Despite what you may have heard, Lars Ulrich has balls. According to what appeared to be a CNN news article circulated rapidly on the web, Ulrich suffered a December 17 attack by a napster supporter, in which he sustained “mild gunshot wounds to the groin and abdomen.” the story was a hoax, albeit a clever one; Metallica’s publicist, Sherry Ring-Ginsberg, confirms that Lars’s testicles are fine. Says Charles “Chuck Rock” Belak-Berger, the 19-year-old administrator of Abobo.com, the site responsible for the story: “It was intended to be a harmless parody of the recent anti-MP3 [legal] action. Within hours, the URL was on message boards across the Internet. And even more amazing, many people believed it was true. We realized our joke may be going too far and pulled the plug.”
Lars Ulrich is not alone as a target for Internet hoaxes. In recent weeks, MSNBC.com appeared to run a story about the Supreme Court legalizing marijuana, a faux New Yorker Web site has been making the rounds in literary circles, and several news organizations—NBCi, CNN, and MTV—have been made to seem as though they ran a story that falsely reported rapper Eminem had died in a car accident.
Making a hoax site is easy, because geeks can create an authentic look just by copying the design code readily available through an ordinary Web browser. The parodies can be especially deceptive thanks to a loophole in the way browsers read addresses. For the Ulrich story, the link posted to message boards and forwarded via e-mail appeared to stem from the CNN server: www.cnn.com&breaking—news@1074199347/ulrich.shooting.html. A browser considers everything before the ‘@’ as an unnecessary user ID and password, then sends the viewer to the location specified by the numbers and letters that follow, in this case, Abobo.com. Likewise, an unsuspecting parent might think www.disney.com&kidfriendly@ 188.8.131.52 links to Mickey and friends, when in fact it leads to the graphically depicted carnal acts of Sex.com.
“People get links forwarded to them all the time,” says Jessica R. Friedman, a new media attorney for the Manhattan firm of Reboul, MacMurray, Hewitt, Maynard and Kristol. “People are used to seeing ‘cnn.com/blah blah blah.’ ”
Representatives for MTV and CNN downplayed the incidents, describing them as pranks rather than hacks. But Friedman says the danger lies not in hacking, but in trademark infringement. “People will be confused into believing that this story is true, and when it turns out to be a hoax, they are likely to believe that CNN made a mistake,” says Friedman. “CNN’s reputation is with broadcasting true, real-time news. You’re talking about harm to the goodwill of a company. CNN’s reputation is the basis for their billions of dollars of revenue, including Internet advertising revenue.”
That’s of little concern to a guy like Chris Rhee, a 15-year-old student at San Jose’s Lynbrook High School who runs an online journal, Chris-Sucks.com, which he uses to host a hoax of MTV.com. Using the loophole in Web addresses, he mimics the appearance of MTV.com news in a fabricated story headlined “Eminem Killed in Car Accident.” Rhee claims his site has received as many as 200,000 views in one day. “I didn’t start this rumor,” says Rhee. “I think someone first did it on an NBCi page and a CNN page. I just redid the news story with the MTV design.”
The phony Eminem story alerted Metallica’s publicist to the impact of Net hoaxes just prior to the fictional Ulrich shooting. “I have a teenage daughter,” says Ring-Ginsberg, “and that weekend, she came into my room almost in tears, saying that Eminem had been killed. Then a few days later, the Lars thing happened. And even though you know it’s not true, you still pause.”
Ultimately, the lesson to be learned here may be a tried-and-true one. “We didn’t intend to malevolently trick anyone,” says Belak-Berger. “And we regret doing so if we did. This may serve to educate millions who otherwise might have learned by being defrauded, having their children deceived by pedophiles, or worse. It all goes back to the adage ‘Don’t believe everything you see or read,’ especially when it’s on the Internet.”