Hoax Diaries Were the Original Deepfakes
Why are we so eager to believe in these intimate, plausible falsehoods?
One by one, the girls got the texts, all from an unknown number: menacing messages, threats and jeers. Worse, videos of them, their faces and bodies, at parties in hot tubs, drinking and smoking with friends. The only thing was, it wasn’t really them.
“That’s not me in the video,” one of the students said adamantly in a news segment about the scandal on Good Morning America. “I thought no one would believe me.”
They were looking at “deepfake” videos, allegedly sent by a woman named Raffaella Spone, a Bucks County, Pennsylvania mom whose teenage daughter was on a rivaling cheerleading squad. Spone, who also goes by Raffaella Innella, had created the videos and sent them to the girls’ cheerleading coaches as well in the hopes that they would get them kicked off their teams.The videos were so realistic that they looked convincing, even though the scenarios—drinking, smoking, nudity—were entirely computer-generated.
Deepfakes—lifelike renderings of real people using AI technology—are increasingly easy to make. They came to prominent attention lately when some convincing videos of a false Tom Cruise went viral on Tik Tok. In an older deepfake of Barack Obama created by Jordan Peele, he slips in an expletive about Donald Trump. It’s thrilling to watch him say it, but there is something eerie about it, like an animated wax figure. Last Christmas, Britain’s Channel 4 issued a deepfake video of Queen Elizabeth alongside her annual Christmas address to warn viewers about fake news. Both issue a challenge to the viewer, first showing how real the videos can look, then urging them to practice skepticism.
False identities and fake news are part of our cultural narrative now. A large swath of the country thinks the “mainstream media” is peddling lies, mistrust in medicine and government is at an all-time high. Complicated, over-the-top stories in the Q-Anon universe—adrenochrome, girls shipped in Wayfair furniture for trafficking, microchips transmitted through vaccines—are taken as fact by a startling number of people. Anonymous sources and masked online personas are a fact of our online lives, increased by a year spent at home behind screens. For a society full of skeptics, we don’t seem to be that capable of sniffing out falsities.
The deepfake phenomenon, with its suspension of belief and its sly, do-it-yourself artistry, reminds me of a hoax diary, a work of fiction that is passed off as an authentic journal. Not to be confused with a memoir, a true hoax diary is somewhat rare—and their outcomes and reception are not always predictable.
Perhaps the most well-known hoax diary is Go Ask Alice, published in 1971, a supposedly anonymous diary that tells the first-hand story of a teenage girl’s rapid descent from a normal suburban girlhood into drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness and ultimately death by overdose. As a middle schooler, I devoured the story, wide-eyed, haunted by the nameless narrator’s demise. The cover called it a “real diary” and the author “Anonymous.” I simply believed these things to be true. And I loved it.
The book’s “editor” was Beatrice Sparks, a Mormon youth therapist who claimed to have been given the diary by a young client. The book was critically lauded and well-received, appearing on the American Library Association’s 1971 “Best Books for Young Adults” list and becoming an international bestseller. Libraries had a hard time keeping enough copies to meet demands for it. In early interviews, Sparks skirted around its origin, though she admitted she didn’t have the original diary. As it turns out, Sparks had written the book entirely, and went on to publish several other moralistic, titillating titles: about a suicidal boy drawn into a satanic cult, a girl seduced by her teacher, a pregnant teen, a teen with AIDS. If Alice was debunked early on, the admission was quiet, resulting only in a disclaimer added to the title page calling it fiction (I must have missed that). Sparks got away with her hoax; the book remains popular and has not gone out of print since it was published. As late as 1995, Nat Hentoff gushed in The Village Voice for Banned Books Week that it was a “powerful account” of addiction without being preachy. Rereading it as an adult, it’s not quite as believable (there is a veritable literary tradition of writers rediscovering it with disappointment), but the fact of its falsity is a part of the story.
On the opposite end of the lurid Go Ask Alice is The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife, the purported diary a woman named Anne Hughes kept from 1796 to 1797. Its content is wholesome, if somewhat banal: conversations with neighbors and conflicts with servants, local events and recipes, and it was first published publicly in 1937 in a serial in the British magazine Farmer’s Weekly. The origin and timeline of that diary is murky. A woman named Jeanne Preston, who said she had been given Hughes’s diary as a young girl, submitted clips she said she had transcribed from the diary. The original was lost, however, possibly lent to an American GI who stayed with Preston and never returned it. Both Preston and the publishing editor died before seeing the diary published as a book—and without providing an explanation for its dicey origins. Despite this, like Go Ask Alice, the diary’s popularity endured, republished several times and even made into a BBC TV drama. To the people who care about Anne Hughes’s diary, it’s agreed that Preston likely added and embellished parts of the book, but the historical value of the diary’s depiction of 18th century farming life is valuable. Its veracity is secondary.
