What’s In a Hoax?

Pondering the elements that make a hoax effective, and how a really good one can catch even the most seasoned skeptics.

By Andrew Egan

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Andrew Egan, who was inspired to talk about hoaxes thanks to a “lost film” that wasn’t. Here goes:

Today in Tedium: It’s no secret that we’re great fans of lost or extinct media. The lifecycle of technology means that staples of one generation are forgotten by future ones. But there is a special place in our hearts for lost media, the stuff that only exists in vague descriptions and even foggier memories. There are a variety of reasons media becomes lost, many of which we’ve talked about before, however the most common is that people often think something isn’t worth saving. In some instances, this is heartbreaking and in others it’s completely understandable. Those who make a hobby of finding lost media can find themselves on wild goose chases, looking for copies of things that no longer exist. There is a far greater danger for lost media enthusiasts. From time to time, the community falls for a phantom. Media that never existed in the first place. Today’s Tedium is talking about lost media hoaxes. — Andrew @ Tedium

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The amount of money Richard Heene was ordered to pay for perpetuating the infamous “Balloon boy” hoax. The father, amateur storm chaser, and former Wife Swap contestant made worldwide news for claiming his son Falcon Heene had drifted off in a helium weather balloon when he was soon found to be hidden in the family’s attic. Heene maintains it wasn’t a hoax, though his wife has since admitted guilt. A Mel magazine piece from last fall, on the tenth anniversary of the high-profile hoax, said the event “predicted the entire trash-fire world we currently live in.”

Drakes Plate

Was “Drake’s Plate,” a believed marker from the expedition of Sir Francis Drake, a hoax? Well, it certainly wasn’t real.

When is a hoax a hoax?

A hoax, by definition, is designed to cheat or deceive but there should be the added caveat that the result of the deception is some type of publicity or attention. The saga of Balloon Boy is a textbook example. But, some very well known “hoaxes” are really just practical jokes that went too far.

Take the story of “Drake’s Plate.” Discovered in 1936, “Drake’s Plate” was thought to be a brass marker from the expedition of Sir Francis Drake when he and his crew landed in Northern California in the late 16th century. The brass plaque was authenticated by Herbert Bolton of Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, who also acquired the piece for the school. Featured in textbooks and displayed around the world, the plate was examined closer in the mid-1970s and its authenticity was questioned. By 2002, a team of researchers had figured out that a group of Bolton’s colleagues had played a prank on him. (Side note: If there’s one academic article you should go out of your way to buy, it’s this one. Easily one of the best things academia has ever done and I’m including all the medicine they’ve made.) Before anyone could tell Bolton about the ruse, he’d already authenticated it.

Bolton passed away, allegedly unaware of the ruse, though the authors of the original article revealing the full story wrote, “Rumor that the Drake’s Plate was a hoax began circulating on the Berkeley campus as soon Professor Bolton announced the find.”

Magic Mansion

Magic Mansion, one of Wikipedia’s best-known hoaxes, included an entire network of pages related to a man named Warren Chaney, and was only discovered after a related page had been nominated for article of the day.

Falling for hoaxes has become something of a tradition in the Internet era. The world’s favorite resource, Wikipedia, has become ground zero for a lot of disinformation, including a rather infamous fake sitcom from the 1960s that sat on the site for nearly five years. On its list of hoaxes, Wikipedia offers some advice for spotting hoax articles:

One way to identify hoax articles included examining the article structure and content, its mentions in other articles on Wikipedia (i.e., embeddedness), and features of the editor who created the page. Specifically, hoax articles are likely to be longer than a legitimate article, less likely to have links to other Wikipedia articles, references, images, or other “wiki-like” markup, less likely to be mentioned in other Wikipedia articles before its creation, and more likely to be created by a new account with few to no other edits.

So does “Drake’s Plate” count as a hoax? People certainly call it one but it feels like a misuse of the term. Had Bolton been involved in some capacity, even after the fact, then sure. Cry hoax. There isn’t any evidence that he did know. Intent is an important distinction when we identify a hoax. Perhaps no better example can be found in an obscure Belgian comic book character.

