HOAXED!
The week of May 29, 2016
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The unending quest of the Hoax Slayer

By Andrew McMillen

For 13 years, Brett Christensen has been a committed professional debunker. This balding, bearded, soft-spoken, and serious man of 53 years has devoted himself to fighting the tide of online misinformation—the kind of scams, frauds, and hoaxes that used to spread from one inbox to the next but today move with alarming speed across social media. He assures readers that no, Mr. T is not dead (actually a like-farming scam); combining Mentos and Pepsi won’t lead to cyanide poisoning; and the sun won’t be going dark for eight days in June, no matter what that Facebook post quotes NASA as saying.  

In short, Christensen tries to bring his readers the facts, even as lies and mistruth swirl all around him. Way back in 2003, when he began his quest, he gave his website the suitably ambitious name, Hoax-Slayer. Its white, red, and black design favors practicality over aesthetics; while not particularly pretty to look at, the site is one of the Web’s largest archives of falsehoods. Christensen claims around 1 million visits per month, three-quarters of which arrive from search engines.

The Hoax Slayer himself lives in a house hidden by trees on a busy street in Bundaberg, Australia, a city of about 55,000 people situated in Queensland, the country’s third most populous state. His home office is a minimally appointed room with an adjustable desk, a copy machine, a single computer monitor, and plenty of unused space. One of the walls is painted blue, and on either side of the monitor hangs a calendar and a framed assortment of Christensen family photos.

As we talk, Christensen clicks onto Google Analytics, showing 50 people from around the world are currently browsing the site. Its social media presence is significant, too, with more than 202,000 Facebook fans and 5,300 Twitter followers.

For a time, the site operated as a family business: At the peak of online advertising revenue a few years ago, he could afford to hire two sons from his previous marriage to help him with Web development and maintenance. “If you’d told me back in 2004 that I’d been making a living out of it, I would’ve laughed at you,” he says.

Christensen’s wife, Deborah, also joined her husband in working on the site full-time for a few years but recently decided to return to her job as a probation and parole officer, managing the cases of criminal offenders. Today, about 80 percent of Christensen’s workweek is spent on managing Hoax Slayer, a site whose mission statement is “to help make the Internet a safer, more pleasant and more productive environment.”

The Hoax Slayer at home. Photo by Andrew McMillen.

The Hoax Slayer at home. Photo by Andrew McMillen.

It’s a quest that started with a hoax. Nothing too terrible; in fact, just a bit of mild embarrassment. Back in the early 2000s, when Christensen was still new to the World Wide Web, he received an email informing him not to download a Budweiser Frogs screensaver, as it contained a dangerous computer virus. He hurriedly forwarded it to his contacts. He thought he’d done the right thing by warning his friends and family away from harm—until he received a reply that it was a hoax.

“People want to know who’s behind it. I was constantly getting queries from people asking, ‘Who are you? Who are you to speak about these things?’”

Stunned and chastened, he was also intrigued by how he’d become a victim. Rather than simply chalking it up to experience and moving on, he burrowed in. He started a Yahoo Group devoted to discussing similar online hoaxes, pranks, and scams. Public interest in that community led to him starting the website in August 2003; by March 2004, he’d closed the Yahoo Group and concentrated on building the site as a well-written archive, as well as publishing an email newsletter.

Of course, Googling “Budweiser Frogs hoax” today leads to a Hoax Slayer page. “If you receive a Budweiser Frogs message similar to the examples shown here, do not forward it to others and let the sender know that the message is a hoax,” Christensen writes. “Fake virus warnings are a common subject of hoaxes. False warnings such as this are counterproductive and will help no one. If you receive a virus warning in the form of a forwarded email or shared social media message, always take the time to check its veracity at an anti-hoax or virus information website before you send it on.” It’s just the sort of logical, rational explanation that the author himself needed to hear all those years ago, before he forwarded that email.

Christensen has become the kind of person he needed to hear from back then. And he’s very much the public face of the site—his face, name, image, and even his home address are right there on the About page. “If I was starting over again, maybe I’d be a little bit more reticent. But at that time, it wasn’t something to be worried about. Now it’s too late!” he says, smiling. “I think it goes to credibility, a bit, too. People want to know who’s behind it. I was constantly getting queries from people asking, ‘Who are you? Who are you to speak about these things?’ I think it’s fairly important to be upfront, so that people know who you are, and where you’re at.” He pauses. “It’s possibly a security risk, but we’ve never had any major issues with it.”

As a hoax victim himself, he thought it was important to share stories from people like him. So amid the daily reporting of new and recycled hoaxes, a few years ago Christensen began a new section on the site featuring stories written by scam victims. These were real stories, written by real people—verified by the webmaster—who had fallen for something they’d read online, occasionally with devastating personal consequences.

He wanted readers to feel sympathy, to understand how someone not unlike themselves could be duped. Though he was careful not to identify the victims, he found that commenters would inevitably castigate victims for their stupidity. He was appalled by such responses, which were devoid of any empathy—a common thread among online commentary on many platforms, sadly. He has since disabled comments.

“One of the things that really gets me is that people are so negative about people that have been scammed,” he says. “I find that quite upsetting. A lot of these people aren’t stupid; they might just have gaps in their knowledge, or a lack of education in that area. It’s pretty arrogant for people to condemn them for being scammed. They need our support, not condemnation. When people are reluctant to come forward, that means that there’s less information out there—fewer real stories—and that plays into the hands of the scammers.”

“The scammers spend months building trust, and then the person realizes they’ve been scammed out of lots of money. It’s really devastating for them.”

From time to time, his visibility as the Hoax Slayer has made Christensen a shoulder to cry on for those who have been scammed. “That can be quite difficult, because it’s usually after the event,” he says. “Dating scams are quite traumatic, because the scammers spend months building trust, and then the person realizes they’ve been scammed out of lots of money. It’s really devastating for them. Some people ask me for help to get money back after they’ve been scammed. I can’t, so I have to send them back to the police. But the police really can’t do much, anyway, because they’re often in another country.”

His role as a public hoax slayer has taken its toll. While Christensen is reluctant to talk about this in much detail, his wife, Deborah—a pretty blonde who met the love of her life at a local café in 2008, after first chatting on an online dating site—notes that he has gone through periods of disillusionment, largely related to negative comments on social media.

“Brett goes through phases,” she says. “When he first started, it was motivated by feeling like he could do something good, and provide a service. I think it’s more just getting worn down, and being disappointed in people sometimes.”

Having noticed how much negativity has recently infected the Hoax Slayer’s Facebook page, where a noisy minority can spew bile, he’s decided to put less energy there. “We’re all anonymous behind the computer,” says Deborah.

Apart from daily tasks of writing news articles, posting on social media, and maintaining the site’s back-end, the Hoax Slayer busies himself with finalizing the contents of his second ebook. His first, Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft, Internet Scams & Phone Scams, was self-published in 2015; his second will be about how to avoid malware. He also writes on his own website and several blogs, including one about amateur photography and another about developing a frugal mindset.

But after so many years of battling hoaxes, frauds, and scams, and dwelling on some of the sadder sides of human nature, Brett and Deborah Christensen thirst for something different. “Brett writes other stuff, too, in different genres,” Deborah says. “I think it’s excellent. We both love writing, and we’d love to be able to earn a living from writing other things—not just factual things.”

Illustration by J. Longo