In this digital era it is easier than ever before for stories to spread like wildfire, but increasingly, these hoax “too good to be true” tales are often spurious. Reluctant to let them go, numerous outlets will continue to report them, as if they were accurate. This happened last week with the shaggy dog story about Liam Neeson. Purportedly, the action movie star was out for a jog in Central Park when he saved a stray dog from a cruel stoning by three young hoodlums. He then stayed with the shivering creature and tried to calm it, before help could arrive.
It’s a lovely story, the move hero acting heroically in real life, the tortured animal rescued, the nobility and courage of a man already universally admired. However, it is not true. A spokesman for Liam Neeson made this clear, but not before lots of highly reputable outlets had published it, albeit some of them with caution. The Independent said “reports were highly questionable” but nevertheless they “sincerely hoped they were true.” The Daily Mail used the words “Liam Neeson denies” in its headline but still went ahead with most of the detail from the original ShowbizSpy.com report on how he had threatened to “knock the c***” from the attackers and scared them off. The Daily Mirror did the same. Writing that “Liam Neeson has denied he turned into a real-life hero” they too went on to recount the alleged drama. Over 60 news sources worldwide covered the story as if it were accurate.
This raises the question as to whether the desire to enjoy an item surpasses its credibility in a world where likes and shares can so quickly catapult it far and wide. Another recent hoax story was the case of Google Earth picking up an SOS sign from a shipwrecked woman, who had been lost for seven years. The woman in question, Gemma Sheridan, is a real person. Her shipwreck story is false. Gemma is a friend of the editor of the semi-satirical Newshound site, which fabricated the tale.
She was supposed to have set off on a voyage from her home town of Liverpool through the Panama Canal and onwards to Hawaii. A storm in the Pacific washed her two friends overboard and destroyed her electronics. After drifting, she washed ashore and gradually learned to survive by killing goats using clam shells and making a shelter in a tree. “Fast forward a few years” says the first person narration, and then a few more, and the SOS sign she has constructed on the beach, for the first time ever, has attracted the attention of a low-flying plane. They drop her a parcel with a radio in it, and she puts it on to hear a human voice. They tell her she has been found on Google Earth by “some kid from Minnesota” . She has never even heard of Google Earth, so long has been her isolation.
The SOS sign did exist on Google Earth. It was taken in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The rest of the story was “just a joke” but it got millions of views and tens of thousands of shares.
Many were suspicious of the so-called “Mexican castaway” Jose Salvador Alvarenga who had been adrift in the Pacific for 16 months before coming ashore in the Marshall islands in late January this year. Commentators continue to ponder whether he told a fake tale. “Smells fishy” and “Pi in the Sky” were some of the headlines at the time, and “Too good to be true” again a popular theme. Alvarenga is now home with his family in El Salvador and key aspects of his adventure have been corroborated by experts. Crucially, the licence number on his boat matched the records of the missing vessel from his original Mexican fishing fleet. A study by the University of Hawaii confirmed that charts of ocean currents and drifts substantiated his journey. A model they built drew a course which narrowly bypassed the Ebon Atoll where he ended up. The Salvadorean Health Minister, Maria Isabel Rodriguez is one of those who now believes Alvarenga. Despite him being in remarkably good physical health, she has found him to have more psychological weaknesses, consistent with post traumatic stress.
Alvarenga could be an example of truth being stranger than fiction.
Sometimes a hoax is revealed by the hoaxer. Mamuro Samuragochi, Japan’s “Beethoven” did have the (eventual) honesty to ‘fess up to not being deaf, nor actually being a composer, when the music teacher who did write his music, outed him. . Fakes are less easy to spot when they seem to be corroborated by heavy-weight authorities. This was shown in Christmas 2009 when no less than the British Medical Journal put out a story, via press release, that Santa encourages childhood obesity and was a bad role model. Dr Nathan Grills of Monash University was said, in the release, to have done a study and many major news organizations reported it as fact. However, there was no evidence of any peer review, and the BMJ always runs a Christmas joke item.
More recently, a schoolboy has tricked the entire footballing world with his fake twitter accounts. 17-year-old Sam Gardiner, from London, was on a roll with his false persona of Dominic Jones, and his 3,000 followers. “Dominic” was a former talent scout who now wrote for Goal magazine. When a real writer for Goal warned Twitter, they closed “Dominic” down. Sam Gardiner popped straight back up again, this time as Samuel Rhodes. “Samuel” was a freelance journalist who wrote for the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph. He soon had more than 20,000 followers. He made predictions about transfers and in one spectacular bit of luck, predicted that Chelsea’s manager Roberto di Matteo would be fired. He was, the next day.
“Samuel” had contact with real footballers, who trusted him and in a way, did act like a real reporter, sending direct messages, and trying to tell the footballer’s side of the story. Even when, as he admits he “quoted” them or “I’d quote what I thought he’d say.”
Although now closed down again on Twitter, his scam shows a susceptibility,that is a product of the way we all receive and relate news and information. It is a moment’s work to create a false identity on social media, and with constant streaming, all too easy to read or skim something and take it at face value. Sam Gardiner has actually got a job out of his con-manship, writing about football for Yakatak where he swears he is sticking to facts and giving up on the speculation.
BuzzFeed have just joined forces with the app Whisper, to work with them as a source for good gossipy stories. BuzzFeed hope to find lots of “viral” material through their new partnership. There is a danger here, that people will purposefully feed outrageous lies into Whisper, to watch them go far and wide via BuzzFeed. Users remain anonymous so there is no risk to their reputations. When this pair shared a co-produced story before, “19 Brutally Honest Teacher Confessions” they both confessed they had no idea if the teachers, or their confessions, were true. They had no way of knowing. As the feature generated 1.1 million views, the page traffic is what counts, not the accuracy.
Neetzan Zimmerman of Whisper, has said that the content on is app only lives for eight hours. By teeming with Buzzfeed, it can “live somewhere forever.” That somewhere is the internet. The internet is a great instrument for satire, for joke-telling and for lampooning of the great and the good. The problem can lie in telling the difference.
Inevitably, more and more hoax stories of the “too good to be true” variety will continue to appear. Rumors, urban legends, and plain lies will always circulate. To retain credulity it is wise to also retain an element of scepticism. Guardian Liberty Voice articles are always backed by authority sources. The old maxim, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” applies more than ever to the fast-moving world of global news.
By Kate Henderson