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When Does Hoax “Journalism” Go Too Far?

Submitted by on August 5, 2006 – 5:37 am 74 views 3 Comments

Today I happened to open up my RSS reader as I normally do and proceeded to read one of the more interesting Blogs I follow: Tim Boucher’s Pop Occulture. The latest article definitely caught my eye: Mel Gibson: Passion of the Terrorist (http://www.timboucher.com/journal/2006/08/01/mel-gibson-passion-of-the-terrorist/). In a nutshell, the article had cited a credible source (BBC News) and reported that Mel Gibson had been charged with financing known Muslim extremist groups. I was honestly skeptical at first, but after I clicked on the BBC link and saw the story I was convinced.

At the end of the work day I decided to dig in a little further and check for the latest update on some other news sites and found nothing! I checked CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Google News top stories and there was no reference to this story. I decided to go back to Tim’s site and found out that this was a “hoax” after all. I think there are a few lessons to be learned here:

1) Don’t trust everything you read on the Internet.
2) If you cite a source make sure it’s credible. In Tim’s defense, this article looked very much like the real thing. I was fooled.
3) Contributing members of the Internet ecosystem who publish content that is considered news (e.g. anybody with a blog) should have a degree of accountability. Common sense, maturity, and a general sense of decency go a long way.

It turns out that the link to the BBC article was in fact a fake domain: bbclosangeles.com (Bullshit Broadcasting Confederation). The original link:

http://www.bbclosangeles.com/BBCNEWS_Mel_Gibson_Arrested_On_Terrorism.htm

was forged to look identical to the BBC UK site, and it passed as authentic to many people. In hindsight the domain name should have given it away, but given the short attention span of most news readers (namely me) bouncing from story to story, looking at the domain name of the news site is usually not the primary concern.

Free speech, satire, and sometimes convincing hoaxes are one thing. But posts that are borderline malicious, and libelous in nature are irresponsible. I certainly don’t excuse the statements that Mel made during his arrest
, but I think posting false stories that he has ties to terrorism, and trying to pass them off as authentic is going too far. If Mel was sitting in the same room as the person that posted the hoax story while it was being typed, would he have the guts to go through with publishing the post?

I’d like to think that I have as much of a sense of humor as anybody. I absolutely love irony, satire, and absurdity. I can’t get enough of the Simpsons, South Park, The Family Guy (Giggity, giggity giggity!), and Futurama. But, I question why somebody thinks a story of this nature is funny. I wasn’t really laughing or awe struck when I discovered the ironic twist that this story was a lie. If you go to http://bbclosangeles.com/blog/, you’ll see that the guy responsible for the site, Mike Hess, have given a number of “reasons” why he posted the article.

I can’t profess to know the real motive of why this article was posted, or what other type of content usually ends up on bbclosangeles.com. But, i do find it very odd that this domain name was registered on July 30th, 2006: only 2 days before the Mel Gibson article was posted). Either this is going to be the first of a potentially long series of hoaxes that are planned, or this domain was registered for the sole purpose of trying to discredit Mel Gibson even further, and fool the general public.

At the very least I think Mike Hess owes Mel Gibson a sincere public apology…. regardless if the original intentions were good or ill-willed. According to Hess’ blog:

“People think I meant Mel Gibson harm or ill intent, I didn’t. Hell, I’d go have a beer and joke with him about it (as long as he didn’t go driving afterwards, btw Mel, if you are reading this, I wouldn’t mind having your autograph…”

If you like somebody enough to want their autograph, then I doubt the best way to do this is by publicly humiliating and enraging them. I am absolutely in favor of making the public more aware of where they get their information from and to be cautious of the credibility of news sources. But, education by trickery is not the way to go. Use common sense: don’t trick people, don’t backtrack by making your actions seem noble if you’ve tricked people, and try to invest your time and energy towards more constructive efforts. Peace.

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3 Comments »

  • MikeHess says:

    I didn’t back track, the article the whole time has said to check their sources, etc (and so did the info.htm page before I made it forward to the blog). So I don’t see how it is backtracking if the articles have said the same thing the whole time.

