Though people generally are well-meaning and capable of acting with common sense, there are times when they become gullible or act viciously. Hoaxes and scams are such incidents in which anyone without the right awareness, or who is looking for an easy solution, would believe anything. Another example being incidents which involve rowdy crowds that soon turn into an uncontrollable frenzy sometimes resulting in terrible consequences. Some of these incidents are funny, some might make us feel indignant, and others leave us in shock. Here are some examples of these acts of mass stupidity.
1. In 1957, when the BBC had broadcast a hoax news report about how spaghetti was grown from trees, hundreds of viewers called to find out more information and ask how to grow a “spaghetti tree” themselves.
On April Fools’ Day of 1957, the BBC’s current affairs program Panorama showed the footage of a family in southern Switzerland gathering a successful spaghetti harvest from a tree. It was during a traditional “Harvest Festival” and there was a discussion on how to breed the strain that would produce spaghetti of perfect length. The hoax was the idea of the show’s cameraman, Charles de Jaeger, who remembered how his teachers teased his classmates for being so stupid that they would believe, if they were told, that spaghetti grew on trees.
The footage was made more authentic because of the voice-over by Richard Dimbleby, a respected broadcaster. In the 1950s, pasta was not a regular dish in Britain and most people only knew it from eating it in cans with tomato sauce. An estimated eight million viewers watched the show. The next day, hundreds of them called the BBC to question the story’s authenticity or to ask for further instructions on cultivating spaghetti. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”(source)
2. In the 1850s, a Xhosa prophetess in South Africa prophesied that if the tribe destroyed their crops and killed all their cattle, the spirits would sweep the English settlers into the sea. The tribe obeyed and it resulted in famine, killing tens of thousands.
Born in 1841, Nongquawuse was an orphan and raised by her uncle who also acted as an interpreter and organizers of her visions. In April 1856, she claimed that the spirits of her ancestors had appeared to her. She also claimed that the spirits told her that the Xhosa people should kill their cattle, destroy their crops, the source of their wealth as well as their food. In return for their sacrifice, the spirits would destroy the British settlers. Except for a minority, the entirety of Xhosa nation went into a cattle-killing frenzy following the prophecy.
Nongquawuse claimed that the spirits’ promise would be fulfilled on February 18, 1857. When nothing happened, her followers initially blamed those who did not obey her instructions. But, soon they came to blame her. In the aftermath, the population fell from 105,000 to 27,000 because of the resulting famine. Nongquawuse was handed over to a British army officer and was released after a period of time.(source)
3. In 1958, Mao introduced a campaign which prompted the Chinese to kill millions of sparrows to alleviate the pest problem they posed. By 1960, the population of locusts and other crop-eating insects ballooned contributing to the Great Chinese Famine that killed over 20 million people.
As part of the economic and social campaign called the “Great Leap Forward,” Mao introduced the “Four Pests Campaign.” The campaign’s purpose was to eradicate mosquitoes responsible for malaria, rodents for plague, pervasive flies, and sparrows for eating grain seed and fruit. The citizens would bang pots, pans, or drums to scare away the sparrows so that they would not have the chance to rest. As a result, many sparrows dropped dead due to exhaustion. People would also destroy their nests, eggs, and chicks. Some even resorted to shooting the birds from the sky.
When many of the sparrows took refuge in the Polish embassy and the Chinese were not allowed inside, the building was surrounded with people with drums. After two days of constant drumming, there were so many dead sparrows that the Poles had use shovels to clear them. According to Radio Peking, over three million sparrows were killed in Peking alone. As a result, the rice crop yields instead of increasing, decreased substantially.
The campaign was so fierce and on such massive scale that it contributed to an ecological imbalance in China along with other activities as part of the Great Leap Forward campaign. With no sparrows to eat them, the locust population increased. By 1960, the officials realized the sparrows didn’t just eat the grains, they also ate a large number of insects.(source)
4. A man claiming to be a police officer over phone calls convinced the managers of over 70 restaurants and stores to strip search their female employees. The scams happened over a period of 10 years until 2004, and such calls were reported in 30 US states.
The first reports on such calls were in 1992 in North Dakota and Nevada. Since then, various fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Applebee’s, and Taco Bell, and grocery stores such as Winn-Dixie received phone calls from a man claiming to be a police officer or other authority figure. He would contact a manager or a supervisor to solicit their help in detaining a female employee or customer for a suspected crime. In one incident at McDonald’s in Leitchfield, Kentucky, the female manager undressed in front of a customer as the caller convinced her that the customer was a suspected sex offender and she would serve as a “bait” so that the police can arrest him.
In another incident at Taco Bell in Juneau, Alaska, the manager undressed a 14-year-old female customer and forced her to perform lewd acts as the caller convinced him it was to investigate drug abuse. In 2003, at McDonald’s in Hinesville, Georgia, the female manager was made to strip-search a female employee in a bathroom and to bring in another male employee to conduct body cavity search of the woman for hidden drugs.
