Fun and Games on the Web

Internet Hoax Psychology

What is it about Internet hoaxes that make us simultaneously love and loathe them? We discuss the psychology of Internet hoaxes, including a discussion of our own satiric piece that got us 15 seconds of buzz.

April Fool's Day is just around the corner, but prankster and hoax architects now pursue their passion throughout the year.

Make no mistake. The Internet is the world's best enabler for hoaxes.

Thanks to social media, the good news is we are all connected now more than ever.

The bad news, however, is that we are all connected more than ever.

Imagine if the War of the Worlds Hoax in 1938 has been not only on the radio but also if that news of "Martians Invade Earth!" had been broadcasted to the world via services like Twitter and Facebook?

We've reached unparalleled levels for efficiencies in hoax dissemination.

Social media is enabling Internet hoaxes and disinformation campaigns on a scale that was never possible before.

Recently, I posted a satiric article on my website:

I wrote it in about an hour. I then Tweeted about it on Twitter. That took five seconds.

Within a very short timeframe, my article had been retweeted over 600 times. We were flooded with traffic to our web site.

How Social Media Accelerates a Well Done Hoax

To be honest, I was very surprised at the traffic we got.

We gained a ton of momentum early on from Guy Kawasaki who liked our satire piece and was happy to draw attention to it. Guy's Twitter power is amazing. That resulted in a bunch of retweets, which is what they call it when other folks on Twitter post something that somebody else already mentioned (always with attribution to the original source if done right).

Twitter is like a pinball game when it comes to spreading the word. Your ball bounces around and just when you think it's almost out of a gas, it hits something that shoots your ball back into the heart of the game with renewed energy.

It's like every so often your Tweet drinks a Red Bull and goes hyper all over again.

The flip side is that the news that a hoax is, in fact, a hoax also spreads quickly. So hoaxes are more short-lived these days than they used to be.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but if they've got Twitter it's a little tougher.

Benefits of an Internet Hoax

Of course, one of the reasons that Internet hoaxes are on the rise is that a hoax creates value.

Sure, there's some perverse hoax psychology at work, but there are some tangible benefits to doing an Internet hoax.

A good Web hoax brings traffic and eyeballs to a website. It also gives you inbound links to your site, which make you appear important to search engines.

There are many caveats and nuances to it, but generally speaking the more links you get to your site, the better you will do in search results. Website marketers are hungry for links. There's even an industry phrase called "linkbait" which is any initiative that ultimately results in the creation of more inbound links to a site.

Why We Love a Good Hoax

Let's face it. Life as we know it is often depressing. A good joke cheers us up.

That's why hoaxes are still legal. If everybody really hated hoaxes, we'd be in jail right now.

Hoaxes get spread simply because we all want the scoop on something. If it's juicy, we want to tell somebody about it and be the first to do so. So, hoaxes inevitably have viral power that spreads faster than cooties in a kindergarten.

OK, so now you are an expert in Hoax Psychology. Let's get you started in the world of hoaxing.

Gettiing the Most Mileage Out of a Web Hoax

For starters, the hoax itself needs to be clever and it needs to touch a nerve of some sort. Our article on an Ivy League economist (really sorry, Harvard, that I chose you) saying that Twitter caused the recession touched two very popular issues that people are talking about: the economy and Twitter.

Of course, look before you leap. A Web hoax can go awry in a heartbeat. You may piss people off or find yourself in court if you mess it up. Hoaxes are an art form. That's for sure.

Once you've created a hoax, recognize that nobody knows who you are or cares what you think. Just putting a hoax on your site won't get any traffic unless you can get attention from somebody who is influential.

In my case, I contacted Guy Kawasaki. He's the Lou Ferrigno of Twitter, and I'm just a 98-pound weakling. Guy was happy to help once I told him that I was going to get tattooed on my forehead and shamelessly promote it at every opportunity. But, seriously, it is a great resource. And, seriously, there was no quid pro quo.

Then let the hoax run its course. Pour a little more fuel on the fire if it starts to die out...if you've got any fuel.

After you get the buzz from the hoax, write an article like this about how to launch an effective Internet hoax. Then, shamelessly promote your article.

Finally, publish the stats on your hoax. How many retweets did you get? How many page views? How many inbound links? This will draw the attention of search engine marketers, who in turn will write about your hoax and whether it was an effective linkbait campaign. (Er, yeah, we'll be posting something like that soon).

Now you are an expert on hoax psychology and the art of linkbaiting and Internet hoaxes. Enjoy the wild, wild West that is the Internet. It never gets dull, does it?

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Conversation Board

What's your opinion regarding Internet hoaxes and the psychology of Internet hoaxes? Are hoaxes good? Horrible? OK? Post a comment below.

  • David M. posted on 3/21/2009
    David M.
    I think your hoax did a good job of being funny and not too believable. If it's too real, then people can get mad. Go for funny, folks.
  • Rita posted on 3/21/2009
    I don't like these hoaxes at all. They waste time. I don't know what to believe these days.
  • The General posted on 3/21/2009
    The General
    Rita, read the newspaper if you want credible reporting. Remember newspapers? Those paper things with print on them?
  • RJ555 posted on 3/21/2009
    On the Internet, every day is April Fools' Day. Life is too short to be taken seriously. Thanx for the lafs!
  • Armchair Expert posted on 3/21/2009
    Armchair Expert
    I believe that Internet hoaxes play a valuable role in reducing human naivety. Without learning the lesson of harmless hoaxes, we are all gullible and prone to be misled. If you think about it, this may be why we have things like Santa Claus, Tooth Fairie and Easter Bunny. We use them to teach our kids not to believe everything they hear or read. Just as the invention of the printing press was a boon to propogandists, tools like Twitter can also be abused. However, I do agree with the author that the Internet makes it very easy to identify frauds and scams if people are willing to go to sites like We do have some checks and balances in the system and information flow is the light that shines on the darkness of deceit.
  • softballer posted on 3/21/2009
    my question si what the difference between a hoax, lie, prank, joke, satire parody? how are they different? how are they the same?

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