The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks

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Hoaxes 21 Through 25

Our final five takes you from the ultimate instance of Microsoft hubris to an ill-conceived experiment in Internet democracy (or is that Internet anarchy?).

21. Microsoft Buys Catholic Church (1994)

More than a decade ago, an e-mail press release--from Vatican City, no less--landed in my inbox. Microsoft was announcing that it was in the process of acquiring the Roman Catholic Church in exchange for an unspecified number of shares of Microsoft common stock. The story was a prank, but it sure looked real, circulating for months and perhaps worrying residents of the Holy See.

Just think: If the press release had been true, it might have stopped the Vatican from using Linux. And no, I'm not kidding about the Linux part. Watch this video interview with the woman who helped build the Vatican's Web site.

22. Hercules, the Enormous Dog (2007)

That dog won't hunt: "Hercules."
Wow, that dog's almost as big as the horse. That's what I thought when I first looked at this e-mail. The picture depicts a couple, one walking a horse, the other holding the leash of Hercules, a 282-pound English Mastiff and "The World's Biggest Dog Ever According to Guinness World Records."

Horsepucky. Here's my analysis of the Photoshop modifications. First, take a close look at the grass under the people and the animals. The area has been subtly lightened in order to make all of the shadows match and look authentic. Next, examine the shadows and you'll notice two anomalies: First, the shadows of the dog and the man start at their feet, but the same doesn't hold true for the horse. Second, the woman's shadow is missing altogether; instead, the man's shadow extends in front of her. Oh and by the way, the Guinness World Records site doesn't have a listing for Hercules or for the world's biggest dog. Okay, okay, so the pictures of the big kitty and the big dog are both fakes--but have you seen the shot of Craig Sherwood riding the world's largest jackelope?

23. Lights-Out Gang Member Initiation (1998)

People have a tendency to believe e-mail messages that come from authority figures. In 1998, a message purportedly from a police officer working with the DARE program circulated around the Internet. It warned recipients not to flash their lights to inform oncoming cars that their headlamps were off. According to the message, a recently devised gang initiation ritual involved having new gang members drive at night with their headlights turned off until an oncoming car flashed its lights at them; then, in order to become initiated, they were to shoot everyone in that car. It's just another urban myth--and about as silly as the one claiming that gangs mark off their territory by hanging sneakers from power lines.

24. Hurricane Lili Waterspouts (2002)

Waterspouts in triplicate--must be Lili!
It's weird, it's disturbing, and it's seemingly plausible--all of the elements necessary for a successful e-mail forward. The image shows three dark waterspouts in the distance. The subject is "here comes lili," and the e-mail began appearing in inboxes at about the same time that Hurricane Lili started battering the Louisiana coastline. But three waterspouts, all neatly lined up? According to, the National Weather Service labeled the picture a hoax and said that it was a modification of a genuine photo taken in 2001 by a crew member of the Edison Chouest Offshore supply boat.

25. Pranks Shut Down Los Angeles Times Wiki (2005)

It seemed like a bright idea. The LA Times' "A Wiki for Your Thoughts" fandango asked readers to chime in on the newspaper's editorials via a Wiki. In their explanation of how it would work, the editors even acknowledged that "It sounds nutty." Yet they went ahead with it--and achieved disastrous results. The Wikitorial (the name was nearly as dumb as the scheme) brought out the best and then the worst in readers. On the first day, an editorial about the war in Iraq prompted civil and thoughtful contributions. On day two, pranksters littered the unmoderated Wiki with rude comments, pornography, and profanity. The Webmaster removed the offending entries, but only after they were available for public viewing. By the next morning, the publisher had dismantled the Wiki.

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