No fooling: Internet has made hoaxes commonplace

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2014 - 3:19 PM

Internet is killing the practical joke.

Photo: Illustration by Eddie Thomas • ethomas@startribune.com,

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April Fools’ Day used to be so much fun. We could get up a few minutes early, set all the clocks ahead an hour and then watch as the rest of the family panicked because they thought they had overslept. Or we could hide a plastic spider in the bottom of a bowl of breakfast cereal. And there was always the classic prank of coating the eyepiece on a pair of binoculars with shoe polish.

Those were the good old days. Before the Internet.

The Web has taken all the steam out of April Fools’ jokes because tricking people has become an everyday occurrence online. Thanks to the Internet’s anonymity and lackadaisical fact-checking, jokesters, con men and even well-meaning but confused Web surfers are fooling us all the time. Here are some notable examples:

 

Local connection

Category: Hoax

A bogus story created in England popped up all over Minnesotans’ Facebook and Twitter accounts in mid-March after a supposed local wrinkle was uncovered. According to the yarn, which appeared on News-hound.org, a British woman named Gemma Sheridan was stranded on a remote island for seven years when the boat she was sailing to Hawaii was hit by a storm. She finally was rescued after she spelled out SOS on a beach and the sign was spotted “by some kid from Minnesota” who was noodling around on Google Earth. The story turned out to be an inside joke between the owner of the website and a friend named Gemma Sheridan.

Pleading poverty

Category: Scam

Houston blogger Linda Tirado posted a heart-wrenching story about how her family was struggling to make even the simplest of ends meet. She wrote of feeding her kids, “You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you’ll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they’ll attract bugs.” Sympathetic readers started an account to donate money, a fund that grew to $61,000 before a newspaper reporter caught up with Tirado and discovered that it was a sham. She said that she was using her blog to test the theme for a book. She also made it clear that she had no intention of returning any of the donations, although she did promise to use the money to get her book published.

 

Are you ready to order?

Category: Busted scam

Waitress Dayna Morales stirred up a hornet’s nest when she posted a picture of a receipt on which she claimed the diners wrote a homophobic slur and stiffed her on a tip for a $93 bill. The New Jersey restaurant where she works set up a tip fund for her, collecting $2,000 before the customers came forward with their copy of the receipt, which clearly showed them leaving a 20 percent tip and no nasty comments. Morales came up empty on the deal: Not only did the restaurant give the $2,000 to charity, it also fired her.

 

Buried alive

Category: Mistake

In the past year, Kevin Bacon, Celine Dion, Tom Cruise, Cher and rapper Lil Boosie all have been the subjects of erroneous online reports of their deaths. And they keep coming. Last week, sports Twitter feeds carried the news of the untimely demise of retired pro basketball player Quinton Ross. A man with that name did die in New York City, where the hoopster spent part of his career, but the NBA’s Ross was alive and well and living comfortably in his hometown of Dallas. Alas, that didn’t keep his family from being inundated by phone calls from anguished friends and relatives.

 

In-flight entertainment

Category: Hoax

Looking for a way to amuse himself on a cross-country flight, TV producer Elan Gale started tweeting about a passenger arguing with the flight attendants. By Gale’s account, he tried to mediate the dispute, but the cranky passenger slapped him. Like an old-fashioned serial, the tale was spun, 140 characters at a time, for hours, eventually catching the attention of the major news outlets, including ABC, Gale’s employer. Two days later, he confessed that it was all fiction but refused to apologize, saying, “I never claimed it to be true.”

 

Politics as usual

Category: Hoax

In January, the Internet hummed with the report that Rep. Michele Bachmann had been arrested in Colorado for impaired driving after getting high on marijuana. The Minnesota Republican, who wasn’t even in Colorado at the time, was the butt of a spoof posted by the satiric Newslo.com, which tends to have a marked slant toward Democrats. The organization argued that its reputation should have kept readers from taking the report seriously, but people who had never heard of Newslo quickly reposted the story as fact.

 

Going to pot

Category: Spoof

The Bachmann parody wasn’t the only one that surfaced when Colorado legalized pot. DailyCurrent.com ran a story under the headline: “Marijuana overdoses kill 37 in Colorado on the first day of legalization.” A doctor was quoted as saying he expected hundreds of more deaths. Like the Newslo spoof, this one was picked up and re-sent by people who thought it was true, but the story didn’t get the traction of Bachmann’s. The giveaway: The doctor being quoted was Jack Shephard, whom many people recognized as a character from the hit TV show “Lost.”

 

True love

Category: To be determined

Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o became the epicenter of a bizarre series of events in which he was both the perpetrator and, he claimed, the victim of a hoax. It began with him announcing that his girlfriend died from leukemia. Under questioning by suspicious reporters, he finally admitted that the girlfriend never existed. But he claimed innocence, saying that he was the victim of “a sick joke” in which he was tricked into falling in love with a woman he courted through the Internet but never met in person. Now playing for the San Diego Chargers, he refuses to talk about the incident. We likely won’t know the whole story — until he writes his memoirs.

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