During one such incident in 2004, one of the employees realized the call was fraudulent and called the police leading to the arrest of David Richard Stewart, an employee of Corrections Corporation of America. Though he was suspected, he was never charged for the scams because of lack of direct evidence. Several lawsuits and sexual offense charges were filed against the managers and restaurants by the victims, some of whom had to undergo PTSD.(source)
5. In the 1980s, A&W sold 1/3-pound burgers to rival McDonald’s 1/4-pound burgers at the same price. But customers preferred McDonald’s because they thought 1/3 is a smaller fraction than 1/4, and so they were getting less meat.
After McDonald’s success with Quarter-Pounder burgers in 1972, A&W decided to capitalize on that by introducing one-third-pound burger at the same price. Not only did they offer more meat, but in blind taste tests, they also scored much higher. Though the customers preferred A&W’s flavor over McDonald’s in the blind test, the sales never went up. When they ordered tests and focus groups, they found that half the people who preferred McDonald’s thought they were being overcharged for a third-of-a-pound burger.(source)
6. In 1637, people in Netherlands were so obsessed with tulips that a single bulb was exchanged for a ton of butter, 1,000 lbs of cheese, or 12 sheep. Eventually, it got to the point when people paid 10 times the annual wage of a skilled craftsman for one tulip.
The “Tulip Mania,” as it is often referred to, was a period during the Dutch Golden Age that is considered the first recorded speculative bubble or economic bubble. Tulips were first introduced in 1554 in Vienna from the Ottoman Empire and were soon distributed to Augsburg, Antwerp, and Amsterdam from there. The saturated intense petal color of tulips was very uncommon in Europe until then. It was considered a status symbol, and at this time coincided with the rise of Holland’s trade fortunes.
Tulips became a coveted luxury item and during the 17th century, the tulip market was one of the most notable futures markets. Tulip mania reached its peak in the winter of 1636-37, and by February 1637, the prices dramatically fell.(source)
7. In April 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombings, over 3,000 Redditors joined a subreddit to crowdsource and “identified” the bomber as an American student who went missing in March. His body was found a few days after the actual bombing suspects were officially identified and apprehended.
Sunil Tripathi, an undergraduate student at Brown University, went missing on March 16, 2013. His family uploaded a video on YouTube and set up a Facebook page to help search for him. The day after the Boston Marathon bombing, a Redditor created a subreddit to consolidate information surrounding the events in order to identify the culprit. By April 17, 3,000 people joined the subreddit to crowdsource the investigation. After the FBI released pictures of suspects, a Redditor named Sunil was named as a plausible suspect after noticing a resemblance. Though there were rules prohibiting naming suspects without evidence, the moderators, being inexperienced and overwhelmed by the number of posts, did not delete the post.
Soon people began to try contacting Tripathi’s family and posted angry messages on the Facebook page. The same day, the real bombers shot and killed a police officer. The next day, a Redditor and a Buzzfeed reporter tweeted naming Tripathi as the primary suspect and it received mainstream media attention. On April 23, he was found dead, floating in the Seekonk River behind Wyndham Garden Providence hotel. The cause of death was confirmed by the family as suicide.(source)
8. During the Y2K scare, several fringe groups and individuals believed it to be the end of the world and advocated survivalist strategies. People prepared for an apocalypse and stocked up on food and other things necessary for survival.
While the government and companies dependent on computers were trying to fix the millennium bug, several fringe fundamentalist religious organizations, survivalists, cults, communes, and conspiracy theorists were making use of the fear to further their interests. According to the New York Times, Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested Y2K to be the confirmation of Christian prophecy and advised stocking up on food and guns. Some prominent Christian ministries and leaders also generated income by selling Y2K preparation kits, survival guides, generators, published prophecies, and other merchandise.(source)
9. In 2000, a British pediatrician was forced to flee her home when some local residents mistook her job title to mean she was a pedophile and vandalized her house.
Yvette Cloete was working as a trainee consultant at the Royal Gwent Hospital, Newport, South Wales, when the incident happened. A group of vigilantes who mistook her for a pedophile painted and sprayed graffiti on her windows with the word “paedo” while she was away late at night. Previously similar attacks have happened following anti-pedophile protests and a naming-and-shaming-of-sex-offenders campaign by News of the World.(1, 2)
10. In 2008, a horde of Black Friday shoppers crushed a Walmart employee to death as they smashed through the front doors. The cops who were trying to perform CPR were also trampled on by the crowd desperate for the discounts.
Anticipating huge crowds, some of the employees of Long Island’s Walmart formed a human chain at 5 a.m. when the store opened. However, that couldn’t stop the throng. Soon, 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour was toppled and the crowd began walking over him. The crowd started jumping barricades and breaking down the doors. Damour’s colleagues had to fight to get through the crowd, and by that time he was already in grave condition. The paramedics tried pumping his chest, but he died of heart attack at 6:03 a.m. When the police and employees tried to tell the crowd they had to leave because an employee had died, some of the people yelled, “I’ve been in line since Friday morning!” and continued shopping. A few other people, including eight months pregnant woman, sustained injuries.(source)