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How and Why People Fall for Hoaxes

Updated on December 18, 2017

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.

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 empircal evidence.

People in New York, for example, have suffered the coldest winters on record for the past three years. Winters that begin at Halloween and continue until Easter; yet, they believe in "Global Warming."

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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    • qeyler profile image

      qeyler 16 months ago

      I think people are very gullible. The Ulsterman REport is a flag that in 2015 people are as gullible as they were in 1715

    • Marsha Musselman1 profile image

      Marsha Musselman 16 months ago from Michigan, USA

      I'm sure there will be a lot of surprises in the next life when people do find out all the things that they grew up believing that weren't true at all.

    • qeyler profile image

      qeyler 5 years ago

      Definately. I wrote about the Ulsterman Reports, which is as clear a give away as John Newbegin, and there are people, if you read the comments, who absolutely believe these spoofs and attack me, defending the hoax with every atom of their being.

      We haven't made any progress.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I fear we have not made much progress. We tend to look back on our ancestors with condescension and say "how quaint" instead of "jeez, we haven't come very far".

    • qeyler profile image

      qeyler 5 years ago

      Thanks RG. The interesting thing is that we like to believe we are so much more sophisticated than those people who believed in John Newbegin, yet thousands of people actually believe the Ulsterman Reports are true.

      They don't stop and think; "'Ulsterman?' that's the name for a person in Ireland. "

      They don't think; "but Triond is a publishing site, why would such an important 'Wikileak' kind of blog be there?"

      They want to believe, they believe, and don't let any daylight into their darkness.

    • RGNestle profile image

      RGNestle 5 years ago from Seattle

      People also want to believe that the world is more interesting than their own little sphere of influence. I know I'm guilty of wanting that, although I don't believe everything I hear. I like to verify stories that seem too good, exciting, or catastrophic to be true. You know, like tax rebates, winning with PCH, or the destruction of the earth by a guy who didn't get a tax rebate, but did win at PCH, and had a plan. It's a heart warming tale with a happy ending.

      Very nice Hub!