The Anatomy of a Hoax


 It was about 10:00 pm Sunday night when my wife turned to me with a tear in her eye and told me that Morgan Freeman was dead. 

We’d been watching television and as she often does she had been scrolling through Facebook on her Blackberry.  We both agreed that it was a sad day for Hollywood, his death had been so sudden and unexpected, we wondered how his family and close friends were holding up and I said a silent prayer for them in their time of great loss.  Ten minutes later she turned to me with a hint of disgust and distain in her voice and told me it was all a hoax.

That got me thinking.

In the mid 90s, while my wife was studying political science at university one of her favorite things to do on a quite night in was to watch the news magazine shows that were so popular at the time.  News magazines like Dateline, 20/20 and 48 Hours were the 90’s version of reality TV.  Yes kids, instead of lame obstacle courses and trumped up conflict facilitated by tanned game show hosts, dressed in casual safari chic and filmed in some far off tropical destination, we learned about real life conflict, even murder and the motives behind it from these same tanned game show host types in Armani suits filmed in snazzy studios at Rockefeller Center and Times Square.

I still remember the station tag that ABC would run on Friday nights during their weekly broadcast of 20/20, “More Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source.”   Whether or not 20/20 and the other news magazine shows could be considered real news is open for debate, the fact is that we now live in a world where more people get their news from Twitter and Facebook than any other source and the age of the hoax is in full bloom.

It’s been said that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on.  I don’t know who said that but in the world of the instant message, twitter and facebook it sure is accurate.    

Now I must confess that I get most of my news from Twitter these days as well.  I follow feeds from CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Globe and Mail to name just a few.  But these are real news sources, with journalists and editors and everything.  The real danger in all this comes when you get your information in short bursts direct from your peers.  Without a filter, like that provided by true journalists, it becomes extremely difficult to verify the accuracy of your information and sensational lies like the hoax my wife and I fell victim to can spread like wild-fire.  Last Sunday night while Mr. Freedman’s fans were expressing their condolences through social media and planning candle light vigils, the real journalists were busy calling the morgue.   By the time the hoax had been debunked, literally millions of people believed the lie.

The moral of the story is this; always check your source and only trust information from sources that’ve earn it.  Or as the 16th president of the United States once said;

The problem with quotes on the internet is that it’s extremely difficult to verify their authenticity.  – Abraham Lincoln

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