Navigating Information Fatigue: Scams and Hoaxes

Jessica Staff Image

The COVID-19 pandemic has further increased our reliance on social media and the Internet for information. This development, combined with underlying political partisanship, has created a breeding ground for disinformation, conspiracy theories, and information overload. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has long provided resources for the best-quality information in the service of the public in Pittsburgh and beyond.

These titles were reviewed and vetted by CLP librarians as well as Calum Matheson, PhD – Assistant Professor of Public Deliberation and Civic Life and Director of Debate (University of Pittsburgh). For more books on topics of civic engagement, visit our staff picks page.

NOTE: This list is a supplement to the Navigating Information Fatigue: 3-Part Series webinar series. 

Barnum's Own Story: The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum’s career of showmanship and charlatanry was marked by a surprising undercurrent of honesty and forthrightness. His exuberant autobiography forms a happy combination of all those traits, revealing the whole story of his world-famous hoaxes and publicity stunts. Here is a pageant of nineteenth-century America’s gullibility and thirst for marvels, as told by the master of revels himself.

A born storyteller, Barnum recalls his association with Tom Thumb, his audience with Queen Victoria, and his trouble keeping Jenny Lind’s angelic image intact during a trying tour. He tells of Jumbo, the most famous elephant in history, from the creature’s heroic arrival in America to its tragic death in a railroad accident; of his attempts to transfer Shakespeare’s house and Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks from England to New York; and of his triumphant reentry into public life after financial failure and five disastrous fires had all but wiped him out. The true-life tale of a man of boundless imagination and indomitable energy, Barnum’s autobiography embodies the spirit of America’s most exciting boom years.

Fakers: An Insider's Guide to Cons, Hoaxes, and Scams

In this era of daily online hoaxes, it’s easy to be caught off-guard. Fakers arms kids with information, introducing them to the funniest, weirdest, and most influential cons and scams in human history. Profiles of con artists will get readers thinking about motivation and consequence, and practical tips will help protect them from falsehoods. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is–except in the case of this book!

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News

Has the hoax now moved from the sideshow to take the center stage of American culture?

The award-winning poet and critic Kevin Young traces the history of the hoax as a peculiarly American phenomenon–the legacy of P. T. Barnum’s “humbug” culminating with the currency of Donald J. Trump’s “fake news.” Disturbingly, Young finds that fakery is woven from stereotype and suspicion, with race being the most insidious American hoax of all. He chronicles how Barnum came to fame by displaying figures like Joice Heth, a black woman whom he pretended was the 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington, and “What Is It?,” an African American man Barnum professed was a newly discovered missing link in evolution.

Bunk then turns to the hoaxing of history and the ways that forgers, plagiarists, and frauds invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from the pretend Native Americans Grey Owl and Nasdijj to the deadly imposture of Clark Rockefeller, from the made-up memoirs of James Frey to the identity theft of Rachel Dolezal. This brilliant and timely work asks what it means to live in a post-factual world of “truthiness” where everything is up for interpretation and everyone is subject to a contagious cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art.

Hoax: Hitler's Diaries, Lincoln's Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds

Did a collector with a knack for making sensational discoveries really find the first document ever printed in America? Did Adolf Hitler actually pen a revealing multi-volume set of diaries? Has Jesus of Nazareth’s burial cloth survived the ages? Can the shocking true account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination be found in lost pages from his murderer’s diary?

Napoleon famously observed that “history is a set of lies agreed upon,” and Edward Steers Jr. investigates six of the most amazing frauds ever to gain wide acceptance in this engrossing book. Hoax examines the legitimacy of the Shroud of Turin, perhaps the most hotly debated relic in all of Christianity, and the fossils purported to confirm humanity’s “missing link,” the Piltdown Man. Steers also discusses two remarkable forgeries, the Hitler diaries and the “Oath of a Freeman,” and famous conspiracy theories alleging that Franklin D. Roosevelt had prior knowledge of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor and that the details of Lincoln’s assassination are recorded in missing pages from John Wilkes Booth’s journal.

The controversies that Steers presents show that there are two major factors involved in the success of a hoax or forgery — greed and the desire to believe. Though all of the counterfeits and conspiracies featured in Hoax have been scientifically debunked, some remain fixed in many people’s minds as truth. As Steers points out, the success of these frauds highlights a disturbing fact: If true history fails to entertain the public, it is likely to be ignored or forgotten.

