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A hoax is a deliberate attempt to deceive or trick an audience into believing or accepting that something is real, when the hoaxer (the person or group creating the hoax) knows it is false. In the instance of a hoax, an object or event is not what it appears or is claimed to be; for example, "snake oil", which was sold by 19th century traveling salesmen in the United States as a cure-all. A hoax differs from a magic trick in that the audience is unaware of being deceived, whereas in watching a magician perform an illusion the audience expects to be tricked.

It is possible to perpetrate a hoax by making only true statements using unfamiliar wording or context, such as in the Dihydrogen monoxide hoax. Unlike a fraud or a confidence trick, which are usually made for illicit financial or material gain, a hoax is often perpetrated as a practical joke, to cause embarrassment, or to provoke social change by making people aware of something. Many hoaxes are motivated by a desire to satirize or educate by exposing the credulity of the public and the media or the absurdity of the target. For instance, the hoaxes of James Randi poked fun at believers in the paranormal and alternative medicine. The many hoaxes of Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs satirize people's willingness to believe the media. Political hoaxes are sometimes motivated by the desire to ridicule or besmirch opposing politicians or political institutions, often before elections. Journalistic scandals overlap with hoaxes to some extent.

Some governments have been known to perpetrate hoaxes to assist them with unpopular aims such as going to war, such as the hoaxes of Ems Telegram or the Dodgy Dossier. There is often a mixture of outright hoax and suppression and management of information to give the desired impression. In wartime, rumours abound; some may be deliberate hoaxes.

The word hoax is said to have come from the common magic incantation hocus pocus.

Character of hoaxes

Hoaxes vary widely in their processes of creation, propagation, and entrenchment over time. These possess frequently one or more of the following:
  • Hoaxes perpetrated on occasions when their initiation is considered socially appropriate, such as April Fools' Day
  • Apocryphal claims that originate as a hoax, gain widespread belief among members of a culture or organization, become entrenched as persons who believe it repeat it in good faith to others, and continue to command that belief after the hoax's originators have died or departed
  • Hoaxes that are not affirmatively propagated but rather indirectly "invited," as when persons fabricate evidence consistent with a false claim but do not advocate that claim as a conclusion, instead hoping that observers desiring to draw their own conclusions will reach an erroneous one and spread it in the belief that it is true, such as the use of disinformation in war and counterintelligence
  • Hoaxes formed by making minor or gradually increasing changes to a warning or other claim widely circulated for legitimate purposes
  • Hoaxes perpetrated by "scare tactics" appealing to the audience's subjectively rational belief that the expected cost of not believing the hoax (the cost if its assertions are true times the likelihood of their truth) outweighs the expected cost of believing the hoax (cost if false times likelihood of falsity), such as claims that a non-malicious but unfamiliar program on one's computer is malware
  • Urban legends
  • Humbugs

The essential characteristic of a hoax is that it convey information that is, although false, at least somewhat credible. The subjective intent of hoax perpetrators varies, with the intent determining the content the perpetrator chooses and/or the content affecting the perpetrator's intent regarding whom to deceive: A person seeking to deceive the public as a whole may propagate a hoax consisting entirely of objectively credible claims, often bolstering it by including claims that are true or have a basis in fact. A person seeking to deceive only a specific person or set of persons (as by means of a a practical joke) will likely select a premise that is subjectively plausible in the eyes of the victim(s), treating whether others will fall for the hoax as a secondary concern. Treated as such, the hoax's objective or intersubjective plausibility or implausibility can cut both ways: On one hand, a person may construct a hoax out of only credible information in order to prevent sympathetic outsiders from "catching on" and informing the victim in advance; on the other, he or she may include implausible information in order to heighten the victim's eventual embarrassment at having "fallen for" the hoax (along with the enjoyment observers feel when watching the victim being deceived).

Some sets of claims popularly labeled hoaxes are better categorized as allegory, fable, satire, or parody: If a person describes a situation or event with the intent to illustrate a principle but without the desire that his audience believe his assertions' literal meaning to be true, the assertions likely form an allegory or a fable. (Note that these claims may eventually develop into an apocryphal hoax or an urban legend if their literal meaning gains belief as they are passed from person to person.) If a person makes statements that have some basis in fact but are in some respects patently absurd, with the intent that the audience notice the similarity between the patent absurdities in the statements and absurdities latent in statements widely accepted in the real world, the person engages in satire. Parody does not require any basis in fact or the intent that any part of it be accepted; rather, its essence is the partial but not total imitation of the thing parodied, along with the elicitation of humor from the simultaneous occurrence of similarities and differences between the parody and its subject.

Hoax traditions

During certain events and at particular times of year, hoaxes are perpetrated by many people and groups. The most famous of these is April Fool's Day.

A New Zealandmarker tradition is the capping stunt, where university students perpetrate a hoax upon an unsuspecting population. The acts are traditionally executed near graduation.

Many Spanish-speaking countries have Innocent's Day, on December 28, to make hoaxes against an "innocent" (person). The origin for the pranking is derived from the Catholic feast day Day of the Holy Innocents for the infants slaughtered by King Herod at the time of Jesus' birth.

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