An earlier version of this article quoted from a blog entry purportedly by the Rev. Al Sharpton. MSNBC.com has determined that the blog is a hoax ...
No. No. No, no, stop it. I swear, “hoax” is rapidly becoming the most intentionally misused word in currency.
The above was taken from an MSNBC article about Michael Vick that included a lengthy quotation taken from Newsgroper.com. Newsgroper is devoted to “Fake Parody Blogs, Political Humor, [and] Celebrity Satire,” a fact stated right in the titlebar. It makes no attempt to pawn its stories off as real.
Which is, of course, a key component of a hoax: intent. Merriam-Webster: “hoax, noun. 1: an act intended to trick or dupe; 2: something accepted or established by fraud or fabrication.”
You could argue that the articles on Newsgroper are fabrications. But how do you justify “SUBSTANCE FOUND AT IKEA PROVES TO BE A HOAX,” the headline on a New Haven city webpage, describing the incident in which a running club sprinkled flour in an IKEA parking lot to guide joggers, only to have local authorities react like it was the season finale of 24? The substance itself was a hoax? Someone somewhere had to fabricate the flour, I suppose–wheat doesn’t grow on trees, you know–but where, exactly, is the trick, dupe, or fraud?
Hoax’s reign as the scapegoat du jour dates back to the Boston “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” debacle in February of this year. “Two plead not guilty to Boston hoax charges” the CNN headline read, and the Boston authorities used the word “hoax” to describe the incident as often as they could. The advantages of labeling something like this a hoax are obvious: you didn’t massively overreact to a situation that the average person recognized as harmless, you were tricked into doing so! You didn’t just take a quotation from a clearly phony article on a random webpage and build a story around in, you were duped! You’re not an idiot, you’re just easily gulled! (This argument reminds me of the Democrats claiming that they voted in favor of the Iraq war because the White House tricked them into doing so … not that getting outwitted by Bush is any less embarrassing than getting outwitted by flour.)
If you want some example of legitimate hoaxes, you need look no farther than those bandying around the term. These are the people who intend to trick or dupe, to hide their own culpability behind a malapropism. Whenever I hear the word “hoax” leave the mouth of someone in power, I like to imagine it wearing a little t-shirt reading “I’m With Stupid.”
Update: The City of New Haven updated their page about an hour ago, changing the headline. The original is cached here.