The Hitler Diaries is perhaps the most famous hoax diary, and the one with the direst consequences. In 1983, West German magazine Stern announced a bombshell discovery: sixty small notebooks supposedly written by Adolf Hitler himself, chronicling his rise to power in the 1930s and the execution of the Holocaust (as well as tedious details about flatulence and Eva Braun’s complaints of his halitosis). A journalist, Gerd Heideman, brought the documents to Stern, claiming they had been discovered in the rubble of an airplane crash shortly after World War II. Stern’s editors kept investigations at arm’s length, at Heideman’s insistence that the person who found them needed their identity protected. But once the German Federal Archives began looking deeper into the notebooks, the story fell apart: not only were they false, they were badly forged. The handwriting didn’t match, the materials were contemporary, and many parts seem to be plagiarized from published work. The forger was revealed to be a small-time crook named Konrad Kujau, who went to jail along with Heidemann. The Stern editors who’d been duped resigned from their jobs, too.
In the ‘90s, one of the handwriting experts who debunked the Hitler Diaries helped unveil a fake published diary of James Maybrick, suspected to be Jack the Ripper, just a month before it was set to be published. But I haven’t found much about hoax diary unveilings in the past ten years or so. Maybe the format has simply changed. The Lonelygirl15 hoax fooled the internet when YouTube was newly formed in the early 2000s. Sixteen-year-old Bree made video blogs from her bedroom, which became more and more bizarre as it was revealed that her family was involved in the occult and an evil organization called “The Order.” In 2006, the channel was revealed to be a scripted show created by a Marin County, California amateur filmmaker named Miles Beckett. Around that time, reality television was also part of the zeitgeist, abundant and increasingly scripted—I’m thinking of the 2010 series finale of the teenage reality drama The Hills, in which a final shot pulls away to reveal the walls of a set and a full Hollywood backlot. Over time, perhaps, we’ve come to expect fiction and non-fiction to be blurred and mingled. The internet has given us so much more content to parse through. Plus, though journaling is still prevalent, the tattered physical notebook is less a part of our consciousness.
The false memoir is its own enduring problem, but it’s different. I admire the hoax diary for its own distinct form. There is a particular artistry and trickery in assuming another identity, even the boring and unflattering parts, a deviousness in creating fiction so immersive it claims grit and authenticity. It’s a master class in fiction writing. There is a thrill, too, for readers to believe we have access to a once-private document, to pry into someone’s psyche.
I think the truth is that we want to believe in hoaxes and conspiracies and deepfake videos. I want the video of Barack Obama to be real; I’m searching the Queen’s face for it to match the real thing. There’s a fun in believing in conspiracies, even if they make no sense (how could a microchip be small enough to fit in a vaccine? How could Democrats be organized enough to run a pedophile ring if they can’t even raise the minimum wage?) I think this when I watch Catfish or even 90 Day Fiancé, the reality show that chronicles Americans in relationships with international partners, some of whom aren’t who they seem: they are overly filtered, or gunning for a green card, or one person keeps canceling meetups last minute. I always puzzle over why these people could fool themselves so easily. But self-deception is a survival tool and a comfort. Just like we search a deepfake video or a blog for authenticity, yearning for it, these people are willing to trick themselves to see true love, even where a hoax might lurk. .
In fact, I’d created my own hoax diary in the name of love once. As a middle schooler, inspired by a crush, I filled a spiral notebook with a diary novel based on a character I nicknamed Rainbowgal. She was a cooler kind of avatar of me: she wore a lot of color and skateboarded (I didn’t), was tomboyish yet pretty, free-spirited and unabashed (I wasn’t). Her only downfall, the plot of the story, was that she had a crush on someone with the same initials as a boy I had a crush on, but he wouldn’t notice her. In hindsight, it was an obvious knock-off of Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl and diary novels I’d loved: The Diary of Anne Frank, Harriet the Spy, the Amelia’s Notebook series (an illustrated series first published in American Girl Magazine), Letters from Rifka, and the Dear America series. My diary was illustrated with cartoons and marginalia, each doodle intentional and imbued with a message. I worked on the notebook for weeks, and slipped it into my crush’s desk for him to find. Later, I gave him a birthday card signed “Rainbowgal,” hoping for an explosive connection. Spoiler: that didn’t happen. I’m amazed at the machinations it would have taken to make my plan successful: boy reads captivating diary of a charming stranger and falls in love. Girl is unmasked and revealed to be a regular classmate, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtains manipulating the great big head of the Great and Powerful Oz. Of course, the boy sees that the regular girl is all he’s ever wanted, and they live happily ever after. Even though he’s been fooled, he’s still intrigued—kind of like the millions of teens who devoured Go Ask Alice.
I’m not sure anyone ever read my diary novel. Like famous hoax diaries in history, the original document is missing, thrown out in a fit of humiliation or despair. The crush faded and I moved on. But the memory remained, and the character and story I’d created eclipsed the impetus for it. Some years later in English class we read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a post-modern memoir/fiction about the Vietnam War. At one point, O’Brien concedes that some of the stories the narrator has told are false—but, he says, they are still true: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” This struck my teenage heart deeply.
It was around that time that I found out Go Ask Alice was a deepfake, a hoax diary that had cemented itself in my mind as real, but was a work of fiction. Worse than that, it was propaganda, a product of the War on Drugs to steer young readers away from trouble. I grappled with what this meant, like I’d grappled with the hard truth that The Blair Witch Project was also created in a studio with a script, instead of with a handheld camcorder by terrified teenagers. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. Tom Cruise the person is no more real to me than Tom Cruise the deepfake. Rainbowgal’s imprint is only what I make it. The conspiracies and tall tales of our time will be lore, an emblem of who we were, whether they happened or not. There’s no escaping the truth of it.