Web Hoaxes: Not Funny, Always Unethical

P.T. Barnum’s “Fiji Mermaid:. At least in 1842,. it wasn’t on the web.

Ethics Alarms is swearing off “angry ex-boyfriend/girlfriend takes cruel outrageous revenge” stories, no matter how juicy the ethics lesson may be. First it was the tattoo artist who defaced his ex’s back with a huge and ugly drawing of steaming dog excrement that was fantasy masquerading as news, and now it’s the Polish dentist scorned…remember? The one who pulled out her cheating boyfriend’s teeth? Yes, it seems that horror story was a hoax too.

A lot of people who should know better think that web hoaxes are funny and hoaxers are clever. I regard them as the ethical equivalent of  chefs and waiters who spit in restaurant customers’ food. The web creates—a web!—of information and communication across nations and cultures, and poisoning that web with bogus stories creates a chain of unpredictable harm. At very least, hoaxes make every trusting source that passes along the lie an unwitting accomplice in a despicable act. It harms long-nurtured relationships of mutual trust between those who post on blogs and websites and those who read them.

I resent hoaxes deeply, every bit as much as I resent the creators of computer-cashing viruses and vandals who deface public statues and tip over gravestones. I also resent those who encourage and facilitate web hoaxes by applauding them or laughing at them. Perpetrating a web hoax is no more and no less than unethical conduct. Treating the conduct as anything but that just ensures that more people will be harmed. I say this even though this site, by virtue of its mission, is harmed less by hoaxes than most. Ethicists often deal in hypothetical, and even a false story can present interesting ethics issues spark a valuable discussion. Nonetheless, I don’t appreciate being made an unwitting accomplice to someone else’s lie.

Only slightly less offensive than the hoaxers themselves are the smart alecks  who will say, no matter what the hoax was, that anyone who fell for it should have known the story was false, and is thus a gullible fool. The Daily Caller’s Taylor Bigler, for example, ends her expose on the tooth-pulling hoax with this obnoxious jibe:

“The story was not reported in any Polish newspapers, and most reports of this story can be traced back to the Daily Mail. Simon Tomlinson, whose byline appears on the story, said he doesn’t know where the story came from, so it must have appeared out of thin air — which is just as believable as the dentist story itself.”

Riiiight, Taylor…you knew all along. If you’re so smart, why didn’t you do your job and prove the story was false two weeks ago, when your own publication fell for it hook, line and sinker?

Then there are the smug critics who argue that any blogger falling for the story should have independently checked out the facts independently, as if that were easy, affordable, and reasonable. The sad state of American journalism is such that no source is 100% reliable. If it isn’t Fox News misrepresenting a scientific study, then it’s NBC editing the middle out of a 911 tape to make George Zimmerman, who is a lot more black than Elizabeth Warren is Cherokee, appear to be a racist. We have little choice: either trust the biased and untrustworthy, or disbelieve absolutely everyone about everything.

And as if the widespread incompetence of the so-called professional journalists wasn’t impediment enough, we have hoaxers who intentionally misinform to feel the same rush of power idiots feel when they key a car finish or throw rocks through a window.

We have had the internet for quite a while now. Everyone should understand that it is a powerful tool that sometimes takes on a life of its own, magnifying truth, mistakes, rumors and lies, often in ways that no one can predict or control. Intentionally feeding such a powerful and unpredictable force false information, even in jest, even without malice, even with certainty that “no one will be hurt,” is not amusing and never harmless. It is irresponsible and reckless.

This hoax was the fault of someone at the Daily Mail. I won’t be using that publication or its website as a source again. The only way to drive home the point that web hoaxes of any kind are intolerable is to refuse to tolerate them.


Source: The Daily Caller

Graphic: Museums and Archiving

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

12 thoughts on “Web Hoaxes: Not Funny, Always Unethical

  1. You know what?

    Thank God. I really couldn’t imaging someone pulling out ALL thirty-two teeth without having a moment of reconsideration.

