Friday, July 20, 2012

How to become an internet sleuth.

I read a crazy and humorous article this evening. It lead me on a bit of an adventure. I enjoy being critical about what I see, hear, and read about and this took me on a satisfying journey of cyber-sleuthing to find out whether I could believe what I was reading.

First off, here is the article:

The alleged newspaper article.
The article is pretty darn funny. But is it too funny? Could the husband of a former beauty queen really be that stupid? Would everyone involved really let it all go on for six months? What are the chances of two sterile men getting involved in such a hilarious turn of events? Most importantly, is it possible that this is actually just a joke that has ended up being copypasta'd far and wide across the internet without context? Let's see.

The best tool in the armchair skeptic's kit is the internet itself.

For a start, I tried to google the names of the people involved to see whether I could find out more about this article. Finding some extra court documents or official records would be pretty great. No luck. All I could find were exact replications or commentaries on this original article. This in itself does not look so good for the truth of the story as a joke is more likely to be spread uncritically.

However, I did notice that some websites were offering the story alongside a photo of Traute. That's somewhere to start!

Traute... is that you?

I tried googling the name of the model, 'Traute Soupolos', and narrowed it to a google image search. She's a famous beauty queen / model, she must have loads of pictures, right? Wrong. All I could find was the same image repeated multiple times (or irrelevant images). It's not looking good that Traute's portfolio only seems to contain one image. She should fire her PR person.

Further investigation on the usage of this photo revealed that the beautiful, bikini-clad Traute Soupolos is in fact a Mexican beauty queen, Laura Zuniga. Zuniga got into the news when she was arrested at a military checkpoint along with some other naughty fellows who were driving a truck filled with guns and money.

Searching for key names in the original article but adding "hoax" on the end (it amazes me that people don't do this more) lead me to discover one or two other people also investigating this article's veracity. One of them provided the source: it was first published by Jet magazine in 1978 (click to see for yourself). In fact, the current article making the rounds is an exact copy of the original story.

Wikipedia says that Jet, "contains fashion and beauty tips, entertainment news, dating advice, political coverage, health tips, and diet guides, in addition to covering events such as fashion shows." Although there may be a chance that this article was a piece of original, hard-core journalism, there is the chance that it was originally posted without proper confirmation of its truth purely for entertainment value.

One person who investigated the article also says, "I figured that since [the original story came from] Stuttgart, Germany, that it would be easy enough to find - the article mentions court documents. Not Speigel, not even local Stuttgart newspapers had ever heard of any Soupolos, let alone a Demetrius or Traute and while there are plenty of Franks, there was not a single Frank Maus anywhere.

The story wasn't picked up by any major media and isn't available online at any reputable source, although it did get Farked."

So, we know certain things:

1) The original source is not necessarily a bastion of die-hard journalism and places a high value on entertainment.
2) The story is mostly spread uncritically without proper attribution.
3) False additions have been made to the story, in some cases, such as the photo of "Traute".
4) No additional information about the people in this story or the legal aspect to the case is readily available.

A fifth and more subjective observation is that the ongoing value of this story appears to be in humour rather than because of the intellectual or legal aspect of the Soupolos' unfortunate situation.

Hoax. What was probably intended originally as comedy has now entered the status of urban legend and appears to be taken seriously (and propagated) by some readers earning it the title of 'hoax'.