“Constructive” hoaxes

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Devie Rahmawati
Permanent Lecturer, Communications
Vocation Program, University of Indonesia

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.