April Fool's Day was one week ago but an elaborate hoax targeting Pastor Joel Osteen gained wide attention Monday, after those behind the hoax used Twitter, YouTube, and other social media to spread spurious claims that the pastor had renounced his faith and would close his huge Texas church.
Update at 12:15 p.m. ET, Tuesday: Man Behind Hoax Describes Motives, Public Response
But the story isn't true, according to The Houston Chronicle, which reports that "Lakewood Church officials are aware of the hoax and 'false rumor,'" quoting church representative Andrea Davis.
And on Osteen's Twitter feed this morning, the pastor's staff responded to a question about the story by writing, "It is a false rumor: Pastor Joel is not leaving the church." It now seems that that rather enigmatic tweet may have set off more interest in the fake story Monday than had been generated when the hoax was hatched last week.
To perpetrate the hoax, a convincing media "bubble" was constructed, complete with a fake Twitter feed (that's now been suspended) and a website that duplicated the look of Osteen's actual site but with one "e" in the pastor's last name in the URL address. The website was not available for part of Monday afternoon, seemingly a victim not of punitive action but of over-loaded servers.
The fake site featured a letter titled "I am leaving the Christian faith," in which the person posing as Osteen thanked his wife, his congregation, "the State of Texas and my close friends, Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, for all of our support over the years."
The hoax was bolstered by a YouTube video that included mock-up images of the websites of CNN, Drudge Report, and Yahoo all with headlines blaring the false news that Osteen had repudiated Christianity. The video was uploaded by "ChristianityNews," via an account that seems to have been set up earlier this month.
The hoax seems to have convinced some folks of the story's legitimacy, as the fake Twitter feed confirmed the news on the fake website. Comments on the video and elsewhere ranged from expressions of sadness to congratulations.
The fake site also included what it claimed were reactions from Osteen's congregation. Here's an example: "'We'll pray for him. He's come under the influence of the Devil,' said Margaret Samson, a twelve-year member of the church."
On Facebook, some of Osteen's actual followers wrote to say they weren't fooled by the hoax, while others sought clarification from the pastor. His social media feeds and verified websites have made almost no mention of the hoax.
A WordPress version of the fake site was taken down Monday afternoon, replaced by a message that its operators had violated their terms of service.
A domain search for the registration of the fake "Osten Ministries" site reveals that it was created on April 1, 2013, and registered to an entity listed as BMG Enterprises in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the time of this post, an email to the contact person listed for the site had not been answered.