Ponzimonium: How Scam Artists Are Ripping off America

Fortunately, more than ever before, con artists are being apprehended and prosecuted.  Federal, state and local law enforcement officials have reported enormous increases in tips and criminal activity since the economic calamity began in 2008.  Cash redemptions are dangerous for Ponzi schemes, because when the money runs out, folks start talking.  For example, at any one time, enforcement staff at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) are investigating anywhere between 750 and 1,000 individuals or entities for various violations of the law.  Increases in tips and fraud cases have also occurred at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in the states, and various localities around the world.   The stories in this book are actual CFTC cases stemming from investigations that began with the economic downturn. These are real cases, real fraudsters, with unfortunately . . . very real victims.  While, the fundamental nature of the writing in such files is, as you would imagine, very bureaucratic:  this script is anything but bureaucratic.

Commissioner Chilton has worked in public service for over a quarter of a century and has found that one of the most important things that can be done is to make government less puzzling and perplexing, less mysterious, and yes, less bureaucratic.  While Commissioner Chilton can’t say there has been any monumental change in how folks see their government, over the years, Commissioner Chilton continues to try and do his part by communicating in a way that lets folks “in” on what is going on.  This writing is an effort to continue that work.  Commissioner Chilton hopes it will be a satisfying read, but more importantly, maybe some folks will avoid the tremendous tragedy that so many of our fellow citizens have endured.

Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today's RIP-Off Artists

Former con artist Frank Abagnale’s new book is about the very latest tricks that today’s scammers, hackers, and con-artists use to steal your money and personal information. Using plain language and vivid examples, Abagnale reveals: the type of photo you should never post on social media; the conditions under which you should use WiFi networks at the airport; the best way to protect your phone from being hacked and more. Explaining his simple rules to protect yourself, Abagnale also makes use of his insider intel to paint a picture of cyber-crimes that haven’t become widespread yet.

Ripped off Madoff and the Scamming of America

Compares and contrasts what Bernie Madoff did with other Ponzi schemes throughout history. An additional documentary, Crash: The Next Great Depression? looks at the current financial crisis in the U.S. and compares and contrasts it with what led up to the Great Depression, its immediate aftermath, and the efforts that helped the country break free from it. Includes interviews

Seeing Through Internet Hoaxes

Due to today’s nonstop news cycle and the omnipresence of the internet, the search for facts can be more difficult than ever. A rumor or untruth can be shared at the touch of a button. This volume analyzes the various types of hoaxes that appear online and in the news, providing readers with a comprehensive set of tools to discover whether or not a story, image, or quotation is true. Hoaxes covered range from the historical Piltdown Man to the recent Pizzagate. This book fosters critical thinking and media literacy skills that can be applied to content of all kinds.

The Boldest Hoax

For 40 years, a fossil skull discovered in Piltdown, England, was hailed as the missing link between humans and apes. Then in 1953, new scientific tests revealed the shocking truth – Piltdown Man was a fake!

For 40 years, a fossil skull discovered in Piltdown, England, was hailed as the missing link between apes and humans. Then, in 1953, new scientific tests revealed the shocking truth– “Piltdown Man” was a fake! But who could have perpetrated the hoax?With more red herrings and false trails than an Agatha Christie whodunit, The Boldest Hoax digs into intriguing new clues from archives at the Natural History Museum, and delves into the skulduggery and national pride that led a handful of faked bones to hoodwink a generation of leading scientists

Web of Deceit: Misinformation and Manipulation in the Age of Social Media

For all its amazing benefits, the worldwide social media phenomenon–epitomized by such sites as Facebook, Myspace, eBay, Twitter, and craigslist–has provided manipulative people and organizations with the tools (and human targets) that allow hoaxes and con games to be perpetrated on a vast scale. In this eye-opening follow-up to her popular 2002 book, Web of Deception, Anne P. Mintz brings together a team of expert researchers, journalists, and subject experts to explain how misinformation is intentionally spread and to illuminate the dangers in a range of critical areas. Web of Deceit is a must-read for any internet user who wants to avoid being victimized by liars, thieves, and propagandists in the age of ubiquitous social media.