The internet hoax is a special category of online selfhoods that garners nearly four million results when you google it, more than four times as many as “internet troll”. Many of the results concern Nigerian scammers and the like. But some are about the imposters, the elaborate fictional characters presented as real to garner sympathy, money or attention. Such imposters have existed through history. But the internet has vastly amplified the efficiencies for getting their hoaxes an audience.
One of the most memorable and enduring hoaxes is kiddofspeed.com, a website documenting the raven-haired young Elena’s lone motorcycle rides through the radioactive exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl. When the website first appeared early in 2004, it was charmingly illiterate and mostly contained images scanned from readily available coffee table books.
But when Slashdot.com posted a link to Elena’s Mad Max sojourns, it hit a global internet nerve. Although – or, perhaps, because -- a generation had grown up since Chernobyl spewed the radiation equivalent of 20 Hiroshima bombs around the globe, the kiddofspeed link went viral. Emailed countless times, it funneled tens of millions of viewers, making it the most-visited site on Angelfire.com. Discussions about Elena buzzed in the still-novel social networks forming on motorcycle and urban explorer websites, garnering not a few raunchy comments about her undeniable beauty.
I thought this biker chick, barreling around the radioactive no-man’s lands, alone, on her Kawasaki would be a great character for my book. But when I asked Rimma Kyselytsia, a zone guide, about her, she said it was all a lie. Elena had never ridden a motorcycle in the zone. “Elena’s” name was, in fact, Lena Filatova and she visited the zone for the first time – in a car and not a motorcycle – two weeks after the original website appeared.
And everyone in the zone was pissed off about it. Officials demanded to know who let Elena ride around on a motorcycle, which isn’t allowed. Producers wanting to make movies about Elena’s “heroism” pestered Rimma with phone calls. Confused checkpoint guards had to turn back Norwegian biology teachers on bicycles who wanted unlimited passes like Elena’s. But it was all fiction – and a fun story I ended up doing for the Los Angeles Times.
Rimma showed me the paperwork requesting that a car and driver pick up Lena Filatova, her husband, Igor, at an address on the outskirts of Kiev and drive them to Chernobyl for a standard tour. “She carried a motorcycle helmet and her husband took pictures of her in different places,” said Rimma, who was their guide. The site was updated after their trip and entirely rewritten with the assistance of some of Elena’s new English-speaking admirers worldwide. It maintained, however, the fiction of the motorcycle trips.
In fact, little if any of the Chernobyl site was Lena’s work. “She didn’t say much,” Rimma recalled. “She was only there to pose for the pictures. Her husband ran the show.” Igor was also the biker in the family, not Lena, and probably the real person behind the “Elena” username that appeared on a Kawasaki forum at the time. The Elena username said that it was the Elena from the Chernobyl website and everyone believed it. But aside from posting a good deal of bunk about Chernobyl, that “Elena” was actually far more interested in motorcycles than the real life Lena Filatova. In fact, I have no doubt that the Internet Elena of the 2004 Chernobyl period was actually Igor Filatov. (from whom she divorced soon afterwards).
Perhaps that’s why she never returned any of my calls and was “not home” the day that I called on the address Rimma had given me. But it was an early lesson for me of how members of online communities become so vested in the reality of individuals they know only by username and what they chose to tell. Here, a bunch of dudes clung to their belief in (and major hots for) a beautiful Ukrainian biker chick who was actually a bunch of photos being played by her husband.
They vilified me when I joined the Kawasaki forum to ask “Elena” questions about her story, Some accused me of being KGB and persecuting Elena for telling the truth about Chernobyl. With only a few exceptions, their loyalty to their imaginary internet friend was astonishingly stubborn. Not surprisingly, the Kawasakis considered me a troll and soon banned me.
After my story about Lena appeared , kiddofspeed was amended to admit to some “poetry”. But for years afterwards, words waged over whether it mattered if the motorcycle story was true, since the photos were real and the website drew global attention to Chernobyl. A thread discussing it on an urban explorer forum got nearly 200,000 views. It was then that I realized that for many people, even if they knew that kiddofspeed was a hoax, it was “true enough”.
And so, long after the debunking and the debates have died down, and their discussion board threads archived, the Chernobyl biker chick endures. People still mention her to me and are surprised to hear that it was a hoax, even seven years later after the fraud was exposed. Google “Chernobyl” and kiddofspeed is right there, on the first page, though I would not recommend using it as a scientific guide but rather as a symbol of what can pass for truth on the web.