*** Spoiler alert. This article contains information that will ruin a good hoax. *** There's no shortage of end-of-the-world prophecies and hoaxes, but the latest one has a slick twist. Or, some might say, a sick twist. In fact, just by writing about it, I'm playing into the hands of a big media company that hopes I will write about it, or at least pass the word and a link, so that they can ultimately make money. Rather, I'll try to keep a few people from being frightened. The story starts with Mike Brown, an astronomer at Caltech who has found more planet-like objects in our outer solar system than anyone. Just like this reporter, Brown gets a lot emails from people worried the world will end in 2012. So many, in fact, that Brown has come to call them "The 2012 People." He's long assumed they're rather gullible worry warts. His view just changed a little. [End of the Earth Postponed]
The concerns often stem from bogus information about a fantasy planet dubbed Nibiru which, the story goes, will swing into the inner solar system, smack Earth in 2012, and bring an end to it all. (Brown assures us there is no such planet, and no such looming scenario known to science.)
The emails have been increasing of late. And recently one concerned citizen went a step farther and called and left Brown a voice mail: "I've got kids; this really scares the hell out of me. Is there something I should be doing? Is this real?"
The planet hunter reassured the man that it was all just a hoax. The man was grateful.
But the man got Brown's attention.
"This guy was inherently skeptical about the 2012 claims, and was happy when someone with a ring of authority told him there was nothing to it, but, still something had made him worried enough that he had tracked down some astronomer he had never met and called him to reassure him about the safety of his family," Brown wrote in his blog this week.
Then Brown found some spam among his email, an ominous missive that purports to be from the director of the Institute for Human Continuity. It warns: "The IHC has uncovered evidence indicating that the disasters of 2012 are both real and unavoidable. We believe with 94% certainty that … cataclysmic events will devastate our planet and many who inhabit it. December 21, 2012 cannot be ignored."
A link in the email to the IHC's supposed web site actually takes you to a site that is so cleverly designed, an unsuspecting person who doesn't recognize the actors on the page might think the IHC is real, that the end is near, and that buying a ticket (to somewhere, on something, who knows?) is the only hope of survival.
Truth is the web site (it's here, it's fake, you've been warned) is designed by Sony Pictures. Okay, score 1 point for Sony, no harm done, right?
Well, not so fast.
Brown, who is a pretty smart guy, admits that unlike many doomsday websites designed by quacks, it took him a while to figure out this web site is a fake.
"It is slick. It is professional. There is no obvious sign anywhere that this is the work of kooks," he said.
We all hate spam. And sometimes we think its deceptiveness is distasteful, especially when little old ladies are bilked of billions by a faux Nigerian banker. And hoaxes sometimes go too far. Some pranksters in New Jersey who lofted flares on balloons in the night sky in January, as a social experiment, were fined $250 by a court that determined their UFO hoax "posed a potential fire hazard and could have interfered with air traffic." It didn't, but their deceptiveness, and the harm it could have caused, was enough for the judge.
Brown wonders if this one goes too far, scaring people who may never learn the truth that would alleviate their fears.
"If the spam email had tried to scare me about the end of the world and then directed me to a web site which turned out to simply advertise the movie, that would have been distasteful," Brown writes. "But what is the right word for a spam email that tries to scare me to go to a web site which then tries to scare me even more and doesn't even admit to being simply an ad for a movie?" That's for you to answer.
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.