Of Pranks and Playboy: The Pros and Cons of Online Hoaxes

Header for Playboy's fake party guide.

If you were online at all last week, you probably came across a Playboy article called “Top Ten Party Commandments.” The article was in Playboy’s usual style, but rather than emphasizing your typical dudebro disregard for women’s feelings, opinions, and preferences, it’s all about how you can’t truly have a good time without consent and it discusses the cool initiatives different campuses around the country are doing to promote consent.

So, obviously, the article wasn’t really written by Playboy. It was a prank by a group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which was also responsible for a similar hoax involving Victoria’s Secret last winter.

I really like hacktivism like this, but it does have some negative externalities. I’ll talk about some of the pros and then some of the cons.

First of all, it gets attention. Someone who might not click on a link to an article called “Why Consent is Important” might click on a link to an article called “Playboy’s Top Ten Party Commandments.” That person would then be exposed to information and opinions they might have never considered before.

Second, a hoax like this answers the question every activist is tired of hearing: “Yeah, well, if the way things are right now is so bad, what’s your idea, huh?” Although I reject the idea that in order for criticism to be legitimate, one must have a ready-made solution at their disposal, the fake party guide does a great job of giving an example of the type of content a consent-positive magazine might publish. It shows that, in a world free of rape culture, lingerie brands might replace phrases like “Sure Thing” with “Ask First,” and college party guides might rank campuses based on which are the best at promoting safe and healthy sex, not which have the drunkest women.

Third, these pranks provoke a strong positive reaction that sends a powerful message to the companies they mimic. That message is, you don’t have to promote rape culture to sell products. We’re often told that this is “just what sells.” Maybe it does, but consent can sell, too. After the Victoria’s Secret prank, social media filled up with people praising Victoria’s Secret and announcing that they plan to go out and buy the new (fake) products. Likewise, before people figured out it was fake, they congratulated Playboy on taking this new direction.

Part of the fake playboy party guide.A smart business will gauge the public responses to these hoaxes and act accordingly. Victoria’s Secret apparently said that they would “look into” creating a consent-positive lingerie line, although I haven’t heard anything else about that since December. Playboy, on the other hand, publicly stated that they had nothing to do with this hoax, and asked that it be taken down. Bad move.

The drawback of these pranks, though, is that many people will inevitably not hear the part about how it’s a prank; they’ll only hear the part about how X Company That Wasn’t That Good About This Stuff totally switched tacks and created some cool new product that doesn’t suck. I was still bursting people’s bubbles about the Victoria’s Secret months after it happened. Corrections aren’t as sticky as the original news story they’re correcting.

Furthermore, plenty of research confirms that it is really difficult to correct misinformation once it has been spread. From a guide in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct. This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective andcan even backfire (PDF).

And even if people are not actively engaged in resisting unwelcome facts, the limitations of human cognition can hinder the correction of misperceptions. For example, once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to undo its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs. Trying to correct a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) can also lead people to more easily remember the claim you are trying to negate (“John is a criminal”). Finally, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If corrections make a claim seem more familiar, we may be more likely to see the underlying—and incorrect—claim as true.

What this means is that, even if a media outlet prints a correction (which some had to do after misreporting the Playbox hoax as genuine) and even if people actually see it (which they’re probably not very likely to, since it won’t spread virally like the original news did), the correction is not very likely to “stick.” And, even more worryingly, reporting the Playbox hoax accurately the first time might still lead people to misremember it later as being not a hoax.

But so what if people keep thinking that Victoria’s Secret and Playboy really created these products? Well, it’s always unpleasant when someone gets credit that they don’t deserve. But also, it skews people’s perceptions of how far we’ve come and what is left to be done. Major corporations like these still don’t really take public stands for consent; rather, they create products that negate its importance or actively promote rapey stuff. If people develop the impression that this is changing when it really isn’t, they might be more skeptical of efforts to make it change.

Although it bothers me that these pranks likely end up spreading misinformation, I still think that the pros outweigh the cons. But you may disagree.