Another Day, Another Web Hoax: The Web Hoax Scale

Fake Wolf

That mad wag, Jimmy Kimmel, is doing another victory lap. This time, the biggest jerk on late night TV managed to fool news services, panic families of Olympian athletes and insult Russia (not that that bothers me very much) by his latest internet gag—convincing American luge athlete Kate Hanson to relay, via Twitter, his fake video of what appeared to be a wolf roaming the halls of the Olympic Village accommodations. Any collateral damage is irrelevant to Kimmel, because his objective is to cause trouble, then mock everyone who was fooled for allowing the trouble to be caused, since if they weren’t so dumb, trusting and gullible—it’s all their fault, not his, you see—nothing would have happened. (Yes, Kate Hansen is a jerk too.)

Here is what this relatively harmless (as opposed to harmless, which no web hoax is) misrepresentation accomplished:

  • It took up thousands of valuable minutes of news broadcasts throughout yesterday which could have been used productively to educate the public about all manner of things they actually need to know about—what’s happening to Justin Carter, for example—remember him? Maybe a well-produced segment on why a teen shouldn’t be facing terrorism charges for an obvious joke he made on Facebook could spark some much-needed public outrage. Instead, serious news broadcast time, a finite resource, was used to further a prank.
  • It made the media a party to a lie. It doesn’t matter about what. It’s a lie.
  • It wasted the time, thought and energy of every person who talked about the wolf, expressed concern about it or thought about it.
  • It further increased cynicism and doubt about news reports, feeding the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories and fear of sinister manipulation. How do we know the moon landing wasn’t a Jimmy Kimmel hoax?

Most of all, this will encourage other, bigger, more reckless asses than even Kimmel to go further and further with their web hoaxes, because such pranks mean viral videos and fame, no matter what harm they cause.

Earlier this week, two radio personalities revealed that the controversy and outrage they stirred up with their commentary about an antigay RSVP to a child’s birthday party was also a hoax. “We were attempting to spur a healthy discourse on a highly passionate topic,” they explained in their mea culpa, “but we made a mistake by misleading our listeners into thinking that this specific situation actually existed.”

Well yes, you fools, because making people think something  is true that isn’t is called a lie, and lies are unethical and wrong. They are wrong even when some people think they are funny. They are wrong. Every single effort to deceive the news media, the aged, the gullible, the easily excited, the outraged, the emotional,  the stupid, the jaded and the besotted with conformation bias is wrong—harmful, inexcusable, to be avoided at all costs and condemned in others. Could I be clearer?

I began pointing this out, to a chorus of pooh-poohing, years ago, and I have been proven correct. Web hoaxes are pollution. They make information sources untrustworthy, they cause tangible harm, they start rumors, they exacerbate social tensions, they empower the jackasses, the cruel, the arrogant, the reckless, the destructive and the Jimmy Kimmels among us, and they will, if not unchecked, cause greater, significant and recurring harm that will be difficult if not impossible to stem, because the habit will be imbedded in the culture. Clear enough?

Here is a scale of the various varieties of web hoaxes, arranged from most ethical to least.

1. Hoaxes successfully designed to be immediately recognized as hoaxes.

2. Hoaxes unsuccessfully, negligently or recklessly designed to be recognized as hoaxes.

3. Hoaxes designed to be funny because people believe them.

4. Hoaxes designed to get publicity or be part of an advertising campaign.

5. Hoaxes designed to make those who fall for it look foolish or stupid.

6. Hoaxes designed to spark controversy.

7. Hoaxes to spread misinformation just to do it.

8. Hoaxes designed to get someone else in trouble.

9. Hoaxes designed to spread malicious rumors.

10. Hoaxes designed to defraud.

11. Hoaxes designed to cause panic or public unrest.

Only #1 is truly ethical, because #1 isn’t really a hoax at all. Fake stories on The Onion websites aren’t hoaxes, because the site makes it very clear that its stories are fake. Similarly, Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast was not intended to be a hoax….not designed to be, not reasonably defined as one. I would call it a #2, the negligent variation on #1: the quirks of the medium created the conditions of a hoax, but it is hard to assign legitimate blame. The argument is made that April Fools Day justifies any hoax as a #1, because the tradition of the date puts everyone on notice that anything is likely to be a trick or a lie. My position is that unless an April Fools hoaxer reasonably believes that his victims have consented to be fooled, the he or she is responsible for unethical conduct if their “joke” is believed and causes tangible harm. Ethics aren’t suspended by the calendar. April Fools jokes are in category 2 or 3, unless the presumed consent is reasonable.

The rest? Unethical, and to various degrees, despicable. The Groupon hoax, which may have been a #2 (but I doubt it) is a #4 and a #7. Kimmels’ could be categorized as a 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 or 10.

