Exploring The Art Of Social Media Hoaxes: Dark Humor Meets Brilliant Execution


We all know that creative, well-developed content and expertly executed social media campaigns can yield results that rock. Remember Burger King’s Subservient Chicken stunt back in 2004? You told the lone, albeit giant chicken on the website to do something, and he did it. Couple that with a 12-minute fight scene in which a TenderCrisp and a Spicy TenderCrisp sandwich duked it out, and you had a truly viral social media stunt. The results were something else. Not only did Burger King accrue over 14 million unique visitors, sales for the TenderCrisp increased by 9 percent a week. Hello, social ROI.

For years now, social media has been used to promote new products, drive sales, and amass powerful social endorsements and engagement. There’s no shortage of case studies that illustrate the real success companies of all shapes, sizes, and industries have come to enjoy, thanks to this fabulous, widespread technology. Indeed – more examples emerge each day as brands strive to outdo one another with increasingly surprising and engaging social media campaigns- and we, as consumers in a digital age, have come to expect this. It’s no wonder we’re left vulnerable to the clever and cunning social media pranksters!

This post explores the interesting occasions during which social media is wielded  for evil (or, at least, spoof purposes), as opposed to commercial benefit. Some are light-hearted funny goodness while others have a more sinister feel to them… read on for a good laugh / slight rise in blood pressure for the wholesome community managers out there.

Our Favorite Root Vegetable Newspaper: The Onion
There are countless examples of The Onion concocting crazy headlines, images, and stories to dupe both national and international media outlets. Whether in good taste or bad, we have to hand it to these guys: They have some original content!

  • The New York Times reported that President Obama won over the tween voters (wait, what?!) by being featured on the cover of Tiger Beat next to the Jonas Brothers and Vanessa Hudgens with the quote, “I sing in the shower.” Thanks to The Onion, The New York Times had to issue a correction when they learned the teenie bopper magazine cover was a fake. Embarassing for the NYT, but crazy funny +1 for The Onion.
  • China’s People’s Daily News featured an article accompanied by an image gallery of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in honor of his being named the “Sexiest Man Alive for 2012.” Woops! I guess The Onion‘s description of Kim Jong Un as “devastatingly handsome, [with a] round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame,” really got some people believing this one.
  • According to two newspapers in Bangladesh, The Daily Manab Zamin and New Nation, prior to his death, Neil Armstrong admitted he never landed on the moon. The original article from The Onion claimed that conspiracy theorists had convinced Neil Armstrong that the moon lading never happened; it then transitioned into a news conference in which Armstrong tearfully explained how he was hoodwinked.

The Dark and Twisted Hoaxes of 4chan
We would be remiss if we didn’t brig attention to the infamous and always conniving anonymous users of the cult-like 4chan. Users post messages or images to message boards, and frequently the risqué content leads to a viral campaign of some sort. A trademark of the 4chan hoax is that it usually involves a malicious slant or a controversial subject that gets a lot of people talking. A recent prank instance involved the trending of the albeit tasteless #CutForBieber hashtag. When this hashtag began to trend on Twitter, outrage, hostility, and considerable media coverage ensued almost instantly. The anger and exposure exploded when it was discovered that the folks at 4chan were behind it all. Even celebrities joined the outrage! Fellow pop star Miley Cyrus retweeted @OfficialCANCER, “#cut4bieber? Cutting is NOT something to joke about. There are people who are actually suffering from self-harm, this is so disrespectful.”

Fortunately, there were no actual reports of young girls harming themselves.

This is far from the first time Bieber-lovers were targeted by 4chan. Prior to this, 4chan tried to convince tween and teen girls to shave their heads in support of Justin Bieber’s [faux] cancer diagnosis. Thanks to a photoshopped screencap of Entertainment Tonight’s verified Twitter account, all hell broke lose. ET allegedly tweeted, “Pop star Justin Bieber was diagnosed with cancer earlier this morning. Bieber fans are shaving their heads to show their support.” Couple that with a (fake) photo of a young girl who had shaved her head in support of her beloved Bieber, the hashtag #BaldForBieber began trending. Thankfully, this, too, was all a hoax. The next time you see an emotionally-rousing tweet relating to Justin Bieber, think twice before freaking out.

PRWeb and the Fake News Release
Remember when Google bought ICOA, a Wi-Fi provider, for $400 million? Yeah, er… oops. Back in November 2012, well-respected publications like The Associated Press, Forbes, PC Magazine and TechCrunch shared the news about the Google acquisition. But… the purchase, and therefore, all news coverage, were false. Embarrassing! So, what happened?

Turns out that someone pretending to represent ICOA had submitted a press release to PRWeb, who then actually distributed the press release. Yikes. Stocks for ICOA surged, which some believe was the false submitter’s motive all along, and when we learned that both Google and ICOA denied the acquisition ever occurred, publications and bloggers were forced to retract their stories.

The public was outraged. How could a respected news distribution service like PRWeb not sniff out this false release? Moreover, why did so many publications automatically publish the news as fact without corroborating the story with Google or ICOA? It matters naught because at the end of the day, false news was reported widespread. That, my friends, is what we call a hoax.

Don’t Get Bamboozled!
The common thread in each of these media hoaxes is that people saw an exciting or newsworthy story and ran with it before checking the facts or having evidence to prove it true. And that is how social media hoaxes get started—with the content. Good content breeds amazing media campaigns, but it is also a petri dish for mischievous pranksters!

If you plan to share, showcase, or cover what seems like a too-crazy-to-be-true social media story, triple-check current conversation surrounding it, and be sure to verify your facts. Otherwise, the joke really will be on you. *Gulp*

What’s the most insane social media stunt you’ve encountered? Was it real, or a hoax? Share below!

© Rudie – Fotolia.com

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Stay Connected