Course is no hoax

Oct 30, 2003, vol. 28, no. 5
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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The illustrious Walt Disney perpetrated the first hoax that ever registered on Daniel Burgoyne's radar.

The SFU instructor was a young boy when he watched a 1958 Disney documentary, White Wilderness, showing lemmings jumping over cliffs to their deaths. “I thought, ‘Wow, it must be true. Lemmings commit mass suicide.' I carried that fact around with me for a long time. I was an adult before I found out it wasn't true, and that I'd in fact been bitten by a hoax.”

This fall, for the first time, Burgoyne is examining the cause and effect of hoaxes and imaginary texts in his English 369 course in prose genres. His interest in the subject grew out of his graduate work at the University of Washington - “a study of theories of reading and how language shapes the world we live in.” It's important to study hoaxes, he says, “so we can become more critical and aware of the ways in which we participate in creating the world around us.”

Burgoyne defines a hoax as an “intentional, time-sensitive, singular act of public deception.” It is “a type of satire that is meant to function as a wake-up call to a deluded society. A hoax artist serves, at some level, as part of our societal checks and balances.”

Hoaxes have been around since the 18th century, says Burgoyne. “With the rise of science and the enlightenment, there was a consolidation of beliefs around the world. Superstition was effectively banished. Hoaxes were a way of tricking people in order to reflect their delusions back at themselves.”

The New York Sun perpetrated one of Burgoyne's favorite hoaxes in 1835. The penny newspaper - a precursor to today's dailies - successfully duped the public with a series of articles about life on the moon.

The articles found particular favour with the educated classes (“the idea that only uneducated people fall for hoaxes is wrong,” says Burgoyne) and dramatically boosted circulation. It was, he says, an object lesson in the fact that “just because a paper is publishing it, doesn't make it true.”

The Sun was new media in its day. A century later, in 1938, Orson Welles exploited another new media with his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Today, hoaxes are broadcast over the internet, often with staggering economic consequences. (Burgoyne cites the example of an acquaintance, who recently was caught by an email virus hoax that caused him to erase a portion of his own hard drive.)

Burgoyne says there is a “gotcha” moment in every hoax, “where you feel angry and look back to see how you were suckered, and it's usually not hard to see where you went wrong, where your assumptions and blind spots were - and that realization is productive. Every exposed hoax leads to a systemic increase in the public's critical abilities.”

The current course has attracted students from all disciplines, and Burgoyne is keen to teach it again. His students apparently share his enthusiasm for the subject. Laughs Burgoyne: “I had to tell them that, no, in fact, there would not be bonus points for pulling off a hoax.”

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