Here Comes Sophie Hoax

The poster for the movie Here Comes Sophie… or is it?

Here Comes Sophie takes a community by surprise

The kind of people who spend their time looking for lost media are a peculiar bunch (myself included). Part detective, part librarian, avid lost media hunters usually spend their time hunting through forums, chasing leads, all while experiencing a feeling akin to having something perpetually on the tip of your tongue.

There is another danger to potentially ensnare media connoisseurs looking to find the next Cracks. And that’s the lost media that never existed in the first places.

The issue is a common one for the community. On Lost Media Wiki, “existence unconfirmed” and “non-existence confirmed” are common statuses for a variety of rumored or lost media. This begs a few strange questions though: Who would spread the rumor of a movie/ad/piece of music only to claim that copies don’t exist? The kind of person who would play a practical joke? As a hoax?

Here Comes Sophie Hoax 2

An ad for the alleged movie.

Most audiences can be forgiven for not being aware of Sophie, a Belgian comic book character that saw some light popularity in the 1960s. She was actually kind of pioneering as the first female character to lead a comic strip series in Spirou, a weekly comics magazine that has been publishing since the late 1930s. The French-language comic didn’t become as big with English audiences as Tintin (and definitely didn’t become as big as The Smurfs, which first appeared in Spirou in 1958 and eventually became a massive global franchise), but they were certainly beloved by a generation of French speaking children.

So it’s not entirely surprising that someone would have made a movie about Sophie. Those actually familiar with the character might be surprised as she was originally a side character in a comic series starring her friend, Starter, which itself started as an occasional column focusing on automobiles. (I have no idea how that worked.) In any case, the supposed existence of a movie no one had a copy of was enough to get the sleuths at LMW salivating.

People quickly pointed out that the people listed on the poster didn’t have the film listed in their filmographies. It was sort of assumed the movie was made but never released, either due to quality or lack of interest. For a while, there was even a proper Wikipedia page identifying the movie as a piece of lost media. Eventually though, people began to grow skeptical.

Here Comes Sophie Hoax 3

It was soon pointed out that various posters claimed two different movie studios behind the work. (Not impossible.) And that at least one of the posters was pulled directly from the back of one of the series anthologies. (Lazy but not implausible.)

Here Comes Sophie Hoax 4

Ultimately, it all added up to a lot of skepticism and the conclusion that it was fan art. It’s difficult or impossible to know who actually made and uploaded the original posters. Various searches have not yielded any results and the few that are available are often in French. Anyone that can ID the origin point of these posters might find a fascinating story. But after some time looking, It’s probably best to move on. After all, it’s no Ed, Edd n Eddy: Junkyard Scramble.

To their credit, the community at LMW seemed to take the situation with a grain of salt. Just another mystery to solve in the pursuit of humanity’s lost creations.

Hoaxes are strange, because they’re rooted in strange behavior designed to evoke strange responses. Something that otherwise could be criminal can get a pass for being good natured while innocent lies can evoke swift backlashes. To be considered a hoax, you have to consider the intent. An anonymous hoax is possible in service of a cause, like actually getting a movie about obscure Belgian comic characters made. It’s just a little more difficult to do.

The intent of a hoax also frames how people ultimately remember it. Lost media hoaxes traditionally center around fake “found” material. “Lost” works from famous figures miraculously found for the enjoyment of modern audiences, often with great profit, are too numerous to mention. The Here Comes Sophie hoax, if you can even call it that, is certainly not in the same category. There is something wholesome and wonderful to the posters that even if the movie had been made, there’s a chance the artwork in question would be confused with marketing materials for an obscure animated film.

Hey, that sounds like a great topic for a future Tedium article.


Thanks again to Andrew for finding inspiration in made-up hoaxes. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks to The Prepared for sponsoring.

Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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