You might have seen a story on social media that gave you pause, prompting you to do a little research to see if the claims are true. Or, perhaps, you chuckled, wondering how anyone could believe what you just read.
But disinformation attacks are no laughing matter. At best, an online rumor is quickly debunked before it gains traction; at worst, it can result in physical, financial, and reputational harm to people and organizations, the effects of which can remain indefinitely. This article will examine ten disinformation attacks and hoaxes that have gone down in history, ranging from humorous to outrageous to downright dangerous.
The Pizzagate Conspiracy Theory (2016)
2016 was a year of narrative attacks flying around American politics. One notable attack that spread like wildfire online was a rumor that presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton was abusing children in satanic rituals, using Comet Ping Pong as a front for these activities. Far-right platforms, such as Breitbart, and personalities, such as Alex Jones, the host of Info-wars, further propagated this rumor. In addition to bot activity, actors included online activists, foreign agents, and regular, non-high-profile media consumers.
The rumors led to a serious physical safety issue when North Carolinian Edgar Maddison Welch traveled to Washington, D.C., to liberate the allegedly imprisoned children. On December 1, 2016, Mr. Welch entered the pizza-and-ping-pong restaurant armed with a knife and two firearms. While no one was physically hurt (aside from a lock that was shot off of an enclosure containing supplies), the restaurant became an example of the impact of disinformation and that narrative being shared as fact.
Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 Treatment Hoax (2020)
There has been no shortage of rumors swirling around the origins of COVID-19, including the motivations behind masking, lockdowns, and vaccinations. One narrative around the virus promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19 despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
An anti-malarial drug, the hydroxychloroquine hype began with a video from French doctor Didier Raoult. The next day, an interview he gave to La Provence was posted to Facebook, and the story took hold, gaining traction across social media. This medical misinformation was amplified by then-president Donald Trump endorsing the drug as a cure for the virus, calling it a “game changer. The false claims on social media and online forums potentially delayed effective treatment for some individuals and use of the drug has been linked to at least 17,000 deaths.
The War of the Worlds Broadcast (1938)
Before his famous utterance of “Rosebud” as Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was known as an agent of chaos. Mr. Welles unintentionally incited mass panic on the evening of October 30, 1938, when he and his Mercury Theater on the Air performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' “The War of the Worlds.” Originally written in 1898, the novel tells the story of an alien invasion in Great Britain. The story was reformatted for radio into a series of fake news bulletins reporting an invasion of New Jersey. Some listeners believed it was a real news broadcast, leading to widespread hysteria and evacuations in some areas.
Had the show not been broadcast during the same timeslot as the much more popular Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, there might have been greater panic.
Over the years, Welles gave inconsistent answers when asked if he had intended for the broadcast to be taken seriously. In 1960, as part of a deposition in a lawsuit against CBS, Welles offered the following, “I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would seem to be happening,” he said, “and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.”
Operation Infektion (1980s)
In the 1980s, the former Soviet Union’s Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) planted false stories about the origins of HIV/AIDS, suggesting it was a U.S. bioweapon. They shared this disinformation campaign with fellow Warsaw Pact foreign intelligence agencies, including the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi), explaining that “the goal of the measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad — namely, that this disease is the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control.”
Codenamed “Denver,” this disinformation campaign was furthered by a large group of actors, with campaigns including bogus academic studies and films, which foreign journalists embraced. The campaign also took cues from existing conspiracy theories in the U.S., including Lyndon LaRouche’s claim that the virus was created at Fort Detrick. Memories of the Tuskegee syphilis study were still fresh in the minds of Americans, which lent credibility to the conspiracy theories. While the Reagan Administration’s Active Measures Working Group exposed Soviet AIDS-related disinformation campaigns, U.S. conspiracy theorists ran with the stories, causing rumors that persist to this day.
The Piltdown Man Hoax (1912-1953):
Since the 1840s, scientists have developed and worked to prove their theory of a “missing link” that bridges the gap between humans and apes. The Piltdown Man, promoted by Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward, suggested that modern man had evolved in Great Britain, fulfilling some agenda that sought to prove that humans did not evolve out of Africa. Some scientists believed the remains were a fraud but kept quiet, likely out of fear of retribution by prominent field members. The Piltdown Man’s “discovery” was celebrated
In 1953, scientists Kenneth Paige Oakley and Joseph Weiner thoroughly evaluated the purported ancient remains, using modern technology to analyze and expose the truth behind Piltdown Man. This involved various exams. A dental exam revealed chimpanzee molars that had been filed down and a jawline altered with iron and chromic acid to make it look older than it was. These tests confirmed that the Piltdown Man was a hoax. While various associates of Dawson were accused of fraud, further scans have suggested that there was only one perpetrator - Charles Dawson. Nevertheless, today, speculation remains about the hoax's culprits, why they did it, and how they succeeded.
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835
The science fiction genre was still in its infancy on August 25, 1835, but would travel to new heights - somewhat literally. On this day, the New York Sun published the first articles claiming that British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon. This alleged discovery was made courtesy of a powerful telescope. According to the series, the moon hosted fantastical creatures, including winged, human-like creatures. The article states, “We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo or man-bat, and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures.”
