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How and Why People Fall for Hoaxes

Updated on June 2, 2021

Just a Few

John Newbegin

In December 1874 the Sun Newspaper, a well respected broadsheet, published a long letter in it's column repleat with names, dates, and places.

The letter described how a man named John Newbegin, who had died four years before, had materialised during a séance and refused to dematerialise.

The letter went into detail.

People all over the country avidly read, quoted and debated it, dead sure it had happened. Those who dismissed it were criticised and virtually run out of town, because the public so wanted to believe it.

The letter had been composed by an aspiring young journalist, Edward P. Mitchell, who used it as a platform to gain a job with that very paper.



As you can see from the blurb 'Television' was apparently invented in 1880.

The report of this 'Diaphote' was taken as truth. It produced a great deal of

Those who disputed its existence were roundly dismissed.

It wasn't until 1917 that "Dr. H.E. Licks" (Helix) , the erstwhile inventor, revealed
it was a complete hoax in a book he wrote.

For over thirty seven years, that hoax had survived.

The History of the Bathtub

During World War I, H.L. Mencken wrote a widely quoted authoritarian history of the Bathtub.

It was quoted, copied, used as an authority, accepted and treated as truth.

"The first bathtub in the United States was installed in Cincinnati
December 20, 1842, by Adam Thompson. It was made of mahogany
and lined with sheet lead."
"At a Christmas party he exhibited and explained it and four guests
later took a plunge. The next day the Cincinnati paper devoted
many columns to the new invention and it gave rise to violent controversy."

Mencken went on with his history up to Milliard Fillmore's installation of a Bathtub in the White House.

Nothing in Mencken's history of the bathtub was true.
It was all a joke.

Mencken later wrote,

"My motive was simply to have some harmless fun in war days."

In truth, his article was a deliberate hoax to test the gullibility of readers and other journalists.

The Capture of Belief

In the first example, that of John Newbegin, we can all chuckle. The name alone is a dead giveaway.

Yet, people so wanted to believe that the Spirit persisted after death they accepted the article as true. It was the age of the Séance, the age where people truly believed in ghosts and spirits, and Ouija boards, and mediums.

The aspiring journalist tapped into that well of interest and created a complete fiction.

To 'substantiate' his story he added a lot of details. He believed, and rightly so, that the more place names and people he quoted, the more events he mentioned would give his fiction that necessary 'truthfulness'.

In the second case, that of the Diaphote, a scientist, aware how ignorant people were, of even the most, (to him) mundane inventions, could concoct a story and those who did not wish to seem unaware but fully fey with all manner of endeavour, agreed with his postulates and possibilities.

In the third example, H.L. Mencken went on to become one of the most popular humourists of his day. This first foray into the fray was not an accident.

He knew people believed whatever they read in a newspaper and so tossed something at them which they would swallow.

Today's Crop

The same rules which applied in those days apply today.

Find something the majority of people want to believe and give it to them. Fill the hoax with all sorts of information which can't really be easily verified or has been so 'photoshopped' as to seem true.

State it, fling the item on the Internet via some publishing site and sit back..

The more discerning reader will question the site on which the item is published.
These persons will draw the conclusion that the item isn't worth the ether it floats in.

These people make up the extreme minority.

The majority, happy to read what they want to believe, ignore the fact it's published on a questionable site, that the writer doesn't seem to have any credence, but run with the contents.

Running the Hoax

Many Hoaxes are so strong that people will blindly believe them, despite empirical evidence.

Triond published the 'Whitehouse Insider" which was absolute hoax, and created to be a hoax.

Yet, people believed it.

Youths from Macedonia posted insane pro-Trump rubbish on invented sites, and linked them to their Face Book Account, and got millions of hits.

People dive into Wikipedia, aware anyone can edit it, and believe every word they read, rarely going to other sources to confirm.

People get emails telling them they can share in the looting of the Nigerian Treasury.

People get phone calls telling them they won the Jamaican Lottery.

And they believe these things.


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