  2. I’m trying to decide if, in an America where “Hostel” is a depressingly large number of people’s only exposure to Eastern Europe, this hoax is particularly despicable. I’m probably chasing that too far.

    • I have to disagree. “Hostel” is not America’s largest exposure to European Culture. BBC is a very commonly watched channel and website, even in the hicksville I live in. There is even an immigrant here who fled from Russia during the height of the Cold War.

      The only reason this story gained traction is because of the revenge theme. Everyone has that one person in their life they would love to do this to but won’t. People like to live vicariously.

      • I don’t judge countries based on horror movies, though I must admit that “Midnight Express” gave me pause about Turkey. The Polish angle didn’t influence my acceptance of the story at all. Crazy people kill lovers who jilt them; we have had instances of castration or throwing acid.—pulling out all their teeth is more baroque, but hardly less plausible.

  3. I’ll say this for hoaxes: they do give readers a crucial opportunity to exercise incredulity. When I read the dentist story here, though I opted not to comment to that effect, perhaps my first thought was that pulling out every tooth in a person’s mouth must take an awfully long time. Did the dentist not have a single assistant or front desk person who might have questioned what she was doing? Did she just happen not to have a single other patient on that day? Plus, she could only accomplish her task before he woke up if she had given the man a seriously powerful anesthetic. But despite the fact that I thought about all of those somewhat incredible aspects of the story, I never said “this can’t be true.” I guess that’s just how much I trust your reporting, Jack.

    You say that we have little choice and can “either trust the biased and untrustworthy, or disbelieve absolutely everyone about everything.” But it is important to learn the lesson that even though we have to put our trust in the sources that are, say, the least egregious, that doesn’t mean we should trust every particular story that comes out of them.

  4. “I also resent those who encourage and facilitate web hoaxes by applauding them or laughing at them.”

    If I recall correctly, we were encouraged to laugh at the tattoo here. I think Funny was even in the post title.

      • So it is only a funny story if someone was disfigured but not so much if it is fiction? Almost makes it sound like it is funny as long as the joke isn’t on you and someone, somewhere was actually hurt. I must be missing something.

        • You’re intentionally misinterpreting me. Don’t. What was funny and unfunny were two different events. The hoax, which was perpetrated by a website, was unfunny, like all web hoaxes. It’s not funny to lie to people who act on your lies. The tattoo itself, concocted by an artist, was funny, as exactly the kind of gag that would be in a Farrelly Brothers movie, or “Animal House.” In the post, that is exactly how I explained the “funny” comment. A basic principle of slapstick and black humor is that something can be horrible and funny at the same time. Some people don’t get it. Some people think the parade sequence in “Animal House” is scary, and cry when the horse dies of a heart attack in the Dean’s office.

          • I got Animal House. I don’t get this. I am not intentionally doing anything though. It was my actual thoughts when reading, no intention behind them. I remembered the post because I didn’t get the funny part of it even then. Animal House wasn’t real. When it WAS funny, the tattoo was thought to be real and thereby someone had been disfigured in a really crappy way. I just don’t see the humour. It’s OK though, I don’t need to get it.

            I do agree that it would have been hilarious in a movie. Generally speaking, movies don’t leave real people disfigured though.

            • Stories are stories. You can laugh at something you would never do, never want done, and would feel sorry for the person involved, who, you will recall, if the tattoo story was true, would be an idiot. None of which really addresses your original comment was that it was inconsistent for me to say that the STORY in a hoax was funny, but the fact of the hoax itself was not. They are two different things. There is no inconsistency.

  5. When I happened across that story, my first reaction was that this is weird enough to be true! “Hell hath no fury…” and all that. But I generally eschew these kind of stories as irrelevant and unworthy of the effort to track them down, so I ignored it. You didn’t, I see! It’s at times like this I miss World News Weekly.

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