    The Mel Gibson article was actually posted July 30th but I changed the posting of the article a couple times. I actually had it posted under another domain name, but I figured I’d buy this one since it was available.

    The stories have never tried to be passed off as completely authentic; if I did I wouldn’t have left huge hints. (UK Election 2005, Thousands fooled by fake news article, pages that lead to the blog, and before the blog the info page, etc). They only look authentic at a quick glance. The page style used is even an outdated one (an old 2005 BBC one).

    Most people never look twice at an article, and at least for the next week people will be looking at articles more carefully and checking other sources to verify what they read. Most people learn things by error and first hand knowledge. If I made the same article and just changed it to President Bush, it would be absurd as well, and some people would buy it, but I bet less people would have a problem with it.

    I believe as long as there is a disclaimer (faux, hoax, fake, etc) it should be allowed. Hell if car companies get to use fine print why can’t the average hoaxer, at least I am not charging you extreme interest, lol. Don’t even get me started on those “quick cash” companies, charging 400% interest in their fine print. I think the biggest example of a hoax that sets a clear president for the acceptance of this is the Jerry Falwell v. Larry Flynt case. My guess is the most that will happen is a C&D letter, and by that time it will be established as a hoax everywhere (if it hasn’t already).

    I really don’t know how Mel Gibson feels about it, but my e-mail is available if he feels the article needs to be taken down. I’d honestly love to hear his take on it. Hopefully he doesn’t do it drunk though.

    I really think that in the end, the article might have helped him. As one person said in a forum “after the hoax, now I feel bad for Mel and am happy he was just charged with DUI and not terrorism” and “well, I guess there are worse things to be in trouble for.”

    If I was posting from the same room as him chances are we would be friends and I’d tell and ask him first. Some people will go for it “okay, let’s see how gullible people are.”

    My guess it people probably would not have been so willing to accept the article if he didn’t mess up like he did.

    If are worried about me not suffering any consequences, a bunch of different white power organizations are pissed at me because they were fooled. They believe I am part of a great Jewish Conspiracy. Which is pretty interesting in itself.

    I do have to say you put a lot into this blog about a hoax article. If you have any direct questions feel free to e-mail me.

    And whether this is a long series of hoaxes planned, I am not saying. ;)

    Hopefully I will never make a fake article that will start a conflict (how the Boxer Rebellion started).

  • Eric Blue says:

    Mike,

    You’ve made some good points, and in a general sense I can see your point of view. The public needs to get better about disseminating fact from fiction; hoaxes are sometimes ‘ok’ as long as there are some giveaways; and websites by and far need to get better about checking sources before they spread false information.

    However, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that people probably would not have had as big of a problem with a story like this if it was about Bush. The more ridiculous/implausible a hoax sounds, the better it’s going to be received when the hoax is discovered.

    IMHO, I think the topic you chose for the hoax is too provocative given the recent racist comments and negative publicity. Making the allegation that somebody is a terrorist, even if the source is supposed to be a hoax, isn’t something that should be taken lightly.

    The main reason why I decided to put as much thought into this blog post is to really question what types of hoaxes or topics cross the threshold from being harmless to harmful. Generally, speaking would it be considered ok or in good taste if somebody posted a hoax article that some celebrity had murdered a family member immediately following a real story where the actor/actress had just went through a painful divorce? Probably not.

    I actually don’t have that much of a problem with the fake site and the fact that so many (and credible) news sites were fooled. Hopefully, this will be one of many future lessons that will help improve how we come up with better systems of information trust, distribution, and authority. But, although you’ve stated that your intention was not to cause harm, I think this could be percieved otherwise given this is your first hoax article on the site and the nature of the topic. Personally, I would take the site down before you get a C&D from either Gibson or the BBC and apologize. But, each person has their own strategy for gettings things done, and you’re certainly entitled to yours.

  • tim boucher says:

    I actually posted a follow-up interview with Mike Hess about this hoax earlier today, if you’re interested. Probably a lot of the same material covered above, though…

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