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?