Early in his book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, which was longlisted for the National Book Award, Kevin Young chronicles the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The perpetrator of the hoax, the New York newspaper The Sun, ran a series of six articles purporting to detail reports about a society of creatures, observed through an especially large telescope, living on the moon. The articles read like faux-high diction nonsense today, but the reaction at the time should be recognizable. There had recently been an explosion of ‘penny papers’ and every one of those outlets had to comment on the Sun’s moon story. Some papers republished large portions of what had already appeared in The Sun. Other outlets published articles “confirming” what had been “reported.” Even the writers and papers who understood the moon story to be nonsense focused more on analyzing how The Sun had duped the public, rather than exposing the story as fiction. It all served to aid the story’s growth and its legitimacy.
One can imagine several of the above sentences being made into a Mad Lib of media illiteracy. Swap out the lunar society story with birtherism, Pizzagate, death panels. Swap out The Sun with Alex Jones, James O’Keefe, any one of the thousands of Twitter and YouTube accounts spreading bad information.
Though hoaxes have manifested in myriad ways throughout history, an overarching thesis of Young’s book is that bunk has carried some consistent themes. In particular, hoaxes tend to take advantage of people’s worst fears about others, in particular fears based along lines of race. The articles at the core of the Moon Hoax, for instance, portrayed a society on the moon that was hierarchical, with humanoid man bats (described as having features stereotypically African-American) on the bottom and lighter-skinned “Vale dwellers” in a place of superiority. Young writes that white readers in 1835 would have no doubt read about the subjugation of darker-skinned humanoids on the moon as an implicit endorsement of the status quo here on earth.
The Moon Hoax is one of dozens chronicled in Bunk. P.T. Barnum, Jayson Blair, James Frey, and Rachel Dolezal are also present and accounted for. Young, who last year became the Poetry Editor of The New Yorker, and I spoke in November.
The Rumpus: You started researching and thinking about this book a while ago, before “fake news” was in the lexicon. What interested you in writing a whole book about hoaxes and hucksterism?
Kevin Young: There are a lot of reasons. One, I think hoaxes are just endlessly fascinating. And two, I worked with someone who ended up being a hoaxer when I was in college. That was really strange, and so I had this sort of personal take on it. Also, when I would read about hoaxes, what they were really about often seemed to be misunderstood. There’s this kind of received wisdom that hoaxes were somehow about the blurry line between truth and fiction, which never seemed true to me. The more I read, the more it seemed actually dangerously untrue, and that hoaxes themselves were dangerously untrue, and that often they were about these big, huge social divisions that appear, especially in American life.
I wanted to understand if there was something especially American about the hoax. I also wanted to know if hoaxes are worse now than ever. They seem to be.
Rumpus: With the moon hoax, I got the sense there was at least a type of consensus; everyone was talking about it. There was the equivalent of water cooler conversation happening about it. Today, if you lined up ten different people, they’re being duped in ten different ways. Is that anything you’ve thought about?
Young: I think that it is true that our journalism has changed, but one of the things that has changed it is the mood that has also changed the hoax. The hoax used to be kind of honorific, and it was often honoring someone, and establishing an American history that didn’t really exist, or making a kind of connection to famous figures that wasn’t there, whether it was Abraham Lincoln or some other figure. But I think now the hoax is much more horrific and invested in tragedy, and you see that with something like Pizzagate, where it’s really targeted to a specific audience.
That said, I think the hoax is always targeted. It has this wish to be known, but also to be contagious and get more and more known as it goes on. Sometimes hoaxes even start smaller scale and then end up being national or international. So I’m not sure if I think hoaxes are more fractured. I think that’s their MO, though, is that they’re about fracture. They’re about partisanship, and I think they always were.
Rumpus: I love the way you talk about the relationship between the hoaxer and the person who’s being duped. Like the people Bernie Madoff swindled, the ones who were financial experts, knew on some level he wasn’t legit. It’s pretty clear that oftentimes, there’s a part of people that is subconsciously willing to go along with the hoax.
Young: There’s a con artist tradition that absolutely relies on greed or something like that, and I think the hoax is related to that in some way. But I also think there’s a special kind of, let’s call it collaboration, that goes on between the audience and the hoaxer. I’m really interested in what the hoaxer discovers that we believe or that we wish was true. Often, a successful hoax—and all hoaxes are successful to a point, and then they aren’t—is preying on that.
Sometimes audience members have good intentions or they trust something in the person that isn’t simply them wanting to get ahead or something like that. The troubling part, for me, is that sometimes it seems like what is believed is the worst fears about each other; hoaxers make it seem like things are as bad as we fear they are, and they often, especially now, play on our fears rather than our wishes.
