Who would do such a thing?

group of people wearing black face mask

Do these people all live together, or have they decided that making free-use photos for WordPress is more essential than social distancing? Also, color me skeptical that the photographer shares a name with a Breaking Bad villain. (Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com)

After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, news circulated online that fitness celebrity John Basedow — he of the once-ubiquitous Fitness Made Simple commercials — had been vacationing in Phuket, Thailand and was presumed dead.

He was not. About a month after the disaster, a note on the front page of the Fitness Made Simple website assured fitness fans that John Basedow was alive, unharmed, and had never even been to Thailand.

There’s nothing funny about the actual tsunami, obviously. But if John Basedow did not die in it — and John Basedow did not die in it — it means that upon learning of one of the deadliest disasters in human history, someone somewhere invented the story of John Basedow’s untimely demise and went through the trouble of disseminating it online. And that, I think, is kind of funny — not the hoax itself so much as the decision to enact it. Because: Why?


At the Big East tournament the next year (or maybe the year after that, but sometime before smartphones became ubiquitous), a friend and I discussed at some length the John Basedow death hoax and its ability to spread unchecked in the wake of the tsunami. So during a dull part in a game, he picked up his BlackBerry, looked at it, and said, loudly, “Wow, Clyde Drexler died. Police suspect foul play.” The people behind us overheard and expressed their disbelief, and then you could hear it sort of echoing its way back through the seats, in grim tones, “Clyde Drexler… Clyde Drexler… Clyde Drexler.”

Maybe death is not something that should ever be falsified, and maybe I should not now confess my role in the Great Clyde Drexler Death Hoax of 2006. I’m not saying it’s something I’m especially proud of, only that it’s something that happened. Me and my friend successfully convinced a handful of people that Clyde Drexler had died, just to see if we could.

Hoaxes exist in many forms. Some — those that are purely self-serving on behalf of the hoaxer — are easy to figure out. Manti Te’o and his friend made up the story of Lennay Kekua because Te’o stood to benefit from it in the form of fawning magazine profiles and SportsCenter segments. Kellyanne Conway said the “Bowling Green Massacre” happened because she didn’t have enough actual examples to forward her xenophobic agenda. I have no trouble deciphering why such things would come to be.

But this pandemic has brought with it a handful of more baffling hoaxes, and elements of at least four of them have at some point been earnestly passed along to me by friends or family members trying to be helpful. The first came more than a month ago, right after the NBA shut down, when everything seemed like it was spinning off the rails. It said, basically, that a friend of a friend who was a cop said that the city was preparing to quarantine all of Manhattan by closing every bridge and tunnel.

That one kind of felt like it might just be a game of telephone gone awry. The city, clearly, really was preparing for a shutdown like the one we’re currently enduring, and perhaps someone misunderstood that to mean shutting down all points of egress. I recognized it as ridiculous — more than 1.5 million people live in Manhattan, and we would pretty quickly run out of food without the use of bridges and tunnels — and soon found tweets from the NYPD that referenced and dismissed the rumor.

Then there’s this one: Since January, apparently, people have been circulating an image online explaining that standard surgical masks are reversible, and that sick people should wear them with the colored side out to prevent transmission of the virus and healthy people should wear them with the colored side in to prevent germs from penetrating the masks. It has made the rounds in multiple languages and on multiple continents and has persisted for months, and it’s complete hokum. Surgical masks are not reversible. They are made to be worn with the colored side out, always, by everyone.

I wish I could offer some grand conclusion to this post, but I’ve got nothing. The question posed in the headline is a genuine one: Who the hell would make something like that up, and why? Is it someone who really thinks he or she has figured out a better, more effective way to wear surgical masks? Does it mean to sow chaos by trying to publicly codify the sick and the healthy? Or is it, like the deaths of John Basedow and Clyde Drexler, just something someone made up to see if they could get other people to believe it?


2 thoughts on “Who would do such a thing?

  1. It was me. I created the John Basedow Tsunami hoax.

    I didn’t ever think it would have such a reach but it really caught on and I was introduced to this article after telling the story of how I propagated John Basedow’s untimely demise in the early 2000s. I recognize that there is about a .0001% off chance that somebody, somewhere, could’ve thought to make up the same exact story, at the exact same time, for literally no reason other than boredom, and push that message across the country through word of mouth over an entire summer. However, to pick ol’ Johnny AND his method of passing onto greener pastures, at the exact same time I did, would be highly unlikely.

    So, here is this story of how all this came to fruition….I’m a liar. I do this all the time and I have no reason for it. I told people I was Michael C. Hall’s (Dexter Morgan) cousin for years because we looked very similar at the time and had the same last name. I had a highly religious friend show up to work and I would tell people he was Mormon (he was just a devout Baptist), that he didn’t like to talk about his Mormonism because he was unreasonably embarrassed about it and to ask him about the Mormon sex pajamas. Who wouldn’t engage on that? I eventually get bored if I’m not gainfully employed in some educational/training venture. I light little ridiculous fires consistently just to see what will happen. It’s probably a character flaw but will certainly create a bunch of funny situations. Case and point here.

    I was in military special operations at the time and my team leader hated his wife. So we spent an entire summer training in about 12 different locations throughout the country. Nashville, Vegas, Tampa and certain spots in rural America. I was going to start a rumor that a celebrity passed in the tsunami. It couldn’t be an A-lister. Everybody knew Brad Pitt was still alive after the event. However, if you ever had a late night out and came home to turn on the TV, there is a good chance you would’ve been blessed by a flexing and feathered John Basedow. He was the exact D-list celebrity that you knew nothing about….but knew.

    So, John Basedow became my target for my propaganda campaign. I preached the gospel of John Basedow’s passing to all locations that we visited over this 4 to 5 month training package. If there was a stripper giving me a lap dance (I was young), I would make sure to spread the word “Did you hear about poor John Basdow? The guy was filming a new workout video and right in the middle of it BAMMM! Tsunami!” At bars, clubs, restaurants, professional settings, your family reunion, I was there to tell the legend of John Basedow that summer. My entire team got in on it as well so I had minions pushing the message like door to door vacuum salesmen. People were really affected by this. As if they had some personal connection with the late night bicep king. It might have twisted the knife even more when they would see his vascularity on late night television after hearing of his passing and think “damn…somebody is still selling the poor chap.”

    I think the crescendo to that summer’s symphony of lies was when we met a group of young, fresh and certainly impressionable journalists in a Vegas bar. I pushed harder than ever to create the narrative for them and they were astounded. I think this may have been where things took off on the internet. Hence, here we are. Together. Full circle. Thanks so much for writing this article and letting me re-live my youthful shenanigans. Much respect on the Clyde Drexel’s story. Hopefully it forces folks to take a single second to verify things that they hear before automatically putting stock in them. Then again, there was never a plan to get a learning lesson pinned down, it was always to just to induced a small (yet harmless) amount of chaos. Cheers!

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