Chastising the media for reporting the balloon boy story in the US or attacking the guerrilla tourism marketing campaign involving a fake Danish single mother won’t prevent hoaxes such as these from occurring. And admonishing credulous journalists and editors won’t stop members of the fourth estate being taken in along with the rest of us every now and then. If public trust really is eroded by high-profile hoaxes, then it would have worn away long ago.

Like other forms of anti-social behaviour, the full-blown hoaxing (so to speak) of the balloon boy variety may be just a degree or two outside what society deems acceptable. While the hurt or dismay caused by any meaningful betrayal of our trust is unavoidable, part of the fascination of hoaxes is the seemingly endless capacity we humans have for inventing elaborate ruses and scams.

There’s no profit in deceit, the saying goes, while another tells us there’s a sucker born every minute. The moral of the balloon boy story is that the people most likely to suffer from the consequences of lying are the liars themselves. The bubble (or balloon) burst when during a media interview the boy at the centre of the story let slip the truth steadfastly denied by his scheming parents.

In fact, being duped vicariously by a balloon boy story every so often — if indeed we really ever did believe in it — might help keep us to fine tune our own internal bullsh-t detector.

Hoaxes, no matter how unedifying, serve as a reminder of what it is to be human, fated as we are to be the most deceptive of species and also the most trusting. Humans are almost infinitely impressionable. Part of us may want to believe what politicians, salespeople and other flatterers tell us even as we note their self-interest. And even if we’ve never concocted a hoax, who among us hasn’t told a white lie or been tempted to gild the lily in a job interview?

The balloon boy’s parents and other deluded and/or calculating individuals who perpetrate major deceptions may have motives that are negative, such as self-aggrandisement and financial gain, but there can be more admirable drivers such as the desire to combat social injustice.

An inspiring example of the positive hoaxer is the American founder and Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin. In 1747, a speech was published purporting to have been given in court by Polly Baker, an unmarried woman charged with having a child out of wedlock, which in those days was a punishable offence.

Speaking in her own defence, Baker rails against the injustice of such a prosecution, arguing that she was merely doing God’s will by going forth and multiplying and blaming the fathers of her children for not accepting their responsibility.

A footnote to the speech disclosed that the judge himself was so moved by Baker’s eloquence that he offered to marry her. More than a century later it was revealed that the true author was Franklin, who was himself the father of a child born outside marriage. According to a leading historian of hoaxes, Alex Boese, the case of Polly Baker “attracted widespread popular sympathy and provoked outrage at the injustice of the penal system”.

These days the legal system does not treat unmarried mothers as criminals, thanks in part to the efforts of campaigners such as Franklin, but we do have laws aimed at punishing fraud and certain types of deliberate or negligent deception that can cause serious, quantifiable damage or inconvenience to others.

Hoaxes can be entertaining as well as instructive so long as the victim is not us. Many of the lies we are told on a daily basis by advertisers and politicians are unpleasant rather than injurious. Needless to say some kind of blanket prohibition against hoaxing would be impossible to enforce. Human freedom encompasses the liberty to lie.

Simon Caterson’s “Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri” is due next month from Arcade Publications.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey