By Deborah Whitehead
An April Fool’s hoax last month involving Joel Osteen received a great deal of media attention. A Minnesota man spent $12 and five hours to register a domain name on April 1 that closely resembled the real website for Joel Osteen Ministries, http://www.joelostenministries.com (note the single “e”). He designed the fake website to closely resemble the original and posted a “Special Announcement: I am leaving the Christian faith” along with a photo of Osteen. The post continued: “many of my sermons have deviated from traditional Christian doctrine. I have been accused of altering the ‘message’ to fit my own doctrine and dogma. Others have accused me of preaching ‘feel good Christianity’. I have also been accused of profiting greatly from my ministry, with my books and television deals. Many of [these] criticisms are legitimate.” It went on to state, in a gasp-inducing reveal, that Osteen had been questioning his faith for years, no longer believed that the Bible was true or that Jesus Christ was the son of God, and stated that he believed the “God of the Bible” was a “fictional character,” like Osteen himself.
The announcement was backed up by a YouTube video that featured screenshots of the website and doctored CNN and Drudge Report headlines appearing to confirm the news, played over ominous-sounding music; a fake “Christianity News Texas” blog post on April 2 that reported on the “Special Announcement”; and a corresponding fake Twitter account @PastorJoelOsten. The “Special Announcement” quickly received over a million page views and was reported on (if sometimes hesitatingly, as “unconfirmed”) by NPR, ABC News, the Huffington Post, New York Daily News, the Houston Chronicle, and many other local news outlets and blogs. The earliest official denial came from the real Joel Osteen’s Twitter account on April 8 in response to a tweet: “It is a false rumor. Pastor Joel is not leaving the church. – JOM Team,” it read. The media coverage then shifted to reporting on the hoax: “Pastor Joel Osteen Is the Target of a Complex Online Hoax,” read the earliest national news headline, NPR’s on April 8. This was followed by several other national and local reports.
Osteen appeared on Good Morning America on April 9 to declare, “All is well. I still have my faith, nothing has changed. I’m really not angry, I don’t feel like a victim, I feel too blessed, that life is too short to let things like this get you down.” The GMA report framed Osteen’s response as “true to form,” “turning the other cheek,” and “spinning this bit of adversity as part of his core message” of “choosing joy.” But why target Osteen, the reporters still wondered? The “hoaxer” was revealed as Justin Tribble, sometime freelance journalist, when he came forward for several public interviews on April 10, including one for GMA, where he said he had conducted a “media campaign,” not a hoax, and urged Osteen to “tone down the cliches and get real.” Of Tribble’s interviews, the most revealing was a radio spot with a local Minnesota station. When asked what he did and why, Tribble responded that he was “trying to get a message” to Osteen: “Take a step back, Joel. Take a step back from your money, take a step back from the books, look inside yourself, what are you doing?” Though Osteen is admittedly “really good at what he does,” Tribble continued, “this man is basically taking the mantle from Billy Graham, the greatest televangelist of all time.”
The issue, then, for Tribble seems to be one of media visibility and public perception of a powerful religious leader like Osteen, who has become in many ways the “figurehead of Christianity” in the United States and taken the mantle of “America’s evangelist” from Billy Graham, also, of course, one of the most famous and media-savvy religious leaders and public figures of the 20th century. Tribble is critical of Osteen for becoming so much of a media presence in U.S. Christianity that he threatens to overshadow Jesus himself. He hopes that others will question Osteen and his “Christianity-lite” message (something that Osteen has long been criticized for). Asked if it was “fair” for him to “mislead” people by a false communication, Tribble reasoned: “The point is not me. I look at it this way. God is using me probably in some capacity, I don’t know how. The issue is Joel Osteen, we need to examine this man.”
So Joel Osteen is not losing his religion. But what does this particular story tell us about hoaxes and authenticity online? First, whether something may acquire the public stature of a media phenomenon is a matter largely out of the creator’s hands, having little to do with skill, planning, or timing. Even the fact that media sources declared it a “hoax” rather than Tribble’s preferred “media campaign” made it into a different type of story than intended. Further, news outlets repeatedly characterized Tribble’s hoax as “elaborate” (and therefore more convincing), but he vehemently denied this characterization in interviews. “I literally did not expect anything to really happen,” Tribble said. “I wasn’t even paying attention and I found out along with everyone else this had gone viral. This was not ‘elaborate,’ by any means. Anybody can put anything up on the internet. Whether you want something to go viral or not is not in your control, it’s in the public’s control.”
Second, authenticity online is often self-referential, and its sources self-authenticating. Bolter and Grusin’s influential study of “remediation” makes the point that media sources are constantly interacting with one another in a web of self-justifying logic, particularly new media. It was the combination of the fake website, Twitter account, YouTube video, and blog, and the real news outlets that then picked the story up as newsworthy and continued to spread it, in other words the self-justifying logical circularity of “news” and an (at least initial) inability for users to distinguish between credible news outlets and non-credible ones, that contributed to the plausibility of the announcement.
Third, a good hoax hovers on the edge of believability. A well-crafted prank should have a solid media penetration (multiple and interlinked sources) and just enough of a connection to reality to make it seem credible. In the case of Osteen, for all his likability, positive message, good looks, and 15 best selling books, perhaps he retains enough of the suspicion Americans have around public religious figures since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s to seem slightly questionable. According to Tribble, “I also think it’s telling that so many people believed the hoax. Do you think people would believe Billy Graham rejected Christianity? No, because he’s a man we all know to be consistent and of extraordinary character. The fact this was so readily believed by people suggested to me, in the backs of their minds, Osteen seems a little sketchy to them.”
The fake websites were all taken down after a day or two, the Twitter account suspended and the YouTube video removed, and the Osteen hoax story was over in a few days, but Tribble has maintained a blog, called Christianity News Texas: The Original Joel Osteen Hoax Site, in which he explains his reasons for the hoax and links to various interviews. Osteen seems to have forgiven and forgotten, but what’s next for Tribble? He’ll continue to maintain his website, pressure Osteen to “tone down the cliches.” But, he concludes, “I don’t have much hope, though. It’s hard to compete with a guy who tells people, ‘Pray to God, He’ll give you goodies.'”
A longer version of this essay was published in Religion Dispatches on 5/6/2013, “Scope Bacon, Twttr Hoaxes, and Joel Osteen’s Big Reveal”