A friend of mine received an e-mail from Global Associated News, complete with a professional-looking logo of the globe. Their "Breaking News" was about the death of Jeff Goldblum. She forwarded it on to others, including a reporter. Later, when she learned that it was an untrue report, she felt dismayed and guilty about her inadvertent role in helping to spread such a falsehood.
Incidentally, my computer's spellcheck informs me that "Goldblum" is "Not in dictionary," suggesting that I use instead: Globule, Godbout, Glabellum or Hoodlum. Furthermore, "spellcheck" itself is not in their dictionary, and I'm advised to use spell-check or spell check.
Anyway, I googled (also not in dictionary) Global Associated News, and there it was, with a notation in red, "This Story Is Still Developing," preceding the account:
Actor Jeff Goldblum died while filming a movie in New Zealand early this morning -- June 26, 2009. Preliminary reports from New Zealand Police officials indicate that the actor fell more than 60 feet to his death on the Kauri Cliffs while on-set. Specific details are not yet available. The accident occurred at approximately 4:30 a.m. Additional details and information will be forthcoming. New Zealand in recent years has grown in popularity as a backdrop for Hollywood producers because of it's [sic] scenic and rugged landscape. Recent movies filmed in New Zealand include The Lord of the Rings, King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia.
I scrolled down to the bottom, where this admonition appeared: "This story was dynamically generated using a generic 'template' and is not factual. Any reference to specific individuals has been 100% fabricated by web site visitors who have created fake stories by entering a name into a blank 'non-specific' template for the purpose of entertainment. For sub-domain and additional use restrictions: FakeAWish.com."
The logo for "Fake a Wish -- Celeb Fake News Generator" is a solid red circle with the warning, "Bullshit." I'm instructed to "Enter a celebrity name to see a list of fake news items about them. I type "Jeff Goldblum," only to find out there are three other ways he died: "Actor Jeff Goldblum hospitalized after traffic altercation." "Luxury yacht sinks off coast of Tropez, France. Jeff Goldblum reported missing." "Jeff Goldblum presumed dead in private plane crash."
Plus there's a link to "Back By Popular Demand! Jeff Goldblum is new Masturbation World Champion!" The link leads to this:
Jeff Goldblum Shatters Masturbation World Record!
"It's official, Jeff Goldblum is the new king of masturbation. In a stunning feat of endurance and determination, Jeff Goldblum achieved 36 orgasms in a 24 hour period! Sleeping intermittently during the 24 hour marathon, Jeff Goldblum remained focused and aroused by his impressive library of pornographic films. With over 400 films in his library and 3 televisions playing movies at all times, he had a continuous stream of footage to aid him in his quest. It is apparent by the massive development of the muscles in his forearm that Jeff Goldblum is not your average masturbator.
In an interview with UJ ['Useless Junk'] reporters after the record setting event, Jeff Goldblum was quoted as saying, 'Masturbation for me is a way of life. I've been training for this day since I was 13 years old and I'm happy with my performance today.' This record was formerly held by German Student Hans Blickstein who achieved 27 orgasms in a 24 hour period. Mr. Blickstein was not available for comment. When asked what his next world record achievement would be, Jeff Goldblum said, "My immediate goal is to get a bag of ice and some lotion on my penis to soothe the burning."
I contacted Rich Hoover, the man behind the electronic curtain. He told me this:
The whole network started in 1998 with UselessJunk.com. Make a Wish kind of spawned off after that uploading content, gag things, something to spark water cooler conversations. Information didn't travel as quickly as it does today. It's incredible how fast these rumors have gone viral. Mind boggling. I started with a cubicle environment in mind, me being in a cubicle myself. Just type a name into the generator and then tap your neighbor on the shoulder to come look at your PC, and everybody could laugh about a fake story. A lot of these fake stories originally started with non-celebrities. The arrested ones -- car crash, possible DUI -- hurt their reputation, and the non-celebrities freaked out, so I focused more on celebrity templates.
The roster of fake death reports that have gone megaviral includes Tom Hanks (2006) and Tom Cruise (2008); both fell to their death in New Zealand. Hoover has never been threatened with a libel suit, except for one "cease and desist" request, from Michael Vick for a report about his coming out of the closet. Vick even went on live TV in Atlanta to deny rumors that he's gay, claiming defamation of character. That kind of homophobia, coming from a man who was convicted of organizing vicious dog fights, is mighty ludicrous.
I decided to type in the name Miley Cyrus on FakeAWish.com, and this is what I found:
"Actor Miley Cyrus hospitalized after traffic altercation." "Luxury yacht sinks off coast of St. Tropez, France. Miley Cyrus reported missing." "Miley Cyrus dies after falling from cliff in New Zealand." "Miley Cyrus Presumed dead in Private Plane Crash." And "Back By Popular Demand! Miley Cyrus is new Masturbation Champion!" I clicked on that icon, and it linked me to the same exact story as Jeff Goldblum, with Miley's name at every point where Goldblum's was, but -- due to a template limited by its own sexist programming -- the pronouns remain masculine. The final sentence reads, "When asked what his next world record achievement would be, Miley Cyrus said, 'My immediate goal is to get a bag of ice and some lotion on my penis to soothe the burning.'" Good luck, Miley!
Goldblum had made a cameo appearance each night that week on Comedy Central's Colbert Report. A staffer tipped me off that one of Stephen Colbert's writers had been assigned to instigate the fake news item in the hope that it would Facebook-and-Twitter its way into viral status, just so that Goldblum could then personally insist on the show that he was still alive. At 2:30 a.m. last night, I checked the Goldblum site, which now reads, "Actor Jeff Goldblum died while filming a movie in New Zealand early this morning -- July 7, 2009." How could he have denied on TV a story about his death that had not yet been published? But the site is automatically refreshed so that the date changes every midnight. This was just like Groundhog Day, with Goldblum dying in the same way again and again, every morning at approximately 4:30 a.m.
I told Hoover how the prank was perpetrated, but he insisted it was merely "a coincidence that went viral. There's no way that the show's producers would have found FakeAWish.com and been able to successfully send it viral with any level of confidence it would actually be a hit. Thousands of celebrity names hit the site, but very few of them ever gain traction." Had I, a professional prankster, been the "victim" of a hoax myself? In my recent interview on Larry King Live, we discussed the ethics of fake news. Here's a clip from that show: