11 of the most viral hoaxes in internet history

Internet Hoax

The internet is good for a lot of things. Perhaps most importantly though, it has fundamentally changed the way we access information. Nowhere has this been more visible than in the media space. Journalists now have access to more data and can more easily check facts than at any other time in history.

In the race to be first with a story though, those facts can sometimes go missing. Even when the online press doesn’t get involved though, there’s still ample for an online lie to get halfway around the world before the truth’s even had a chance to put its pants on.

In turn, that means some truly epic hoaxes have been taken on as fact by millions around the web before the truth behind them has been revealed. Some of them were deliberate, while others were the result of simple misunderstandings. In some cases, it seems, we’re just so desperate to believe that we dismiss logic and reason completely.

In a bid to demonstrate how wide-ranging and quick-spreading the online hoax can be, we’ve rounded up some of our favourites from the past few years.

1. Evernote gets sold


It didn’t take long for anonymous messaging app Secret to end up with its first hoax. The app was launched in late January. It took until the first week of February for someone to post that Evernote was about to be acquired.

The post was then shared across social media where it gained some traction:

Thing is, it turned out to pretty much be a complete fabrication. Anyone who’s watched Evernote CEO Phil Libin speak or read interviews with him knows that his central mission with Evernote has been to build a 100 year company.

Acquisition rumors should therefore have raised flags all over the place. Nonetheless, enough people bought the hoax that it had to be debunked in the tech press.

2. Samsung pays Apple in nickels

Here at Burn Media, we look back at this hoax with a real sense of fondness. In part that’s because it resulted in one of our biggest ever traffic days, but it’s also because of the massive amount of logic that had to be abandoned in order to believe it.

The premise was pretty simple: Samsung, annoyed at having to pay Apple US$1-billion for various patent infringements decided to do so in five cent pieces, shipping through the cash in 30 armoured trucks.

Aside from the fact that 30 trucks could never hope to carry US$1-billion if five cent pieces, believers were also missing the fact that no one ordered to pay someone else US$1-billion ever just forked the money out, especially after a bitter and acrimonious trial.

As it turned out the origin of the story was El Deforma, a Mexican take on satirical news site The Onion.

3. The flying bird man


In early 2012, a video surfaced online that purported to show a man achieving flight using nothing but a pair of wings, some muscle-boosting gears, an Android-powered smartphone, and some Wii controllers.

The video came with an official press release, lending it enough credibility that even skeptics were measured in their criticism. Heck, even well-respected publications such as Wired took the bait.

Much as the web wanted to believe in “the flying bird man” though, it was just another hoax.

As it turned out, Floris Kaayk, the Dutch filmmaker and animator behind the ruse had dedicated months to it in the name of art and make-believe.

4. Nelson Mandela’s Twitter death

Nelson Mandela

As former South African president and global statesman Nelson Mandela grew older, he had an increasing number of health scares. It was hardly surprising then that in early 2011 “news” that Nelson Mandela had died spread virally across Twitter.

As it demonstrated when Mandela actually died in late 2013, the world’s news media had prepared for Mandela’s death in a way that it prepared for few others.

At the time, The Nelson Mandela Foundation had to go into overdrive to quash the false rumours. In the intervening years, Twitter grew up a little and people stopped taking everything appearing on it as gospel. Thankfully death hoaxes are a much rarer phenomenon these days.

5. Internet Explorer users are as ‘dumb as bag of hammers’

Internet Explorer

This is another case of people wanting so badly to believe something that they’ll ignore everything going against it. When a report from a “research firm” called AptiQuant appeared online claiming that Internet Explorer users had lower average IQs than users of other browsers, Firefox and Chrome users around the world must have been rubbing their hands together in glee.

Alas, it turned out that AptiQuant’s website had only recently been set up and that the images of its staff were copied from the site of French research company, Central Test.

The culprit behind the elaborate hoax, it emerged, was part of the team at internet-deals site atcheap. The site’s builder also released list of “tell-tale” signs which should have immediately tipped the media off.

6. #CutforBieber

Anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes on image board site 4Chan knows that it can be a cruel and unforgiving place. In August 2013 though, its members perpetrated a potentially scary hoax.

After teen pop sensation Justin Bieber got caught smoking marijuana, 4Chan users started posting fake Twitter pictures in which they appeared to have been cutting themselves. This apparently got Justin Bieber fans to actually start cutting themselves, and post pictures of their wounds.

7. Jimmy Kimmel fools the world with a massive twerking fail

Jimmy Kimmel Twerking

If there was a dance move that defined 2013 it was twerking. And as is the case with most human endeavors, the internet reveled in videos of people failing spectacularly at it. One such video purported to show a young woman falling while twerking and setting herself on fire. It had reached over nine-million views on YouTube and caught the attention of the world’s media.

Interestingly, it was only after the video caught all that attention that US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel revealed it was a fake. It had, it turned out, been set up by Kimmel and that the woman in the video was actually stunt professional by the name of Daphne Avalon.

8. Goldman Sachs rules the world

Goldmans screen

In 2011, a fairly routine BBC interview took a weird turn when a Goldman Sachs trader going by the name Alessio Rastani told the presenter that “governments do not rule the world, Goldman Sachs does” and that he “dreams of another recession”.

While many believed him, the more sceptical portions of social media thought it was a hoax by culture jamming group The Yes Men.

Neither were entirely correct. English newspaper the Telegraph tracked Rastani down to a modest semi-detached house where he worked and lived with his partner. The paper also revealed that after four years of trading, Rastani’s net assets were £10 048 — in the red. Oh, he also had no association with Goldman Sachs.

9. The Blair Witch Project

Given that the film came out 15 years ago, it’s pretty easy to forget that a large part of the reason so many people went to watch the The Blair Witch Project was the ground-breaking campaign by the studio to use the internet and suggest that the movie was a record of real events.

If it weren’t for pretty much every other entry on this list, it would be easy to dismiss the 90s as a hopelessly naive time on the internet. We clearly still have much to learn.

10. Egyptian pyramids get covered in snow

The world loves an unusual weather story. Just look at all the attention given to the Polar Vortex that recently crippled parts of the US.

It was hardly surprising therefore that when photos sprang up online showing various Ancient Egyptian structures (including the pyramids and the Sphynx), they went massively viral.

Snow covered sphinx

At first glance, the photos seemed at least vaguely plausible. It had, after all, snowed in Cairo for the first time in over a hundred years. As Cracked points out however, all those photos were either made possible thanks to Photoshop or because they were taken in completely different locations (such as a miniature world in Japan).

11. Marty McFly travels to this exact date in “Back to the Future”

You’ll see this one popping up fairly regularly on social media. It’ll be a couple of screenshots claiming that “today” is the date that Marty McFly travels to the future in Back to the Future II. Frequently the people sharing these pictures, which have been floating around for years now, will ask questions like “where are our hoverboards?”

The real date, to settle the matter once and for all is 21 October 2015.

As Snopes points out, the easiest way not to fall for it is to remember the number 30:

The original Back to the Future film was set (and released) in 1985, and in that film Marty McFly traveled thirty years back in time, to 1955. In the sequel, Back to the Future Part II, Marty traveled thirty years forward in time, from 1985 to 2015.



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