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December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006

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Pull My Finger

In 2005, San Jose was the undisputed hoax capital of the world. But a lot of pranksters, crooks and morons around the world gave us a run for our money.

By Steve Palopoli

SO MANY finger-in-the-chili jokes, so little time. That was how the world saw San Jose in 2005. So what if this was the year we officially became the 10th largest city in the country; it was also the year we became the No. 1 city in the country for hoaxes—and that's the kind of stuff people actually remember.

But there was a lot of hoax weirdness all year, from all around the world. Hoaxes don't get the kind of respect that their media-darling cousins the urban legends do. Maybe that's because urban legends seem pretty harmless, except in that movie Urban Legends where everybody gets killed by a psychopath because of them. The point is, nobody usually even knows how urban legends start; they're just scare stories, and even if it's annoying when they get passed around as fact it doesn't seem like one person is responsible for them.

Hoaxes, on the other hand, have perpetrators. Some are hilarious pranks, others are crimes and end up kind of tragic. I mean, when did you ever think you'd feel sorry for the Wendy's corporation?

Plus, hoaxes can affect our very notion of history—for instance, Frederick Cook almost hoaxed the world into thinking he'd been the first explorer to reach the North Pole in 1909, and even the generally accepted notion that Robert Peary reached it that same year may have been a hoax. Supposed Matisse and Picasso drawings hang in the most prestigious museums all over the world that were really done by Elmyr De Hory, the greatest art forger of the 20th century. Clifford Irving used Howard Hughes' reclusive wackiness to convince a publisher to give him nearly a million-dollar advance for a hoax autobiography in 1971, and 10 years later Konrad Kujau managed to fool "experts" into thinking his faked Hitler diaries were real for two years.

The half-assed San Jose antics of two chili con carnies certainly don't rise to that level, but their exploits were easily the hoax story of the year. Two sites in particular, and, did a great job of tracking others throughout the last 12 months. Some made the news because they were downright freaky: a rash of terrorism hoaxes—elaborate tales of completely imaginary plots against the United States—drove law enforcement out of their minds. "Hoaxes waste resources that are needed to chase down real tips," an immigration and customs spokesman told Associated Press in October. And listen to the reasons that these hoaxers risked five years in prison to make up these stories of gasoline trucks blowing up bridges and the like: besides those making a serious run at political asylum, the spokesman said others did it "to get back at their ex-wives or someone they were in a car accident with name it." Rear-end me, will ya? I hoax you!

Another trend was hoaxes centered around big news events like the tsunami that struck last December. In January, reported, a hoax video began circulating showing the supposed fossilized remains of a giant monster. As far as I can tell, no one has still been able to figure out who started that one.

But the biggest hoax trend of the year is something I've started calling "phoaxes": faked photos that are usually meant to be blackly funny and for some reason often involve planes about to crash into something or skydivers about to land in a crocodile pit or some other similarly lethal spot. These are so easy to make now that anyone can do it—and they do. The weird thing is that when they circulate around the Internet, a lot of people still seem to buy it. Hey, if people are willing to believe that picture of an 89-pound house cat is real, no wonder the world fell for the finger in the chili.

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