July 30, 2013
Internet Hoaxes Won’t Stop, But How Did They Start?
We all probably have a friend or relative — likely a less tech-savvy mother, father, grandmother, etc. — who just has to forward every email. These are the types of people who believe what they read, fail to check actual news sites and take these emails for granted.
Hoaxes have been around long before the Internet of course, but the Internet just makes the hoaxes so much easier to spread.
The question remains, what was the first true “Internet” hoax? No doubt previous hoaxes, the kinds spread by word of mouth, likely made their respective way to the Internet at some point, but there are actually three examples of hoaxes that were tailored made for the Internet age – and each lays claim to the title of “first Internet hoax.”
The most obvious could be the Lottery hoaxes, which continue to arrive in people’s email in-boxes every day. These are often the U.K. National Lottery or the Microsoft Lottery. Unlike traditional hoaxes, these are also scams that try to get people to believe they won a ton of money — and yet for some reason need to pay a fee to receive the money.
The Microsoft Lottery Scam remains a concern to Microsoft, and they even have a site noting that it isn’t real:
“There is no Microsoft Lottery, and any message of this kind is designed to engage you in a dialogue with cybercriminals who want to persuade you to send them money,” the site warns.
This is likely tied to the old “beta test” hoax, which claimed that Bill Gates had created an email tracing program and would pay $1000 to everyone who forwarded the email to everyone they knew. This hoax was clever in that it persuaded people to do the sending in hopes of receiving money. This hoax reportedly began circulating back in 1997.
The second hoax on our list comes from 1994 and yet again involves Microsoft. This one involved a press release that claimed “Microsoft bought the Catholic Church.” It apparently had a Vatican City dateline and clearly was written by someone who knew a thing or two about writing press releases.
Perhaps this one was believable because in the early 1990s most people seldom saw a press release. Today anyone can read these releases, but back then these were only sent out to media by regular mail and fax. Also given that there weren’t exactly news sites online and CNN was the only 24 hour news outlet (Fox News and MSNBC both launched in 1996), this might have seemed convincing at the time.
There were obviously giveaways that it wasn’t real news, but it was convincing enough that Microsoft issues a formal denial of the release on December 16, 1994.
This is believed to be the first Internet hoax to reach a mass audience, but it wasn’t the first true Internet hoax.
As far as we can tell, that honor (dishonor) would go to an April 1, 1984 email reportedly from the office of Konstantin Chernenko (leader of the Soviet Union) that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was joining Usenet.
This hoax was seen when Usenet, which was the forefather of today’s Internet, was primarily used at Universities, government agencies and a handful of think tank groups. The hoax was remarkable in that it was convincing and actually to some worrisome. Usenet was created to ensure communications could endure should there be a nuclear war, and the idea of letting the “Evil Empire” become part of it must have seemed surreal at the time.
What stands out about this particular hoax is that the author, Piet Beertema, eventually came clean about it. That’s rare in hoaxes that live on for years, evolve and take on a life of their own.
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