Of course, the stories were entirely fabricated. But belief ran rampant because, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “In the years between 1780 and 1910, scientific disciplines were coming into their own, and whole new frontiers of discovery were emerging. The public was engaged with science at an unprecedented level. Fiction writers were inspired, too, preemptively exploring these new worlds, using science as a springboard.” Richard Adams Locke would later admit to penning the series. He said he never intended to fool anyone but rather to write satire about the influence of religion on science. Today, we would think this was sheer lunacy.
The Yellowcake Forgery
In September of 2002, an effective disinformation campaign stemmed from a series of forged reports and documents that Iraq's alleged attempt to purchase 500 tons of “yellowcake” uranium from Niger, which would enable the development of nuclear capabilities. These reports were part of a briefing from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Iraq Nuclear Capabilities. Information from this briefing was presented as evidence in testimonies by CIA Director George Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell, shoring up a congressional mandate for military action that October. On January 28, 2003, then-President George W. Bush shared the false narrative at the State of the Union.
The truth emerged months later when the I.A.E.A. (International Atomic Energy Agency) informed the U.N. Security Council that the documents were fake - and not very good forgeries. In March of 2003, former Senator John D. Rockefeller requested that FBI Director Robert Mueller open an investigation into the claims. Additionally, former U.S. ambassador Joe Wilson determined that the sale never happened and was unlikely to happen.
This campaign was effective largely thanks to the still-unknown identities of the forgers and because the documents’ existence was entirely plausible, playing in the confirmation bias of the U.S. and British governments.
The Disinformation Campaigns of 2016
Presidential elections can get nasty - which could describe the 2016 contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump. What made this quadrennial event unique was the sheer number of mis-and-disinformation campaigns involving foreign actors who leveraged social media to spread divisive and false content intending to sow discord. The US intelligence community concluded that Russia interfered in the election, executing a coordinated effort to tip the ballot box in favor of Donald Trump. This included hacking into the Democratic National Committee and releasing stolen emails. Among the rumors and outright falsehoods:
- Unhealthy Discourse: Speculation about Hillary Clinton's health was rumor fodder throughout the 2016 campaign - complete with fake “news” that she had died. The rumors may have damaged Clinton's image with some voters despite never being substantiated.
- A Divine Endorsement: A fake news article claimed Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump. Despite the Vatican’s quick debunking, the fabricated report gained traction even more quickly and was shared millions of times on social media.
A Space-Age Hoax Claim
In July of 1969, Apollo 11 delivered astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon and the history books. With the celebrations and accolades came many disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories that persist today. “Evidence” cited includes the photographic anomalies, the lack of stars in the background of photos (explained by the lunar day times activities), a strange shape on a moon rock, and other “evidence” that has been long since debunked.
The nascence of these rumors can be attributed to Bill Kaysing and his 1976 book, “We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.” A former U.S. Navy officer and technical writer for a rocket manufacturer, Mr. Kaysing, claimed that NASA could not safely land humans on the moon by the deadline set by President John F. Kennedy and instead filmed the entire event in a studio. The 1978 film Capricorn One, based on Kaysing’s book, amplified the conspiracy theories by portraying a Mars landing that was faked in a film studio - and tapped into popular rumors that credited Stanley Kubrick with directing the moon landings.
Despite the claims being debunked repeatedly by credible experts, the information flourished, likely fueled by growing distrust in the U.S. government. This was also a time of widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories, owing to events such as the release of the Pentagon Papers, nightly Watergate hearings, and the House Select Committee on Assassination’s 1976 conclusion that there was a conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination.
Alien Mummy Hoax
On September 12, 2023, journalist and ufologist Jaime Maussan presented two mummified figures with elongated skulls and three fingers on each hand to the Mexican Congress. Mr. Maussan claimed that these specimens, found near the Nazca lines in Peru, were compelling evidence of extraterrestrial life. The reveal sparked international media attention and much debate.
On September 19, Mexico’s scientific community gathered for a conference, and the conversation included Mr. Maussan’s presentation to lawmakers, sparking questions and challenges. Alejandro Frank, the event host and professor of mathematical physics at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), said that the scientists did not gather to discuss the claims. At the end of the conference, he said, “Faced with the serious problems we are experiencing in Mexico and the entire planet, starting with climate change, war, and pandemics, it is sad to gather to talk about the misdeeds of a professional charlatan.”
According to experts, the mummies’ anatomical features were consistent with known terrestrial creatures; similar mummies had been debunked in the past as hoaxes. Upon close investigation, it was revealed that the mummies were likely created using a combination of animal and human bones. From there, the bones were manipulated and preserved to resemble out-of-this-world creatures.
The claims were problematic not necessarily because they had occurred but rather because of where they were presented. Mr. Frank asserted that the presentation before Mexico’s Congress had jeopardized the integrity of science in Mexico and had made the rationality of the country’s scientific field a laughingstock.“What is at stake here is whether our country will follow science, superstitions, and quackery.”
A narrative attack can happen to any organization, institution, or person. A solid offense is the best defense to maintaining your brand’s reputation - to learn more about Blackbird.AI and how we help defend against narrative attacks, contact us today.