Charismatic Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o may have just sealed his place in the history books, not for his impressive victories on the field, but for being involved in (knowingly or not) a widespread hoax involving a dying girlfriend who, it turns out, never existed.
In interviews last year, Te'o spoke about the personal obstacles and tragedies he'd overcome on his way to football excellence — most notably the deaths of his beloved grandmother and his girlfriend and love of his life, Lennay Kekua, within the same day. Te'o talked about the pain of losing both so close to him, as well as Kekua's emotional struggle — and finally losing battle — with leukemia. Though Te'o never met Kekua, the pair communicated mainly through e-mails and text messages.
Information is contradictory and details remain murky: Was Te'o in on the hoax, capitalizing on a crowd-pleasing sympathetic rags-to-riches story? Or was he himself the victim of a cruel hoax by someone sharing her (or his) fictional but emotionally moving life story? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?
There are of course many different types of hoaxes. For example author James Frey wrote a 2003 novel about drug addiction recovery, claiming it was a memoir; homeowners in Amityville, N.Y., created a hoax in 1977 by claiming that their house was haunted by demons; and in 1996 physicist Alan Sokal submitted a gibberish article that was accepted and published in "Social Text," a respected cultural studies journal. [Haunted? 10 Most Famous Ghosts]
A hoax that costs money, embarrassment, or inconvenience may be merely a nuisance. But some of the most damaging and outrageous hoaxes are those that manipulate people's emotions and outrage the world. Here are a few of the most outlandish.
Flight of the Balloon Boy
In 2009 a6-year-old boy named Falcon Heene was said to be in grave danger as he floated through Colorado skies in a silvery weather balloon created by his inventor father. His family claimed that he had climbed aboard the homemade balloon and launched, triggering a nationwide police search and rescue mission. It turned out that Heene, who became known as balloon boy, was in fact safe at home, and the family was suspected of staging the event in hopes of getting a reality TV show.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Perhaps the most malicious religious hoax in history, "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" is a book supposedly revealing a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It first appeared in Russia in 1905, and though the book has been completely discredited as a forgery, it is still in print and remains widely circulated. Many people have endorsed this religious hoax, including actor Mel Gibson, Adolf Hitler, and automaker Henry Ford, who in 1920 paid to have a half-million copies of the book published. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]
The Tawana Brawley Attack
In 1987 America was riveted by the tragic news story of a young black girl named Tawana Brawley, who said she had been gang-raped by six white men, including several police officers. Rev. Al Sharpton and others fanned racial tensions and accused police of a cover-up. The following year, after an extensive investigation (and revelations about contradictions in Brawley's story), a grand jury concluded that the girl had hoaxed the incident. A New York prosecutor successfully sued both Brawley and Sharpton for defamation in a case whose racial legacy remains today.
The Innocence of Muslims
The trailer for the 2012 film "Innocence of Muslims" led to riots over its depiction of the prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, child molester and criminal. Several Americans were killed in protests linked to the film. To date it's not clear that the finished film actually exists, though a trailer for it does (it appeared on YouTube, sparking the riots). The producer hoaxed the actors and crew, later dubbing inflammatory lines that insulted Islam over their real dialogue. Whether or not the infamous anti-Muslim film exists, many around the world were led to believe it did, and people died because of it.
The Satanic Panic
"Satan's Underground: The Extraordinary Story of One Woman's Escape" was a 1991 memoir written by a woman named Lauren Stratford, in which she described her first-hand experience inside a Satanic cult. Stratford's book included horrific depictions of baby-killing rituals, pornography, torture, rape and other abuse. Stratford claimed to have been continually physically and sexually abused by her parents and forced into prostitution. The book became a bestseller, and was instrumental in fueling the "Satanic panic" hysteria that swept across America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet the story was discovered to be a complete hoax. Stratford was actually a fake name used by a woman named Laurel Rose Willson, and none of her claims were true; every sensational detail was made up. Stratford later changed her name and began claiming to be a Jewish Holocaust survivor.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books including "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.