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What is a Hoax?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A hoax is an act of deception which is designed to trick people into believing or doing something. Many are designed as lighthearted practical jokes, although have a more serious purpose, and are intended to raise awareness about an issue or to get a community actively involved in something. These uses contrast hoaxes from cons, acts of deception which are perpetrated for financial or personal gain. Many people point out that cons are often harmful, while hoaxes are embarrassing but usually cause no permanent damage.

There are a number of types of hoax, and some involve coordinated effort on the part of people and organizations. For example, one might involve an object which is supposed to do something astounding, and does, when demonstrated by the person perpetrating the deception. In the modern era, a hoax can be sent in an email; many email hoaxes contain images which are purported to be real but are in fact heavily modified. Typically, once a hoax has been accepted, the people behind the trick unveil the truth.

A traditional time for hoaxing in many countries is the first day of April, also known as April Fools' Day. Practical jokes often abound on this day, and in some regions, governments and news media can get into the fun. The BBC, for example, aired a riveting story in 1957 about the Swiss spaghetti harvest. Hoaxes are also included in graduation festivities at some colleges, with fun-loving graduates playing pranks on each other and the surrounding community.

Some famous events in history such as the moon landing have been called hoaxes by conspiracy theorists, despite ample evidence to the contrary. For example, a government could trick its populace into believing that a war was necessary, or a deception which was designed to raise awareness about a social issue could go too far. Some journalistic hoaxes have also been quite harmful, undermining the reputation of specific newspapers and the journalistic profession in general.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By JackWhack — On Sep 08, 2012

I have received hoax emails containing coupons for major chain stores before. I have never used an online coupon in my life, so I was afraid to try these.

I'm glad that I didn't, because I heard a short time later that the emails were a hoax. I have no idea what the person sending the fake coupons could have possibly gained from this, but there were many customers who showed up at these stores believing that they were about to get a deal and going home disappointed.

By healthy4life — On Sep 07, 2012

Everyone in my community has come to expect our local newspaper to print hoaxes all over the front page on April 1. I don't know anyone who believes these hoaxes, even for a minute.

The paper knows it isn't fooling anyone, and the whole thing is sort of tongue in cheek now. They do it because they are expected to, and they still find it kind of fun, but it has lost the thrill of possibly sending people into a panic.

By Oceana — On Sep 07, 2012

Hoaxes spread through websites so rapidly. I remember hearing back in 2011 that Jon Bon Jovi had died. Some website had a story on it that said he died of a heart attack in a hotel.

I thought it peculiar that none of the evening news programs even mentioned it. I mean, he is a huge celebrity, and his death would be major news.

The next day, the story revealing that this was a hoax came out on every major news website, and fans like me were relieved. I think that hoaxes involving death are just cruel!

By Kristee — On Sep 06, 2012

@googie98 – I remember hearing about the crop circles, but I never heard that they were actually a hoax! Just a few days ago, I thought about them and wondered if they ever found what caused them.

It's kind of sad to find out that they weren't made by aliens. The truth is a lot less interesting.

By anon176933 — On May 17, 2011

the flying penguins was a good hoax. i almost believed it.

By CarrotIsland — On May 16, 2011

@cmsmith10- Another hoax that I thought of was the alien autopsy footage. I can’t even remember what year it was. I’m pretty sure it was in the 90s. There was footage showing a supposed alien body on a table with an autopsy being performed. It received a ton of media attention.

In 2006, Ray Santilli admitted that his footage was a fake. Well, partially a fake. He said that it was actually a reconstruction of a real alien autopsy. Who knows?

By googie98 — On May 16, 2011

@cmsmith10- One popular hoax that comes to mind is the “circles in the corn”. This happened in the 1970’s in England. Circles were pressed into cornfields in this rural area for no apparent reason. This went on for several years. At first, the circles were just simple designs. After a while, the circle patterns became more complex. The most familiar pattern was the large circle in the middle of a square consisting of four small circles.

There were many proposed explanations. Some thought that aliens were landing in cornfields. Others speculated ball lightning. The crop-circling event started to spread all over the world. In 1991, the truth was finally told. Two men, Dave Chorley and Doug Bower, admitted to making the crop circles for over 15 years.

By cmsmith10 — On May 15, 2011

Can anyone give some more specific examples of a hoax?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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