The week of December 28, 2014

The 13 most viral hoaxes of 2014

By Miles Klee

Recently, we were treated to the irresistible tale of 17-year-old Mohammed Islam, a senior at New York’s Stuyvesant High School who had allegedly made an astounding $72 million trading stock. Trouble was, the story wasn’t remotely true, and it completely unraveled in 48 hours.

Of course, this wasn’t the first myth that found its way into facthood on the Internet this year. Join us, please, for a tour of 2014’s greatest hoaxes, from the overblown to the misrepresented to the utterly false—and maybe you’ll be more skeptical next time.

1) Alex From Target

In early November, the Web reverberated with the screeching of countless teenage girls. They had discovered a humble heartthrob in Alex Lee, a cashier at a Target store in Texas, when a photo of him at work became a runaway sensation on Twitter, prompting as much confusion as idolatry: Who was Alex? Did he have a girlfriend? How had this all started? Answers: just some kid, yes, and eventually a company named Breakr claimed it was all a brilliant viral marketing stunt. That too turned out to be bullshit, debunked by the two teens responsible for the photo, as well as Alex himself. Now he’s a professional model. Whatever!

Adding everyone back inside @shots right now. Add me on there shots.com/alexlee

A photo posted by Alex Lee (@alexl) on

2) Banksy’s arrest

There was a brief panic among fans of guerrilla street satire in October: a report on the arrest of British graffiti guru Banksy had surfaced and spread across social media, and it included the revelation of his identity, one of the art world’s best-kept secrets. Thing was, the story came from the National Report, a fake news site that “cites” reputable sources like the BBC in its articles for added plausibility. In the end, Banksy’s publicist had to publicly deny that he’d been detained and his studio raided. The prank was the National Report’s most successful to date, pulling more than 6 million pageviews—but the post has since quietly vanished.

3) Text message meme breakup

We’re not sure who’s still into crappy image macros with big white lettering, yet 100 percent of that sizable demographic was bowled over by a bro who claimed to have dumped his cheating girlfriend using nothing but. The gag did well for the likes of the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed; meanwhile, the Daily Dot’s Fernando Alfonso III showed us just how easy it was to fake the whole thing. Oh, and the hoaxster who pulled 30,000 new Twitter followers with this piss-poor excuse for relationship humor? He’s a casual racist given to rape jokes. Epic win.

4) Three-boob lady

One should always be wary of what an “aspiring reality TV star” from Florida says on local radio, but the Internet really, really wanted to believe that a “Jasmine Tridevil” had found an ethically flexible plastic surgeon able and willing to sculpt her a third breast for $20,000. She explained that her modified anatomy was intended to make her undateable—which had to be confusing to men who had always felt strangely aroused during that one part of Total Recall—and she allegedly booked interviews with Jimmy Kimmel and Vice, among others. The Daily Dot later conferred with doctors who refuted the tri-boob concept itself, and “Tridevil” was exposed as a known fraudster whose massage parlor’s webpage boasted of the hoax.

5) Emma Watson’s nudes

After actress Emma Watson made an impassioned and widely praised speech on feminism to the United Nations, someone posting on the infamous message board 4chan promised to leak nude photos of her. With the massive Celebgate hack just weeks old at that point, few in media doubted the credibility of this threat, and the appearance of a mysterious countdown site ramped up the attention paid to it—though Watson stood her ground. No private pictures ever emerged, because the whole narrative had been cooked up by a collective of serial pranksters known as SocialVevo, who had previously trolled Family Guy fans and NASA. Enraged that the group had tried to further tarnish their already sleazy reputation, 4chan users took revenge by defacing its rebranded site and exposing their other hoaxes.        

6) HUVr Tech Hoverboard

We’re actually still too mad about this to discuss in depth, but suffice it to say, one should never make people think you’ve invented a functioning hoverboard, even for a Funny or Die sketch. How could you do this to us, Tony Hawk? We just wanted something—anything cool—to believe in.

7) This one weird trick would save the government a fortune

This one wasn’t so much false as just badly reported—even by yours truly. It all began with the nifty science project of Pittsburgh 14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani: He analyzed his teacher’s handouts and concluded that his district could save $21,000 annually on printer ink by switching to the font Garamond. Some Harvard grad students got hold of his findings, which were extrapolated to suggest that the federal government could cut costs by $400 million the same exact way. People railing against wasteful spending were disappointed to subsequently hear that the study incorrectly conflated toner with printer ink, failed to account for point-size differences between fonts, and would have us sacrifice legibility while saving considerably less money than hypothesized, as the Daily Dot noted in a correction.

