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Out-of-line pranksters take cover online

A telephone prankster posing as a sprinkler company employee caused havoc Saturday morning at an Arkansas Holiday Inn when he convinced an employee to set off the hotel's fire alarm, smash windows, shut down electricity, and break a sprinkler head that flooded the building lobby. The bizarre incident is detailed in a report prepared by the Conway Police Department, which, as seen below, photographed the aftermath of the June 6 incident2009

Last February, a frantic call came through to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Manchester, N.H., at the height of the lunchtime rush.

It was from corporate headquarters and it was urgent: A toxic chemical had been released through the restaurant's sprinkler system.

Employees were told to strip down and urinate on each other to neutralize the chemical.

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If they did not, everyone would die.

"I need you to be strong, I need you to be brave," a man named Jeff Anderson told his panicked staff in Manchester.

"You need to do exactly what I say," he urged, in a faint Southern drawl.

And so they did.

Police pulled in half an hour later to a bizarre scene: Naked women, doused in each other's urine, milling about the parking lot.

There was no trace of the chemical. As it turned out, there was no Jeff Anderson.

The entire call had been a hoax, orchestrated by "Dex," a twentysomething Canadian prankster, who now finds himself at the centre of a controversy that highlights how our definitions of humour are evolving in a digital age, where the Internet provides anonymity and encourages an inflated sense of importance and extra distance from the consequences of action.

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Increasingly, this is becoming less of a philosophical debate.

This week, a Quebec father thought it was amusing to post a video of his seven-year-old son driving on YouTube until police and child services stepped in. Only then did he acknowledge his mistake.

Dex is the founder of Pranknet, an online chat group where members devise hoaxes and broadcast them live.

Members can listen in, and rate the prank as it's being pulled, with the most popular attaining the status of "epic."

In Pennsylvania, Pranknet called a hotel guest and told him there was a gas leak.

The man was told to smash the window and television screen with a toilet tank lid to prevent an explosion.

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Another man in Nebraska was persuaded to drive his truck through the door of a hotel lobby to deactivate a fire alarm.

A front-desk clerk at another hotel drank a guest's urine, after a Pranknet caller convinced her it was cider, and that the man who brought it - who thought he was providing a urine sample for the hotel doctor - was the representative of an apple juice company.

Is this criminal or comedy?

The question is among many being pondered by authorities in at least a dozen U.S. cities, in at least four states, who are deciding whether Dex should be charged and extradited to the U.S. to face trial.

Prank phone calls, of course, are nothing new. Everyone from Bart Simpson to the Jerky Boys have used prank calls to entertain and sometimes illuminate.

(Recall the Quebec comedy duo who pretended to be French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a prank call to Sarah Palin, who revealed she thought she might make a good president in eight years?)

However, the story of Pranknet points to something different, showing how the Internet has created a new crucible for comedy where it is arguably easier to cross the line into cruelty.

Pranknet used untraceable Skype accounts to route calls creating a shield of anonymity. During live prank broadcasts, members would pass the "mike" around and digitally mask their voices. The calls were bounced off hijacked servers, making it virtually impossible for authorities to trace them.

To what extent should Dex be held responsible for the actions of other members of his chat group? If Pranknet was nothing more than a virtual schoolyard, with different "characters" egging others on, who should be held morally and legally accountable for their consequences: damage, which by some estimates adds up to more than a million dollars?

Meanwhile, Dex, who was outed this week by the Smoking Gun website as Tariq Malik, a 25-year-old Windsor, Ont., man who lives with his mother, is unfazed.

It comes as no surprise, perhaps, that he thinks the controversy is funny. Hilarious even.

"I did this for pure entertainment. I thought it would be funny, where people could laugh. It wasn't malicious in intent. We weren't seeking … to wreak havoc," he said during a series of telephone interviews with The Globe and Mail in recent days.

Dex, who says he is Canadian but not Tariq Malik, argued that his brand of humour does not substantially differ from such comedians as Sacha Baron Cohen, whose characters include Borat, a misogynistic, anti-Semitic Kazakh reporter, and Bruno, a flamboyantly homosexual Austrian fashion reporter, who lure their subjects into embarrassing behaviour.

If Mr. Baron Cohen is a celebrated comedian, what makes Dex a criminal, Dex asks.

Dex would not reveal his real name, nor would he disclose his location, nor would he agree to be interviewed in person, calling from an untraceable Skype account.

He started Pranknet last November, he said, on a lark. "It was created as a place where people could go to laugh," he said.

Jeri Batsford was one of Pranknet's first members and watched it evolve.

She said Pranknet began as a splinter group from another chat room called Appleinsults, where members try to outdo each other with insults, which eventually focused on Dex.

"He said he would start his own room, and that it would be even better, so people followed," Ms. Batsford recalled.

Pranknet's first calls were inspired by radio DJs. One of the earliest pranks was dubbed "smash for cash."

"We would call people up at their homes and pretend to be a radio DJ and tell them they would win $200 if you break a five- or 10-dollar plate," Dex recalled.

The pranks escalated with the chat room's popularity, with membership spiking to nearly 300 as the calls became more and more outrageous.

Smashing dishes evolved into persuading people to smash windows, which led to persuading people to trigger sprinkler systems, which led to fooling people into drinking urine.

Dex explains Pranknet's appeal like this: "People loved any kind of calls that involve damage. I get why people do it. To me, it's just that people love to hear a reaction. The sound of breakage. They get off on it. Something's happening. If you get someone to scream on the phone, that's something happening," he said.

He said his brand of humour had a higher purpose: "One of the purposes is to demonstrate how willing people are to just go ahead and blindly follow instructions," he said.

Does Dex think he crossed the line? "No. Nobody really got hurt," he said.

Ms. Batsford, a 40-year-old woman from Tennessee, is among those who disagree.

She pointed Arkansas authorities to Pranknet, and Dex, after a sprinkler prank she listened in on resulted in more than $50,000 (U.S.) worth of damage.

They also pressed her into pulling a number of pranks. "There's peer pressure. … You don't want to make them mad at you," she said.

When she refused to follow one of their scripts, they banned her from the room and began pulling pranks on her.

"They've ordered my car to be towed, ordered my carpets to be cleaned. They ordered 17 pizzas to my house," Ms. Batsford said.

She wasn't laughing and acted as a source to the Smoking Gun in a seven-week-long investigation which led them to Tariq Malik's front door in Windsor.

"These people believe they are untouchable and untraceable," said Bill Blastone, editor of the Smoking Gun. "We wanted to show that they are not just an anonymous cabal of people."

Dex, for his part, is still underground and says his true identity is still a secret.

Pranknet has been disabled. His Twitter and YouTube accounts have been scrubbed of the pranks he once boasted about.

He is not worried about going to jail, because, he says, nobody can prove a thing.

He is proud of what he's created. The controversy created by The Smoking Gun, will just catapult him to greater fame, he said.

"Pranknet is not a network of criminals; they are everyday people," he said.

"If someone else pulls the prank, I might be on the mike, but it's just my personality. What if people consider me to be one of the funniest? Does that mean I run this? I could be in any chat room and someone else might still use my name because everybody knows it. How does anybody know if it's really me?"

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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