But they are all wrong. Planting false facts in the information supply may not make people sick like putting poison in the water supply, but it is damaging enough to be recognized as not worth tolerating for the occasional giggle. We all need to stop encouraging hoaxes by shrugging them off or feeling superior because we weren’t fooled…this time. Eventually, we will be. Eventually, we will all realize that the internet gives too much power to those whose acts of mischief used to affect tens of people, but now can harm millions.

We were attempting to spur a healthy discourse on a highly passionate topic, but we made a mistake by misleading our listeners into thinking that this specific situation actually existed. – See more at:

17 thoughts on “Another Day, Another Web Hoax: The Web Hoax Scale

  1. The first point I would make is that Microsoft Word makes a very poor HTML editor. I have to delete junk like…
    /* Style Definitions */
    {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;

    … all the time. I recommend moving to a markdown editor.

    Now, to the subject – I truly loathe web hoaxes, not just because they waste our collective time and resources, but because they often retain the potential to cause somebody harm. Sure, they can be funny, but when our jokes have the potential to do real harm to people or property, they go too far. Many web hoaxes have this potential, this one included. Someone might have panicked and hurt themselves. Would Kimmel then laugh at them? Probably.

    Why don’t most of us spend our time doing things like this? Because deep down, most of us know it’s wrong. Not Kimmel, apparently, but I did say, “most.”

  2. I agree that web hoaxes are a giant waste of valuable time. I have a tough enough time sorting out fact from spin let alone fact from fiction. You may have alluded to this form of harm but it was not specifically mentioned. Carefully crafted hoaxes intended to deceive others for personal gain or amusement are unethical because they serve as the basis for the person losing professional credibility when he or she repeats information that on its face appears to be true and is repeated by other credible sources.

    I do not understand how one can consent to be fooled because prior consent would require that the person know that the person is about to fool them. The only exception to this is perhaps a magic show. Your examples of the Onion and Orson Wells rendition of the War of the Worlds are/were clearly designated as works of fiction and not intended to deliberately deceive.

  3. This is a good list, but I think some could be in a slightly different position. I rate #6 should be higher in the list. I don’t usually try to gradiate pranks, there is the tiny minority, where any disbelief doesn’t last more than a breath that are acceptable (like Mythbuster test where they test beliefs and perception) Mr Kimmel just wants to prove how clever he is and doesn’t care what he leaves in this wake in doing it. There is a small borderland between, but most jump off in to irredeemable jerk.

  4. There’s another element to web hoaxes that you didn’t cover: The fact that it’s a web hoax combined with the notion that anything out there on the Internet is out there forever.

    Kimmel starts a hoax and gets a laugh out of it. But a year from now, people will find the story for the first time and think it’s true. At THAT point, there’s nothing to correct the record for them. They’ll mention it to their friends. It’ll become “truth”.

    It isn’t just that actual harm can be done; it’s that actual harm can be done over and over again, indefinitely.


    • Validating further what you said, Dwayne…

      I saw one of the cruelest hoaxes yesterday, on Facebook. A friend who I think I know fairly well, “supports the troops,” but who I quickly suspected had been “had,” had put up some words about “31 US Troops Killed in Afghanistan Yesterday,” with one of those accompanying one-liners of extortion. Something like, “If you don’t share, you don’t care.” Very quickly, through other channels, I was able to verify that “yesterday” was sometime in 2011 – a helicopter lost in combat, with a bunch of troops aboard – worst single-day loss of US troops in Afghanistan.

      I just ignored the post – did not even notify the friend. That is the world we are stuck with now. We can be, and are, and will be, all “had.” Only the rise of a buzz-kill culture against pranksters and scammers could possibly turn back that tide. If that culture ever arises, there will no longer be Facebook, Twitter, etc. available for anyone to kick around anyone else, anyway.

  5. It took up thousands of valuable minutes of news broadcasts throughout yesterday which could have been used productively to educate the public about all manner of things they actually need to know about—
    Now, Mr. Marshall.
    While I agree with the general message of this post, I have to take issue with the line above.
    You know very well the media would not have been discussing anything productive.

  6. Jack,
    Thank you for continuing to keep Justin Carter’s ongoing horrific treatment in public view. I first heard of him and his case through EA, and I have yet to find a better source for ongoing updates on both his plight and on the outrageous disregard for the Constitution he has experienced.
    To those who say, “It can’t happen here,” I only have to answer, “Justin Carter.”

  7. On the lighter side; my first reaction to seeing that “wolf in the hallway” photo was “How are they going to deal with it?”. This immediately brought to mind the old Russian story of the sleigh being pursued by a wolf pack. When the wolves drew near, the riders would grab one of their own and toss him out, thus delaying the chase while the wolves fought over the prime ribs! I couldn’t help but wonder if that hadn’t occurred to some of the athletes. After all, when in Rome…!

  8. Pingback: The Lone Wolf of Sochi « Ethics Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.