8) Operation Freebleeding

Months before the Emma Watson debacle, 4chan conducted “Operation Freebleeding,” their own anti-feminist false flag operation. The idea, which sprang from the site’s notorious /b/ community, was to manufacture enough backlash about feminine hygiene products—tampons being tools of patriarchal oppressors in their projected outrage—that women would start boycotting them and, er, bleeding freely during menstruation. This involved the creation of the hashtag #freebleeding, as well as dummy Twitter and Facebook profiles, and the repurposing of photos stolen from around the Web. While few joined the phony movement, many thought it was real. In fact, its underlying philosophy has existed for many years, and an anonymous source close to the Daily Dot confirmed that she “totally know[s] people who do this.”

9) Macaulay Culkin’s death

Former child star and current Pizza Underground frontman Macaulay Culkin was surely in someone’s celebrity death pool this year, but for the moment, he’s alive and well. Not long ago, a Facebook memorial page—since deleted—disputed that easily verified fact: “He will be missed but not forgotten,” it said. “Please show your sympathy and condolences by commenting on and liking this page.” The rumor gained traction in linking to a bogus MSNBC site that quoted a detective James Patterson (in actuality a bestselling crime author) of the nonexistent “Manhattan Police Department,” leading to a detailed debunk by Snopes. Anyone who checked Culkin’s Twitter feed, meanwhile, saw him making light of his supposed demise.

Macaulay Culkin is DA man. | #macaulayculkin #matterfact #thepizzaunderground #swag |

A photo posted by ⓜⓐⓒ > ⓨⓞⓤ (@macaulay.culkin) on

10) France bans work emails after 6pm

Old-school journalists have a saying about news like this: it’s too good to check. “It fit all too neatly the image held by les anglo-saxons of France as a work-shy nation of long lunches and short working weeks,” the Economist opined in a post-mortem, admitting that they had relayed the misinformation as well. There had never been any legislation requiring French workers to sever job-related communications after 6pm, just a union deal that recognized the right of some 250,000 members in digital industries to “disconnect” after a 13-hour workday, but countless English-language outlets reported the supposed cutoff hour, and it’s still unclear who fabricated it, or why. Axelle Lemaire, France’s Minister for Digital Affairs, finally set the record straight with a single amused tweet—in English, so that nothing was lost in translation.

11) The numbers on a toaster = minutes

We’ll never know how this one got started, but it’s bound to live on long after we’re all dead: According to unknown experts, the numbers on your toaster correlate to the number of minutes before your toast pops out—not some mysterious “degree of toastiness,” as we all blithely believed—a factoid that clearly blew more than a few minds, because it shows up on Twitter with infuriating regularity. As an amateur mythbuster confirmed in the YouTube video below, toasters—or the cheap ones, at least—aren’t equipped with timepieces.

12) KFC asks girl with facial scars to leave

When the Internet heard of Victoria Wilcher, a three-year-old who had survived a vicious dog attack with considerable facial scarring (true) only to be kicked out of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Mississippi along with her grandmother because her appearance disturbed other diners (false), it threw hundreds of thousands of dollars at the family and savaged the fast-food franchise in no uncertain terms. When surveillance tapes disproved these claims, the story fell apart, with the Wilchers closing their donation pages and going into hiding. It remains a sad cautionary tale about the connection between medical scams and an inadequate health care system, as well as the exploitation of children. KFC offered to let the family keep the $30,000 it had pledged—they declined—and hasn’t filed a lawsuit. Yet.

13) Gamergate

Across the nation this fall, people were asking a deceptively simple question: What is Gamergate? It sounded like a scandal, to be sure—it had the “-gate” suffix—and it may have had something to do with “ethics in journalism,” but forcing a gamer to explain any further than that was like threading the eye of a needle on horseback in a hurricane. Why? Because their claims were utter bullshit. What these guys were actually mad about was one bitter coder’s assertion, in a vitriolic blog post, that his ex-girlfriend, game developer Zoe Quinn, had cheated on him. That’s literally it. So kudos to the gamers who were able to trump up a bitter romantic split as proof of rampant industry corruption that necessitated bomb threats, obsessive stalking, and the publication of rape fantasies. Can’t imagine you’ll ever top this.

A version of this story was originally published on the Daily Dot on Dec. 21.

Photo by [-ChristiaN-]/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)