Every day is April 1 for online tricksters

Every day is April 1 on the internet as a growing cast of tricksters and fraudsters line up to deceive the gullible in age of information overload

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 9:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 11:59pm

Livr, the social network for drunk people, had all the trimmings of an ascendant tech start-up.

A slick promotional video featuring two Heisenbergian CEOs. A hip website littered with buzzwords and trademarks. Press releases. Stickers. Posters. T-shirts. An auspicious, grass-roots buzz that began in Reddit's technology forums and bubbled into the mainstream press.

Livr's only problem? It was all fake - an elaborate hoax engineered by Brandon Schmittling and Brandon Bloch, two Brooklyn creatives with a lot of free time and little patience for what they call the "absurdity" of modern internet culture.

After dreaming up an idea for a start-up so ridiculous no one would believe it, Bloch and Schmittling set out to entice people to buy in. They bought a domain name, designed a website, enlisted actors to play Livr's earnest co-founders; they "leaked" a fake press release on Reddit, promising an "online party at all times", a social network limited only by the user's blood alcohol concentration.

First Engadget blogged about it. Then Next Web. Soon Mashable and CNN. Within hours, one of Silicon Valley's top investment firms contacted the Brandons, asking if they needed venture capital.

"Livr was one of those ideas you have when you're sitting around the bar with your friends, and someone says, 'Wouldn't it be crazy if ...'?" laughed Bloch. "But these days there's no such thing as too crazy. The cultural landscape is just getting more and more absurd."

In the purer, wide-eyed days of yore, April 1 marked a once-in-a-year-opportunity to print phenomenal whoppers in newspapers, tell your children penguins can fly and otherwise violate the everyday norms of human behaviour. But pranksters hardly need an annual indulgence for their hijinks anymore: On the internet, after all, every day is April Fools' Day.

In the past week alone, online hoaxers convinced wide swaths of the online world that a deranged man dressed as a clown wandered unchecked around Staten Island; that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte biked to his meeting with Barack Obama; that R&B singer Trey Songz was gay; and that searchers finally found Malaysia Airlines flight 370 … about 15 times over.

"I don't see the distinction much anymore, between fantasy and reality," explained Bloch, who spends his days making "corporate documentaries" - a field that surely straddles the two. "In my mind, the line is blurred."

Exactly who is doing the blurring, though, is up for debate.

Although it's easy, and perhaps comfortable, to blame the deceivers, the reality is far more complicated. The web incentivises page views, no matter how they're racked up. And so hoaxes are hatched not only by lone pranksters but also by web-savvy marketers and public relations firms eager for attention.

They're often propagated by journalists hungry for clicks and starved for time. Then they're swallowed whole by an audience drowning in so much information - such a cacophony of demands on their eyeballs and attention - that only the truly crazy stuff stands out.

"Americans are just bombarded with information," moaned Allen Peterson, the executive director of Wine to Water, a tiny water charity behind the "Miracle Machine" hoax of a few weeks ago, which promoted a newfangled gadget that claimed to turn water into wine. "I mean, to get their attention on something like the water crisis? The question is, how do we even get that in front of them?"

Wine to Water's hoax was perhaps the most forgivable ruse in recent memory. A five-member nonprofit organisation based in North Carolina, Wine to Water funds clean-water projects in Haiti, Ethiopia and six other countries. Donations have shot up 20 per cent since the hoax; Peterson estimates his charity will reach an estimated 6,000 more people this year.

But not all hoaxsters share Peterson's altruism, or Bloch and Schmittling's sense of philosophical inquiry. A number of websites that propagate fake stories - including Mediamass, or the dubious - profit from display ads when their frauds go viral. Others redirect to phishing sites that try to draw out the gullible clicker's e-mail address and personal information.

But the most common class of internet prankster overlaps, mundanely enough, with the April Fool's prankster of yesteryear. There is no ulterior motive - unless the pursuit of attention and #lolz constitutes ulterior.