In a modern era of lightning-fast fact checking and eyewitness videos immediately available on Twitter, any accidental misstep by a news channel can have dangerous effects. And intentional misinformation, like one incident on Imedi TV in 2010, leads to national panic on a disastrous scale. No one involved expected the consequences to be so severe.
In the spring of 2010, pro-government Imedi TV aired a mock report, half an hour long, about the breaking news of a Russian invasion in Georgia. At the time, studio executives felt like they had a pretty good reason.
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Russian invasion was a sore subject in Georgia already, and tensions were still running high after Russia had briefly invaded the Georgian semi-independent territory-states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August of 2008. The result was tragic.
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Although the occupation was brief, both beginning and ending in August, it had not been without casualties. Official numbers varied, but over 1,300 Georgian troops alone were wounded or killed, and hundreds of civilians from both Georgia and South Ossetia were killed.
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In addition, many Georgians were displaced, fleeing the conflict to save their lives. Between 192,000 and 230,000 found themselves taking on refugee status during that long summer. Given that knowledge, Imedi TV drew up a plan.
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The network ran an experimental broadcast, showing an invasion to demonstrate what such an attack might look like. Unfortunately, it clearly hadn’t passed before the common-sense committee, and on the evening of March 13th, 2010, Georgian citizens got a nasty surprise.
Normally, the program on which the experiment would air, Special Report, came on at 8:30pm local time on Saturdays. However, for an undisclosed reason, it was moved up to the 8:00pm slot on March 13th — a time normally reserved for the Chronicle program, which many Georgians rely on for their news.
So, that night, when the Georgian people tuned in to get the day’s briefing on what was happening in their nation, they were instead treated to a fake broadcast — and as the channel didn’t put out any disclaimers, they had no idea it was fake.
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Instead of beginning by saying, “the following is a mock broadcast,” the program began with talking heads from Imedi TV reporting that Georgian government-opposition groups had organized protests in Tbilisi due to supposed fraud in the upcoming elections.
According to the fake broadcast, gunmen had opened fire on protestors, leading to requests from the government-opposition groups for other countries to come aid in ousting the “tyrannical” Georgian president.
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Things only escalated from there, and the broadcast claimed that Russian troops were moving towards Tbilisi to face off with the mobilized Georgian troops that were antagonizing protestors and enacting “open terrorism.”
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As part of the simulated broadcast, a speech from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was shown, with a Georgian voiceover calling for military action against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Footage of Russian tanks invading Georgia in 2008 was also shown — with no mention of the footage date.
Towards the end of the broadcast, it was announced that Saakashvili had been assassinated, and that Russian planes were beginning to bomb Georgia. Polish President Lech Kaczyński was said to be in a plane headed for Georgia, but his plane was reported to have been attacked, killing him.
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Understandably, the Georgian people watching at home spiraled into panic, believing that the simulation was live breaking news. Georgia’s emergency services received thousands of calls — so many that the nation’s mobile phone networks were overloaded with use and crashed.
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People ran to ATMs to take out cash, fearing economic collapse or bank shortages. Many others packed their bags and began making evacuation plans. Even the Georgian Army, after hearing of the broadcast, took up action stations, ready to defend their posts.
In Akhali Tserovani, a community of refugee housing built for those Georgians who’d been displaced by the 2008 conflict, panic was even worse. “People started getting dressed to flee to Tbilisi. People wondered where they should hide their children,” said Tamuna Okhadze, mother of a one-and-a-half year old boy.
Even worse, three people died from watching the broadcast. One refugee had a stroke after watching and died in the hospital; another exclaimed “What the hell’s going on?” and had a heart attack on his living room floor; and a woman whose son was in the Georgian Army collapsed from fright.
Only two hours later, after news of panic reached Imedi TV, did they run a scrolling disclaimer across the bottom of the screen, alerting viewers that the news was fake. Manana Manjgaladze, Saakashvili’s spokeswoman, even drove to the studio to appear live, reassuring the public.
However, the damage was already done. Public leaders, from Georgian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Ilia II to the Georgian National Communications Commission, condemned the broadcast. An investigation was opened into whether the broadcast had violated journalistic code of conduct, and Imedi TV was forced to apologize.
Many Georgians believed Saakashvili had been behind the broadcast, and on March 15th, audio recordings were released purporting to be of phone conversations, between Saakashvili’s peers and Imedi staff, that had taken place prior to the broadcast.
Worldwide news would do well to remember the lesson learned in Georgia. Manjgaladze said, “Such projects…mustn’t impact the population of the country. No one must pour oil on the fire and cause alarm among the people. This is a very sensitive topic.”
Hoaxes have made their way onto national airwaves before. Orson Welles performed a radio adaptation of War of the Worlds in 1938. He was so convincing, in fact, that some listeners panicked and thought it was an emergency broadcast about a real alien invasion.
How do people forget about April Fool’s Day? On April 1, 1957, the BBC aired a news segment about a Swiss family harvesting fresh pasta from trees. Some oblivious viewers called in asking how to grow their own pasta crop. The BBC responded, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
Some people can’t take a joke. On April Fool’s in 1996, Taco Bell announced they purchased and renamed the Liberty Bell to help cut down on the national debt. Thousands of people took the marketing scheme literally and complained to the company and the National Park Service.
