leaks, it is way too easy to send a lie half way around the world before the truth can pull its shoes on.
In this post, I wrote about a busy week in paranormal-themed news. In chatting with a correspondent -- Jeb Card, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department of Miami University -- over a shared interest in the state of the paranormal today or "occulture," we got to talking about the state of hoaxing.
Make no mistake, hoaxing has always been around. Hoaxers have been trying to fool people by displaying their special skills (scams) or stupendous stories since the beginning of civilization, I think. But there is a particular history of hoaxing in occulture. Lately, it has gotten more frequent (or we sure notice it more), more absurd (to outdo the last one) and more involved (because the payout can be big while the scrutiny greater).
There are many famous hoaxes from this scene. It's hard to say if it's more common now than in the past. Some of the hoaxes, notes Jeb, have been very influential in the creation of popular folklore. Big ones have defined UFOlogy: Roswell and the Men in Black. Not everyone would conclude these are deliberate hoaxes -- there is a grain of truth to them -- but they went way out of control and now there are hoaxed videos, documents and tales based on these events that never happened the way the lore says it did. Stories like that, which have taken on a life of their own as if they were true, are called "fakelore."
The Bigfoot field is trampled over with fake footprints, stories, casts, photos and videos. It can't be denied that the majority of Bigfoot stories are unbelievable, without supporting evidence, or obvious hoaxes. Every new bit of Bigfoot "evidence" these days makes us roll our eyes and say "SERIOUSLY!?" This reputation is damaging to those who truly believe something is out there to be found. The credibility of Bigfoot researchers scrapes the bottom of the barrel. The history of hoaxes colors this topic deeply when we realize that the seminal story of "Bigfoot," Ray Wallace's trackway, was revealed to be a hoax.
Actually, the same can be said for the Loch Ness Monster. The iconic Nessie photo -- the long-neck arching out of the rippling water -- was hoaxed.
A longtime follower of the occulture fields, Jeb says he can't think of a time when these communities weren't awash with simultaneous and multiple hoax accusations. Today, I post some of the latest ridiculous news stories on Doubtful News, but some are too intelligence-insulting to even mention. I can't waste time on them. The Internet rewards even cheap hoaxes with website hits from the curious. Many sites gain popularity doing just this, collecting the latest mystery tomfoolery and telling you to decide for yourself.
Hoaxes of old lasted a very long time. If the infamous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film is a hoax (as several have espoused), then it's one of the best because people are STILL fighting about it 46 years later! The Surgeon's photo mentioned above lasted almost 70 years. The Wallace wooden footprint maker wasn't revealed widely until he died. The Majestic UFO documents are still believed by many to be genuine as we saw it come up in the recent Citizens Hearing on Disclosure.
Even when the real story is exposed, the fakelore lingers, with adherents still clinging to belief. A modern monster, birthed by the Internet that continues to live despite being utterly demolished is the chupacabra, the alleged goatsucker, a monster from Latin America. Ben Radford's book Tracking the Chupacabra was a clean takedown of this folklore and pop-culture-derived beast. But, the critter continually morphed its way into the global consciousness evolving as needed to serve as the scapegoat for whatever fear arose in the public's mind.
Hoaxes today can be as low-budget as a guy in a ghillie suit walking through the woods at a distance filmed with a smart phone, to professional artists rendering impressive CGI special effects particularly with UFO hoaxes on YouTube. Really spectacular stuff. Too spectacular to be real or the whole city would have noticed!
We also have the problem of marketing hoaxes for products, movies or TV shows, in particular. Some universities even ask students to hoax for a class project with the crowd-sourced grading as to how far it can go.
Today money can come out of hoaxing. There are pay-per-view outlets, special memberships sold, funding solicited for "studies," merchandise and book sales that mean big bucks to those who can milk the public for a little while and steer clear of fraud charges. Also, with an online community of people who share a belief in a questionable phenomena, there may be a misplaced sense of trust and hope. Those who are emotionally invested in the idea of Bigfoot, let's say, will want to support a potentially groundbreaking new project that will prove to everyone they aren't crazy in their quest.
Does the ease of the Internet give people incentive to hoax? That's undeniable. People do it just to see how far they can get, how many YouTube views, what media outlets cover it. As Jeb says: "The Internet removes the gatekeepers, the filters between the potential hoaxer, and the mark. Your fake Bigfoot doesn't need to be good enough to get on [the TV] news and then filter down. It just needs to be good enough that someone will share it."
Jeb cites the TV show Ancient Aliens as an example of a successful brand that has captured public interest no matter HOW absurd the ideas presented. On "reality" TV shows, viewers lose perspective that they are watching an edited, at least partially scripted, entertainment device. It's not actual scientific research.
The occulture scene gets decidedly more unhealthy as money, greed, quest for notoriety and lack of scruples allow the sensationalist speculation and outright hoaxers to keep right on fooling everyone, time and time again. There's a sucker born every minute.