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New Fakers Find Good Ideas in Old Hoaxes

(c) 2007, The Hartford Courant

On the hit drama &


8221; Ali Larter plays a woman with two personalities. She should be used to this by now.

More than a decade ago, Larter played a part in one of the best-funded hoaxes of all time when she appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine as Allegra Coleman &


8217;s newest &


8221; girl.

Woody Allen was said to be reworking his latest project around her. David Schwimmer was whispered to be canoodling with her. Coleman fever was about to grip the nation.

Of course, the whole thing was a hoax. &

8220;Allegra Coleman&

8221; was a confection dreamed up to spoof the fluffiness of many magazines&

8217; Hollywood coverage.

The deception worked. Newspapers criticized Esquire for promoting such a vapid star (Coleman, not Larter), and agents began a frantic search to represent the fictional woman.

At the time, it was the kind of trick only someone with access to a printing press and a pile of money could pull off. These days, all one needs is a camcorder, talent and someone willing to be lonelygirl15.

This contrast is brought into sharper focus with two films that opened Friday.


8220;The Hoax&

8221; is a movie about the literary fraud committed by Clifford Irving, who claimed to have written an autobiography of Howard Hughes based on secret meetings with the reclusive millionaire.

The fraud committed by Irving in the early 1970s could have been accomplished only by an established author trusted by publishing houses and access to documents not available to the public.

On another screen is &


8221; the new Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez collaboration, which has trailers for nonexistent movies that include, in some theaters, &

8220;Hobo With a Shotgun.&

8221; That trailer was produced for $150 by a college student named Jason Eisener.


8220;The Internet certainly does make it easier to perpetrate hoaxes,&

8221; says Brett Christensen, who runs hoax-slayer.com from Queensland, Australia. &

8220;A hoax or rumor can spread around the world in a few days or even hours via e-mail, blogs and online forums.&


This is what happened in March when reports of Sinbad&

8217;s death were greatly exaggerated. All it took was some mischief on the comedian&

8217;s Wikipedia page, and suddenly Lionel Ritchie was offering condolences.

Contrast that with the effort and planning it took to produce the famed &


8217;s Photo&

8221; that seemed to offer evidence that there was a large serpent living in Loch Ness.

The photo supposedly was taken by Col. Robert Wilson, a British surgeon, in 1934, and for 60 years it was one of the most famous photographs in the world.

The murky shot of Nessie could be seen each week during the opening credits of the TV series &

8220;In Search of ... &

8221; and was reproduced on the cover of books claiming to examine the unexplained.

In 1994, Christian Spurling disclosed he had built the serpent&

8217;s head for his stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherell (and no, that name is not a hoax), who snapped the photo and enlisted Wilson as a more credible front man, inasmuch as Wetherell had been caught creating fake monster footprints on Loch Ness&

8217; shore.

These days, such machinations would not be needed. The photo could be created digitally and distributed worldwide in a matter of hours. But if it&

8217;s easier to spread a hoax these days, it might be tougher to make it last.

The veracity of the Surgeon&

8217;s Photo remained in doubt for 60 years.

The faked documents CBS used in a report on George W. Bush&

8217;s military service lasted barely six hours before critics began to find serious flaws.

The same was true of the macabre photo that supposedly showed an unlucky tourist atop the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He is posing for the camera as an American Airlines jet speeds toward the towers in the background. The photo was determined immediately to be a fake, most famously attacked by snopes.com, one of the most respected online debunking sites.

The technology that allows folks to spread hoaxes quickly also allows debunkers the chance to debunk before the myth hardens in the public&

8217;s consciousness.


8217;s death was revealed as a hoax within hours. Contrast that with the celebrated nondeath of Paul McCartney, which had folks spinning &

8220;Abbey Road&

8221; backward for months in the early &


Many modern hoaxes &

like the false report of a celebrity death &

are stolen from the past. Stories of a woman&

8217;s narrow escape from a deranged killer go back to the 19th century. So does the dangerous and depraved Internet rumor that sex with a child will cure AIDS. Back in 19th-century England, some men thought having sex with a virgin would cure venereal disease.

The recasting of these old myths should set alarm bells ringing, but the relative newness of the Internet, in a cosmic sense, still makes it an ideal ground for perpetrating a hoax.

In the same way, the newness of radio was instrumental in the 1938 panic surrounding Orson Welles&

8217; dramatization of &

8220;War of the Worlds.&

8221; In the same way, even skeptical folks without Internet training can be won over through a bit of Web page sleight of hand.



8217;s also easy now to create fake Web sites that seem to back up a hoax,&

8221; Christensen says. &

8220;Even someone with fairly basic Web creation skills can create a fake Web page that looks like a CNN or BBC news article.&


Perhaps the best advice comes from James Randi, one of the world&

8217;s most famous debunkers.


8220;There is a distinct difference,&

8221; Randi once said, &

8220;between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out.&


Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.