Richard and Mayumi Heene shocked the world in 2009 when they claimed their 6-year-old son Falcon climbed into a giant helium balloon and drifted away from their Colorado home. Authorities desperately followed the floating vessel to recover the “Balloon Boy” once he landed 50 miles away…
But they found no trace of the boy inside the balloon. As it turns out, he was hiding in the attic of his home the entire time. His parents — two wannabe reality stars — orchestrated the event to gain publicity. Their hopes floated away, however, when the court slapped them with multiple felony charges.
Reuters / Rick Wilking
A German teacher named Wilhelm von Osten became a star when he debuted Clever Hans, a horse that could do math. When Wilhelm asked Hans a question, Hans would tap his hoof a number of times to signify the answer. It took years for anyone to realize that Wilhelm trained the horse to tap in response to face signals.
Prankster Lyle Zapato pulled a fast one when he created a website to save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. The creature supposedly lived off small animals but was endangered by the Sasquatch. The University of Connecticut later used the hoax in a study about why people fall for false information online.
Just because the moon landing actually happened doesn’t mean there aren’t any moon-related hoaxes. In 1835, a tabloid called The Sun wrote a story on fictitious astronomer John Herschel. He allegedly built a powerful telescope and used it to observe all kinds of wacky creatures, including unicorns and human bats, on the moon’s surface.
In 1985, Sports Illustrated published an article about the newest baseball phenom, Siddhartha Finch. Aside from an amazing backstory that involved studying with Tibetan monks, Sidd supposedly threw a 168 miles-per-hour fastball and just signed with the Mets. New York fans were thrilled until the magazine revealed it was a joke.
Sports Illustrated / Lane Stewart
The Village Voice posted a curious ad in 1976 about a “cathouse for dogs.” Here, customers could shell out up to $50 an hour for their dogs to spend the night with a canine companion. WABC New York fell for the hoax and did a story on the brothel.
The pet brothel was another creation of Joey Skaggs, one of the most prolific pranksters of our time. A proud member of the counterculture, he enjoys making a fool of mainstream institutions. Even in interviews, he will often provide hilariously false information or send a double in his place.
The Observer / Sam Ortiz
Another famous Joey Skaggs hoax was the formation of Walk Right! This militant political movement purported to roam the streets of New York and police citizens into following proper pedestrian etiquette. The Black Panther-esque berets made them almost believable.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Turk — a chess-playing robot — became one of the biggest tourist sensations ever. The contraption toured around the world and could somehow defeat almost anyone. By 1857, however, the Turk’s secret came out: the owner put a chess master inside the machine to secretly operate its every move!
Wikimedia Commons / Marcin Wichary
In the late 1960s, rumors emerged that Paul McCartney of The Beatles had died in an auto accident and the bandmates replaced him with a lookalike. The Fab Four later played up this urban legend by including clues in their songs and album covers. Some paranoid fans interpreted the Abbey Road artwork as a funeral procession.
Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announced a monumental discovery in 1912. He claimed he found a skull of the missing link between apes and humans near the town of Piltdown. However, a later examination showed that the skull of the new species was just bones from a human, orangutan, and chump pieced together.
BBC / Natural History Museum
When Joaquin Phoenix arrived at The Late Show with a long beard and sunglasses in 2009, David Letterman quickly realized it was no normal interview. Phoenix seemed incoherent and announced he quit acting to pursue a rapping career. A year later, Phoenix admitted he tanked the interview for the mockumentary film I’m Still Here.
CBS / John Paul Filo
In another April Fool’s joke gone awry, journalist H.L. Mencken wrote a story in 1917 entitled, “A Neglected Anniversary.” He claimed that the bathtub caught on in the United States only after President Millard Fillmore put one in the White House. Other journals picked up his prank story, and a member of Congress even cited it as fact.
Mental Floss / John Ueland
Football spectators at Harvard Stadium in 1982 could hardly believe their eyes. A giant balloon began to inflate in the middle of the field, bore the name MIT in big letters, and exploded. Several MIT students snuck in the device the night before to prank their rivals, perhaps out of jealousy that they don’t have a football team.
Bored housewife Penelope Ashe shot up on the bestseller list with her trashy pulp novel, Naked Came The Stranger. But the borderline-pornographic book was pure satire. Newsday journalist Mike McGrady wrote it to make fun of popular literary trends and got his sister-in-law to pose as Penelope.
Perhaps the biggest hoax in American history, George Hull claimed to find a 10-foot tall petrified man in Cardiff, New York. Of course, it was really a gypsum sculpture he buried underground. Many experts spotted the fraud immediately, but the Giant became such a huge tourist attraction that P.T. Barnum bought it!
Flickr / Jim Griffin
Okay, maybe we can’t all pull off pranks on a global level, but there are some tricks that can definitely fool are friends. With these pretty simple and hilarious pranks, you can pull the rug out from under the jokesters in your life before they even roll out of bed.