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What are Internet Hoaxes?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Internet hoaxes are stories that spread throughout the Internet, often through email, forums, and blogs, reporting stories or showing images that are untrue or alterations of the truth. These types of hoaxes can be merely innocuous tales spread in order to play on people’s inherent willingness to believe in the outrageous when presented in a realistic way or can be more malicious efforts to crash servers and spread viruses. Internet hoaxes have existed just about as long as the Internet itself, and many of them have become parts of modern urban legendry.

Just like other types of hoaxes, Internet hoaxes are created to try to trick a person into believing something that is not true. This is often done for a variety of reasons, from people who enjoy tricking others, to hoaxes that serve as a cover for more nefarious purposes. Most Internet hoaxes come about and attain some level of popularity or distribution, but then fairly quickly fade away or die out in light of reality. More impressive hoaxes, however, can last much longer and may linger for years while still being passed around the Internet.

Some of the most common types of Internet hoaxes include those that claim to warn about some type of virus being passed around the Internet. These claims will usually target something that is safe, such as indicating that certain security programs or websites are spreading viruses or stealing passwords, or will mislead people about a real security threat. This latter type of hoax can be quite harmful since it may warn about something false, while spreading a virus through the warning mail or getting people to take action that is potentially harmful under the guise of protecting their computers.

Other Internet hoaxes can have less to do with attempts to install malicious software on a computer and more to do with simply spreading misinformation. These hoaxes include such outrageous claims as websites selling human meat, New York vendors selling kittens in glass bottles, and a tourist captured in a photograph on the observation deck of the World Trade Center just before the attacks on 11 September 2001. There are also numerous hoaxes each year detailing the false deaths of various celebrities.

All of these Internet hoaxes should be immediately dismissed, but many people are so strongly drawn to the outrageous and the impossible, that such things are given credence. The “truth is stranger than fiction” argument often persuades people to believe the preposterous, accepting a fanciful vision of reality that might otherwise be immediately dismissed. Fortunately, a number of websites have developed that exist solely to debunk these types of hoaxes and help people distinguish reality from deception.

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Discussion Comments

By MrsPramm — On Feb 17, 2014

@bythewell - That annoys me, but it isn't nearly as bad as those people who deliberately set out to make up a story and then elaborate on it in order to get money or sympathy.

There have been plenty of famous internet hoaxes with real world consequences. There have been people who have pretended to be dying in order to get donations, or pretended to be military heroes in order to get dates.

It's really disgusting, particularly as it makes it more difficult for people who actually have legitimate situations to be heard without being accused of faking.

By bythewell — On Feb 16, 2014

@indigomoth - That seems to happen every few weeks on Facebook where someone will post something from The Onion or another fake news site thinking that it is real.

Occasionally I think people don't intend something to be a hoax, but they honestly believe an urban myth is true, and they maybe try to create evidence to back them up.

By indigomoth — On Feb 15, 2014

The thing that gets to me is that often so-called internet hoaxes were not meant as hoaxes at all, but were originally intended to be a joke. I've heard of internet virus hoaxes, for example, that were written originally by someone who didn't think they would ever be taken seriously (for example, there was one once where the author pretended there was a virus that would prevent emails being sent if they had grammatical errors in them).

Unfortunately, some people just don't recognize sarcasm when they see it and they spread the joke around as though it was reality. Then others will come along and accuse the author of a hoax, when in fact he or she was just trying to be funny or to make a point.

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