August 27, 2007 in City

Hoaxes changing, still finding fertile ground

By The Spokesman-Review
 

By now a warm shade of embarrassing red has replaced the pale look so many people wore last week after receiving e-mail warnings about bloody gang violence in Spokane Valley.

The report of gang inductees bent on killing innocent motorists was bogus, though it seemed believable to many in part because it was disseminated by friends or friends of friends, many of whom claimed to know someone who knew someone who knew for sure the story was true.

We know this e-mail reached hundreds if not thousands of people because citizens concerned that lives were in danger included the newspaper in the long list of folks to whom they were sending. And in every copy of the letter forwarded to us, the addresses of the other recipients were entirely different from the mail lists in the other copies.

Blame the Internet for the spinning the rumor out of control, said police who even as the story spread debunked it as a case of road rage. It all stemmed from a couple chased by an angry motorist for several blocks. They were later informed by a neighbor that gangs cruised Spokane Valley streets at night with their head lights off just waiting to kill any innocent driver who responded with a courtesy flash of her high-beams. E-mail did the rest.

However, news records suggest that long before the days of www and Outlook, Spokane’s rumor mill was wired with an organic material that could advance a hoax just as well as fiber optic cable. It was called the grapevine.

Ever heard about collecting bottle caps, can lids or bar code labels for a charitable cause? From the 1950s to the 1970s, Spokane residents were duped into collecting junk on at least six different occasions, assured that if they hoarded enough red cellophane bands from cigarette packs, tea bag tags or matchbook covers and mailed them back from whence the products came, some ailing stranger would receive an iron lung, some blind man would get a seeing eye dog, some amputee would win a wooden leg.

In one instance, locals were snipping barcodes from canned goods to acquire a dialysis machine for Michael Pollard, a real Idaho boy. When the reporters contacted Pollard’s mother, she knew nothing about the drive.

In one 1975 scam, multiple Spokane residents were promised a case of free soup if they could sing Campbell’s Soup’s “mmm-mmm good” jingle over the telephone. The woman phoning locals and asking them to sing for 36 cans of supper was not a Campbell’s representative, a matter that wasn’t cleared up until the company’s advertising manager in Camden, N.J., wrote The Spokesman-Review. That was the heyday of hoaxes, when 20 might strike the community in a decade, not including bomb threats and false reports of muggings or sexual assault.

Reports of hoaxes have actually declined since the 1990s, but the incidents have also been more fear-driven. There was the recurring hoax that children’s lick-and-stick tattoos were laced with LSD. And the 1992 hoax suggesting that during a school blood drive more than 10 percent of the students at certain local high schools tested positive for the AIDS virus. That was the same year razor-wielding assailants were supposedly hiding under cars during Christmas shopping season at NorthTown Mall waiting to slash the ankles of unsuspecting shoppers. A mall store worker who falsely verified the parking lot hobbling made the situation worse.

Oh, for the simpler times when residents were duped into thinking UFOs hovered over Spokane. Police deflated that hoax, spurred by makeshift hot air balloons crafted from dry cleaning bags, candles and soda straws, in 1967.

There are myriad explanations for why hoaxes spread so well. The most likely now being issued by the hoodwinked is that we’re all a bunch of dopes and that they knew the ruse was on even as they, with the click of a mouse, alerted friends or friends of friends.

But the explanation put forward last week by Pam Scott seemed more plausible. The Convention and Visitors Bureau communications manager, who forwarded the message to the newspaper and, she swears, no one else, later suggested that for most life here is pretty good. For some it’s much better than the lives they left in larger communities where they believe bad things happen to good people more often. There’s a fear, she said, that too-good-to- be-true Spokane won’t last forever.

But there was another rumor circulating last week that harkened back to the old days. People were calling the newspaper inquiring about a supposed once-in-3-million- years occurrence next month, when Mars is said to pass so close to the moon that the two will appear side-by-side and similar in size.

Couldn’t hurt to look.


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