ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–A hoax, The American Heritage Dictionary says, “is an act intended to deceive or trick.” While purposeful frauds are nothing new, it seems that the Internet has made them part and parcel of everyday life.
Who among us has not received the e-mail warning of rogue medical students who drug unsuspecting men in hotel bars and then steal their kidneys? And you believed it the first time you received it, didn’t you?
The most recent celebrated hoax was not distributed via the Internet, but by respected news outlets.
On April 17, the Yale Daily News website reported that Aliza Shvarts, a Yale University art student, was scheduled to present her senior art project. The exhibit, according to the website, consisted of “a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself ‘as often as possible’ while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process.”
The exhibit, the website said, would “feature a large cube suspended from the ceiling…. Shvarts will wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around this cube; lined between layers of the sheeting will be the blood from Shvarts’ self-induced miscarriages mixed with Vaseline in order to prevent the blood from drying and to extend the blood throughout the plastic sheeting.”
The report continued, “will then project recorded videos onto the four sides of the cube. These videos, captured on a VHS camcorder, will show her experiencing miscarriages in her bathrooom tub….. Similar videos will be projected onto the walls of the room.”
Several news organizations reported on the “abortion as art” story. Fox News even had a segment discussing the issue with a physician.
But soon, Yale University reported that Shvarts’ art project was a hoax. A school spokesman said that the project had been investigated and that it was nothing more than “performance art” and a creative fiction.
In a column for Yale Daily News, Shvarts maintained her project was real and that she had done as previously described. However, she explained, her inseminations occurred to coincide with her monthly menstrual cycle. As a result, she had no way of knowing whether or not she was actually ever pregnant.
To date, Shvarts has refused to talk with any media. Yale insists that the project was an elaborate hoax and can find no evidence to suggest otherwise. As a result, the school did not allow her to display her art project at the annual student art show.
At this point it is Shvarts’ word against Yale as to the reality of her project. However, it seems that the truth is leaning heavily toward the school’s version.
While the Yale “abortion as art” story is clearly a debacle, we can nevertheless learn from it.
It has become clear that the speed at which the Internet allows information and communication to flow is as much a liability as it is an asset. In an effort to be “first,” with a news story, too many reporters and news organizations have become increasingly sloppy with the verifying of facts. Such is the case with the Yale “abortion as art” story. If a news organization at any level had just waited a day or two more, a hoax would have been nipped in the bud.
But it is not just the news industry that is tempted to react quickly to a situation. The Internet has also spawned what I call “impulse e-mails.” Many people distribute dubious information via e-mail. Even though they may have good intentions, they never give a thought to verifying what they send.
I received an e-mail just this morning that stated a popular household plug-in deodorizer is prone to cause house fires. A quick visit to www.snopes.com, a website dedicated to exposing hoaxes, revealed that the report was false.
It also seems that many of us are predisposed to believe the absolute worst possible scenarios. The more bizarre and heinous a story, the more likely we are to believe it is true. The “art as abortion” story is a classic example.
I must confess that I believed the Yale story. I even wrote a column addressing it. Thankfully, before the column was published, the hoax was exposed.
In the Internet age you had better be very careful before you report anything. Unless you know for certain something is true — until you’ve checked the facts — you had better not report it as such, no matter how plausible it might seem.
“People say believe half of what see, son, and none of what you hear,” sang Marvin Gaye in the song, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Not bad advice in the age of the Internet.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.