If 2013 was “the year of the viral hoax,” what then should we call 2014 — a year slightly older, slightly wiser, and even more full of moronic shenanigans?
This was the year, after all, that saw the rise of the fake news industry: a cynical (and profitable!) enterprise that churns out convincing hoax-news for clicks. This was also, arguably, the year that properly ushered in the worst of the bogus fact/photo Twitter accounts, a la @UberFacts or @HistoryInPics. And that’s not even getting into the pranks, the “viral” attention-seeking, and the outright bald-faced lies — made for infamy, lolz or some other purpose, we will never know.
So this year, at least, we shan’t make the mistake of declaring the “viral hoax” a 2014 fad. But as 2015 approaches, maybe we can look back and learn from the past year’s mistakes? In that spirit, here’s our survey of 2014’s most viral, and outrageous, Internet fakes.
1. There was no “three-boob girl.”
Way back in September, Alisha Hessler — alias Jasmine Tridevil — captivated the Internet and confounded plastic surgeons with the claim that she’d gotten a third-breast implant in order to score a reality TV show. (That is, admittedly, a pretty solid MTV pitch.) Alas, the third boob was actually a prosthesis, and as fake as Hessler’s hokey pseudonym.
In the wake of her viral fame, Hessler is apparently pursuing a second career as a pop star; she recently finished recording her first song and an accompanying music video, which was set to premiere on Tampa’s 102.5 The Bone on Thursday. No word on whether she wore the prosthesis in that performance, but it seems to be part of her shtick.
2. 4chan didn’t leak Emma Watson’s nudes.
Let’s be clear: 4chan was responsible for a lot of other shenanigans this year. But when a threatening Web site went up in the wake of fall’s “Fappening,” promising to leak nude photos of actress Emma Watson in revenge for a feminist speech she made at the United Nations, the Internet’s most infamous message board was not actually to blame. Instead, both the Web site and the threat were publicity stunts by a Internet “marketing” company called Rantic, which remains in operation today.
Rantic’s business model is fairly sketchy — it sells fake Web traffic, as well as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter likes — but the company’s reps have said that the motives behind the Emma Watson hoax were pure. “It was a psychological study, mate,” one man told Vocativ. And a bid for free publicity, which definitely worked.
3. That super-viral “drunk girl” video was staged.
This was a big year for “social experiment” videos — or it would have been, if some of the so-called experiments weren’t actually faked. “Drunk Girl in Public,” one of the more popular follow-ups to Hollaback’s original catcalling video, was particularly egregious in that regard: Its creator, who claimed to have captured a bunch of creeps approaching a pretty drunk girl as she tottered around L.A., had actually coached the men into acting that way.
In the backlash that followed — which included an earnest apology from the video’s actress, Jennifer Box — filmmaker Stephen Zhang quietly changed the video’s title to “Drunk Girl in Public (Awareness Skit)” and disabled comments on the clip. His company, Stephen Zhang Productions, continues to turn out feel-inducing, social-aware videos; its most recent was called “Helping the Homeless with Thanksgiving Cheer.”
4. Bikers did not “surrender” the Brooklyn Bridge to pedestrians.
Remember those mysterious white flags that appeared on the Brooklyn Bridge over the summer? They were placed there, apparently, by a duo of German artists, who have a long history of vaguely illegal public art. But before the artists admitted to their work, a parody Twitter account called @BicycleLobby tricked half of Twitter, several media outlets, and the NYPD into thinking the flags had something to do with cyclists. Needless to say, they did not. (The artists describe the flags as a celebration of “public space.”) And despite the NYPD’s attempts to subpoena and expose the people behind the account in connection with the bridge incident, @BicycleLobby keeps tweeting blithely on: As of this writing, the account’s on a #bikemusical bender.
5. A disfigured 3-year-old was not kicked out of a Mississippi KFC.
In a shameless grab for money/attention, a Mississippi family claimed in early June that they were asked to leave a KFC franchise because their daughter’s facial scarring “scared” other customers. They were almost definitely making the incident up: Multiple investigations by the restaurant chain found no evidence the family was even at KFC when they said they were.
Still, the little girl’s injuries were very real — she was mauled by pitbulls earlier in the year — and concerned donors didn’t hold the hoax against her. As of early October, more than $100,000 had been donated to Victoria on GoFundMe, and an additional $30,000 was donated to a surgery foundation on behalf of KFC. That foundation, along with several other doctors, have performed a series of facial reconstruction surgeries on Victoria for free. So as far as stupid hoaxes goes, this one has a pretty happy ending.
6. Justin Bieber did not save a Russian man from a bear.
In early August, dozens of media outlets ran with the incredible tale of a Russian man saved from mauling when his Justin Bieber ringtone went off, scaring the bear away. Alas, the Bieber angle appears to have been fiction: When Poynter’s Craig Silverman dug into the story, he found that it was added by the questionable English-language news site Austrian Times in translation, and didn’t appear in the original Russian accounts.
Alas, few outlets have corrected the Bieber reference, and both the Austrian Times and its parent company, Central European News, continue to serve as feeding ground for the world’s least discerning tabloids. Its most popular stories, as of this writing, involve a Romanian woman stabbed with a screwdriver, an SUV that almost fell into a sinkhole in China, and a 12-year-old who sustained some kind of freak chopstick accident. All three stories were promptly picked up by the likes of England’s Daily Mirror and Daily Mail.
7. A “Miracle Machine” can’t actually turn water into wine.
Late last winter, two wine industry heavyweights claimed to have invented a “Miracle Machine” that could ferment wine quickly in the comfort of your home. As its creators eventually revealed, however — to the disappointment of the hundreds of journalists who covered the so-called invention — the product was actually a publicity stunt for the charity Wine to Water, which sells wine to fund clean-water projects in Haiti, Ethiopia and six other countries.
The stunt was, admittedly, annoying (“if you think lying to people is the right way to go about charity … go to hell,” wrote one YouTube commenter) but it also did its job. Only weeks after the Miracle Machine went viral, Wine to Water’s donations were up 20 percent. The nonprofit celebrated its 10-year anniversary earlier this week; in that time, it’s provided more than a quarter of a million people with clean water.
8. Alex from Target was not a marketing hoax.
This one is, needless to say, a bit of a puzzler: The hoax, in this case, was someone crying hoax… when the Internet meme in question (née Alex Lee, an attractive teenage Target employee) actually happened all on his own. #AlexfromTarget, you may recall, became a teen Internet sensation at the beginning of November, when a couple of girls snapped his photo as he cashed them out at Target. The photo, once tweeted, took off across the boundless depths of One Direction Twitter, where hundreds of thousands of girls soon christened Alex their heartthrob du jour.
This was a genuine, organic, people-powered phenomenon — something that doesn’t often happen on the Internet these days. But one marketing company, apparently determined to get in on the Alex action, insisted it had actually orchestrated Alex’s virality via some secret network of Twitter-famous people. To make a long story short, the Twitter-famous people denied any involvement, Alex said he’s never heard of the marketing company, Breakr, and said company quickly dialed down its claims/faded into the Internet shadows. Per its Twitter, Breakr is still in “beta” and hasn’t done much of anything since then.
Alex, on the other hand, is a bona fide, verified Twitter celebrity — just this week, he signed on to tour with CreaTour, a sort of festival circuit for teenage Internet stars. As of last month, he was still working the Target gig, but maybe that’ll change.
9. There is no social network for drunk people.
“Livr,” a breathalyzer-unlocked iPhone app and “global network of similarly buzzed people,” captivated tech forums and reporters early in the year with a slick corporate Web site and promo video claiming the start-up would launch soon. Within a span of days, of course, skeptics had begun to poke holes in the story — breathalyzers are really expensive, for starters — and a pair of Brooklyn creatives copped to the hoax. Brandon Schmittling and Brandon Bloch had invented the app, they later said, as a sort of performance piece examining the absurdity of tech culture. (Further proof of said absurdity: Several early reports on the glory of Livr have still not been corrected or taken down.)
Schmittling and Bloch celebrated the end of the project at a “wrap party” in March: “Thanks for the memories,” they wrote. “It’s been real … but also, you know, fake.”
