4 Trolls Who Fooled the World
As Holden Caulfield was fond of proclaiming, the world is full of phonies. People who pride themselves on having their finger on the pulse of society but wouldn’t know a cultural heartbeat if it blasted them with arterial spray have too much power to call the social shots. It can be tempting to craft a stunt just hilarious enough to amuse those truly in the know while fooling the elites — and some have succeeded.
Everyone Reported the Unjust Layoff of ‘Ligma-Johnson’
It seems both so long ago and just yesterday that Elon Musk bought Twitter (not X, eat it, Musk). There were mass layoffs of thousands of employees, leading to huge glitches in the app while Musk could only walk around holding a sink, begging someone, anyone to tell him he’s funny. It was madness.
Back when all of that was just rumors, though, the media narrowed in on two guys standing outside Twitter headquarters carrying what appeared to be boxes of their belongings. They claimed to be employees who’d just been laid off, which isn’t the sort of thing that makes alarms go off in journalists’ heads, but they should have started blaring after the men introduced themselves as Rahul Ligma and Daniel Johnson. Ligma and Johnson. Ligma-Johnson.
They said a bunch of weird stuff, like invoking Britney Spears’ conservatorship and explaining nonsensically that “Michelle Obama wouldn’t have happened if Elon Musk owned Twitter,” in addition to christening themselves something that should have made anyone under 50 say “oh, come on,” but news organizations as legitimate as CNBC and Bloomberg ran with the story. A few weeks later, once everyone on the relevant social media platform had a good laugh at their expense during the precious hours it was working, Musk even posed for photos with the pair and pretended to hire them back, instantly killing the joke.
A Monkey Fooled Swedish Art Critics
When Pierre Brassau made his debut at a Swedish art gallery in 1964, the critics were floored. The angry splotches of fiery red and electric blue showed “clear determination,” one said, declaring Brassau “an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.” Only one critic was unimpressed by Brassau, complaining that “only an ape could have done this,” but even they had no idea how right they were. “Pierre Brassau” was actually named Peter, and Peter was a monkey.
Although Peter held the brush, the real brains behind Brassau was Swedish journalist Åke Axelsson, who was grumpy about the modern abstract art boom and convinced that critics couldn’t tell the difference between an artist and a chimp. It was the 1960s, so the only thing standing between him and proof of his hypothesis was a 17-year-old zoo employee, who obviously chose the path of most chaos. They allowed Axelsson to sneak some paint and canvases to Peter, initially content to just eat the paint, hence the concentration of cobalt blue in his work (he found that one the most tasty). Even after the prank was exposed, one of Peter’s paintings sold to a private collector for nearly $1,000 in today money, so he was still more successful than 99 percent of artists.
The ‘New York Times’ Published a Nonsense ‘Grunge Speak’ Glossary
By the end of 1992, Seattle music industry insiders were well and truly over the whole “grunge” thing. What had begun as an affectionately derisive description of the distorted guitars and growly vocals that dominated the so-called “Seattle sound” had become everything it stood against: a brand. So when New York Times reporter Rick Marin called Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of quintessential “grunge” record label Sub Pop, requesting (among other things) a lexicon of “grunge” slang, he couldn’t pawn it off fast enough. “I’m having a day where I’m not quick on my feet, (and) I knew you’d have fun with this,” he told a recently laid-off Sub Pop employee, Megan Jasper, before connecting her with Marin.
He was right: Jasper had fielded such requests before, making up ridiculous terms on the spot for journalists eager to report on the “trend.” It had become a big joke, with some Seattle musicians dropping Jasper’s fake slang into interviews. That was small potatoes compared to the New York Times, though, so Jasper went big, providing dumb terms for the trappings of grunge like “fuzz,” “kickers” and “wack slacks,” but most impressively convincing Marin that her peers went around calling “losers” “cob nobblers” while they were “swingin’ on the flippity-flop,” or “hanging out.” It took months for the Times to realize they’d been tricked, and they never even bothered to issue a correction.
On the bright side, this led to Seattle newcomers actually repeating Jasper’s fictional terms, so it became real easy to spot the tom-tom club (“uncool outsiders”).
An Intentionally Terrible Erotic Novel Became a Bestseller
If you think the Fifty Shades of Grey-ification of the publishing industry signals the end of literature, you should have been around in the 1960s. People who had never even seen the word “bosom” in print before were suddenly inundated with the works of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, whose canons mostly dealt with the seedy antics of barely fictionalized Hollywood sleaze.
Like Axelsson with his monkey, Newsday reporter Mike McGrady was disgusted, not by all the sex but the lack of quality descriptions of it. Determined to prove that even the worst drivel vomited into a typewriter could land on the bestseller list if there were enough genitals in it, he assembled a team of 25 colleagues to collaborate on a story with “an unremitting emphasis on sex” in a process where “true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.”
The resulting mess, about a woman who embarks on a series of sexual encounters after learning of her husband’s infidelity, is as disjointed as expected, each chapter written by a different author and rejected by McGrady if it was too good. They titled it Naked Came the Stranger, slapped a naked woman on the cover, and released their dirty baby into the world in summer 1969. By the end of the year, it had spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It only sold even better after the hoax was revealed, a fact that annoyed McGrady, whose career boasted award-winning coverage of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War, until his death in 2012.