Rumpus: If you were God for the day, what would you like to see done to combat some of the most pernicious effects of the bad information and hoaxes?
Young: I think there’s the short-term solution and then there’s the long-term solution. I mean, long-term we have to really think about learning how to read and think critically about the media and about sources. Because I think some of this has to do with that—certainly the sort of fake news part. We need to learn how to think critically about not just what information we get, but where we get that information.
But in the short-term, we have to trust our punch. It’s important to remember that many journalism hoaxes, for instance, were discovered by journalists, and many Internet hoaxes were discovered by the Internet. At the same time, the Internet has become a place that, even since I was writing the book, has become far more nefarious in its hoaxing, and it’s really hard to know how to better combat fake ads or targeted information. As you mentioned earlier, people see different things online, different bubbles. But I guess I would argue that we always saw different things. There was always this factioned quality to hoaxes, and hoaxes took advantage of that.
Rumpus: A lot of this gets at ideas of objectivity in news. But what a lot of people don’t consider is that pretty people have always been interested in knowing what’s going on in the world, but the idea of objectivity is relatively new. Brooke Gladstone, for instance, talks about objectivity being tied closely to the dawn of television news, when there were only three channels and objectivity became a business model designed to cast as wide a net as possible.
Young: I think of objectivity coming about more at the end of the 19th century in print journalism as a value, but certainly it is a recent addition to our notion of journalism. I think the difference that has happened is there is a narrowing of print options and an explosion of online sources. It’s not unlike how, in P.T. Barnum’s day, people would read the penny papers, of which there were many, and they would read the ones that they wanted to read. So in a weird way I think we are back in that era, in terms of the vast numbers of sources for information.
The penny press was very much like the Internet. It was pretty cheap, and it suggested itself as this kind of brave new frontier, that you were getting the raw news. But it had some of the same problems that any other press had; at the same time, it offered up some solutions. There is something at least honest about the idea that there are many different points of view.
I should say that I think it’s more important to cultivate accuracy rather than objectivity. Because objectivity ends up having this quality of [demanding] we listen to everyone’s opinion. Like, let’s discuss slavery in a kind of pro or con way, or let’s talk about vaccines as if maybe they do or don’t work. This idea of, you know, let’s 50/50 everything has damaged our ability to battle bad arguments and say things like “the earth is round.”
Rumpus: With the penny papers, you write that the readers didn’t even necessarily believe what they were reading, or that they didn’t expect what they read was going to be true. Do you see a return to that as well, in terms of what we read online?
Young: First of all, I think we believe we have more outlets now, but I’m not sure that’s true. I mean, I think there’s more information coming at us faster. That’s how people have been able to manipulate the media cycle, because by the time something is verified as untrue, they’re on to the next thing. So, I do think that that speed of information has changed. That said, there was often a kind of savviness to readers in the 19th century who weighed the evidence. It’s not so much that I think the penny press papers were disbelieved, as that people would look and see for themselves, and there was this kind of democratic notion that everyone could be an expert. That’s what someone like Barnum manipulated and made popular.
Today, there’s this notion that no one is an expert, and some of that resides with this kind of disregard you see for science or any kind of expertise in a field. The place I see more people entertaining that similar thing that Barnum exploited is reality TV. We watch it, but I don’t think many people think that’s 100% exactly reality. The audience knows it’s mediated. They know that The Bachelor, a show I enjoy, is constructed and artificial in many, many ways, but there’s still the belief that maybe they could find love one day.
I came to realize that that’s probably the best parallel to that previous way of reading, which is it wasn’t so much that people didn’t believe the moon hoax, or only believed it. It was in the middle. People were invested in it in a different way, and you see the same thing with a show like a reality show.
Rumpus: In all your thinking and research, is there anything you have found that seems to work, insofar as getting people, especially students and younger folks, to be savvier consumers of information? In addition to buying your book, of course.
Young: It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book—not necessarily to explore the solutions, though I think there’s some there, but to expose the problem. I wanted to talk about the hoax’s longstanding qualities in American life, but also to have us think critically not just about how hoaxes happen. I think, in this way, we’re all students. We’re all learning and figuring it out, but we often are stuck in asking how it happened, rather than why it happened. What’s the cause and the purpose?
I realized the hoax and race in our modern sense both came about at the same time. I came to understand that not as accident, and I became able to think about what we choose to believe about each other that is patently untrue, and how can we strive for a better understanding. I don’t have all the solutions for it, but I do think someone needs to recognize we do have this problem, that we do need to fix it.
Author photograph © Melanie Dunea.