10. Wolves did not wander the halls of athletes’ dorms at the Olympic Games.
While it feels like the Sochi Games happened eons ago — particularly in light of all the Russian drama that’s transpired in that time — the Olympics and their annoying, obvious Jimmy Kimmel hoax went down just in February. Toward the end of the games, Olympic luger Kate Hansen tweeted a video that, she said, showed a wolf wandering through her dorm; in reality, of course, the stunt was filmed for the Jimmy Kimmel show. (Despite the popularity of clips like this one and the infamous “twerking fail,” it would seem that Kimmel’s since cooled on this kind of hoax.)
In either case, we prefer to remember Hansen for her other, more honest moment of Olympic virality: She also became something of an Internet sensation for jamming to Beyonce during her warm-up routine.
11. A bird did not poop on Vladimir Putin.
Speaking of Russia, a strangely satisfying video that whizzed around YouTube in early August appeared to show a bird taking revenge on Russia’s president as he unveiled a monument in Moscow. Alas, Russian versions of the footage show Putin finishing his speech on the dangers of war with his suit jacket and his dignity intact.
The edited clip seems to have originated with the YouTube channel “PressTVNews1,” which specializes in frequent and questionably factual videos from the conflict in Ukraine. In the months since the bird-pooping-Putin stunt, the channel has continued uploading a steady, near-constant stream of more serious videos from the war; most recently, it’s published several clips that allegedly show convoys and armed combat in Donetsk.
12. Earth did not, and will not, suffer six days of “total darkness.”
In one of the more improbable fake-news stories to gain widespread traction this year, the hoax site Huzlers published an “article” that claimed a solar storm would block out the sun from Dec. 16 to 22. Needless to say, today is Dec. 18 — and no one’s stumbling around with their iPhone flashlights on. Still, the fake article proved so popular — and the rumors were repeated so many times on social media and in foreign outlets — that in late October NASA took the highly unusual step of addressing it directly.
“Contrary to what you may have read or heard,” a representative for the agency’s Earth Observatory wrote in a Facebook post, “NASA has in no way issued any statement regarding 3 (or 6) days of darkness in December due to a solar storm. All these rumors are absolutely false.”
The Earth Observatory has since dedicated itself to sharing more important information, like what Christmas lights look like from space; Huzlers, predictably, remains one of the Internet’s most-wanted in the realm of terrible fake news. Its recent, fictional (!) work includes a bit on contaminated Chipotle’s guacamole and the role of the Illuminati in the music industry.
13. Lawless, amoral teens did not riot in cities across the U.S.
The so-called “Louisville Purge” sounds like a bad movie plot … because it is. The rumor, which began with a “joke” tweet from a Louisville teen in mid-August, was ripped directly from the 2013 horror movie “The Purge” — in which, for 12 hours, people can commit any crime without consequences. According to that initial Louisville tweet, and a long series of copycat messages made on Twitter and Reddit for months after, teens across the country spent much of 2014 plotting theft and murder sprees of their own.
Needless to say, while almost every major city has confronted its own “purge” rumors this year, the appointed date has come and gone in each place without consequence. Louisville Police also investigated the original tweeter at the center of the original “Purge” rumors, but did not ultimately press charges; the teen, who was not identified publicly, said he was sorry for the hoax and that he “didn’t think it would really get that serious until it actually did.” Police elsewhere have been more laissez-faire: “The Purge is a popular horror movie,” Alabama police patiently explained on Facebook. “This is an urban legend and is not a credible threat.” (Translation: Please stop calling 911 about every social media rumor you see.)
14-15. Macaulay Culkin and Betty White are both still alive.
This year enjoyed its fair share of death hoaxes, but these two had to be the best. In September, the fake news site Empire News published a story about “Betty White dying” — as in, dying her hair — and fooled some 2 million people into mourning the actress. Meanwhile, some two months later, MSNBC.website, a tricky newcomer to the fake-news space, claimed that 34-year-old former child star Macaulay Culkin was found dead.
Both White and Culkin are actually okay, of course: White, who is nearing her 93rd birthday, still stars in the TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.” (And drinks gin-and-tonics, apparently.) Culkin is on tour with his band Pizza Underground; they played D.C. earlier this month.
… What will 2015 come up with? We’ll have to wait and see.