IO – Citizens were recently shocked by a statement issued by the Head of the National Cyber Agency concerning “constructive hoaxes”. The public places a huge importance on hoaxes: if you write “hoax” in Google search engine using Indonesian proxy, the term “constructive hoax” shows up on the top spot.
In general, a “hoax” is an “act of treachery”, “humor”, “joke”, “fraud”, “innuendo”, or “trick”. All of the above are frequently used to describe both the intent and result of a hoax. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “hoax” as a verb means “to trick or deceive someone” so that they would take something ambiguous or deceitful as hard fact. As a noun, a “hoax” is “an act of hoaxing; a humorous or mischievous deception, usually taking the form of a fabrication of something fictitious or erroneous, told in such a manner as to impose upon the credulity of the victim”. From these definitions, a hoax is shown to have two sides: a malicious intent that can destroy a person’s reputation or good name, or an elaborate idea of fun and jokes.
A similar definition is presented by Webster’s Dictionary. Both Oxford’s and Webster’s dictionaries speculate that the etymology of the word “hoax” is an abbreviation of the 17th-Century term “hocus pocus”, related to magic. In fact, “hoax” as both verb and noun throughout the 17th and early 18th Centuries was associated with friendly jokes, pranks, or banter. Only from the 19th Century did the spectrum of the definition of “hoax” broaden, from an original “thea t r ical or entertainment magic” to assume a more negative connotation, such as “cheating”, “pretending”, “getting carried away by drink”, even to “extensive and elaborate lies set up by authorities”.
A study by Castagnaro (2009) opened new horizons into the hoax phenomenon as a “tradition” spread widely through American mass media. He found that hoaxes have been an inseparable part of the American cultural fabric from the 18th Century to the modern era. In his book, Embellishment, Fabrication, and Scandal: Hoaxing and the American Press, Castagnaro describes in detail how the media are a main source of hoaxes, one whose business success depends on providing sensational (if inaccurate) news features for their readership. Quite a few of these purported “news items” are spun from the imagination of journalists and editors in order to keep their circulation and hit sales targets.
Castagnaro further states that journalists continue to benefit from hoaxes, a condition exacerbated by crises and competitions in economic, social, and political spheres, the most effective way for media to hang onto a readership’s attention every day. His other book, Factual Fictions, points out how the concept of “hoax” gained its negative image from the emergence of print technology. In its early days, print media made no effort to differentiate fact from fiction. The requirement to separate them is a relatively recent for journalists, as the public at the time did not feel betrayed if they discovered that a given news item was not factual. The next question is, “What are the discerning limit defining ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’?” According to Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes website, a piece of information is considered to have succeeded as a hoax if it seems real enough and ‘goes viral’ – spreads widely among the public. A hoax is in fact born of a lie that is extra-carefully designed. The lie itself should be denigrating, intelligent, dramatic, sensational, and appealing to the public.
Even though Fedler stated in Media Hoaxes that any type of trick or lie can be termed a “hoax”, he views media hoaxes as not a systematic effort to fool t h e public, but rather as an attempt to entertain them. Journalists who spin this type of hoax from their imaginations do not consider themselves “cheats”: they do not consider themselves criminals who fool the public for profit; they only want to provide fun and issues to laugh about.
Another researcher, Hogue (2007), found that hoaxes are not just produced by the media, but that the mass media is an effective means of disseminating a hoax. The movie The Greatest Showman, the biopic of legendary entertainment entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, reminds us all that the great American entertainment industry, is “built on hoaxes”.
The question is whether hoaxes still represent a “constructive” spirit in a digital age.
Hoaxes did not just appear to smooth out the process of disseminating information or selling products, but are also bound up with the power struggle between “active producers” and “passive consumers”. The passivity of hoaxed audiences is not always related to their educational or economic levels, but rather to their ability to bulwark themselves from these information attacks. A hoax may strengthen or destroy reason, but this does not depend solely on the skills of the producer. It relies more on the ability of a receiver to absorb and evaluate, before finally deciding whether they will accept the information offered or disseminate it to others.
Taking the cue from events in America, we know that hoaxes make history in the development of the media, mining, entertainment, education, and financial industries, both positively and negatively. Therefore, the government focuses, with the help of various state institutions (Ministry of Communications and Information, Cyber Agency, Police, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Research, Technology, and Higher Education) on strengthening digital media literacy among the officials and budgets of each of these agencies and ministries in an integrated manner. The production of hoaxes as a product is unstoppable. As consumers, we must all be smart in discerning what a hoax is. When a product is no longer in demand, producers will lose their markets. Let us build up our strength in managing information for the development of our nation.