It's November 1998. A hot new Hasbro toy called the Furby has just been made widely available, and people are going wild. The talkative creatures are flying off store shelves. They're causing department store stampedes. They’re so widely discussed that they even make it into President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearing the following month. (“The economy is strong, the stock market is great, although some of us still can't get Furbys—so it's not strong enough,” Representative Mary Bono said at the time.)
But under all the Furby fervor lurked some Furby fear. A November 1998 article called the toys “cute, yet vaguely menacing”; another article labeled them "slightly sinister-looking." After the initial excitement wore off, some customers decided that the concept of a lifelike toy with no off switch was a little too creepy to bear. Although the toys proved to be harmless, it didn’t stop a number of Furby-fueled hoaxes and conspiracy theories from circulating in the late '90s, at a time when Y2K anxieties were already high. Looking back now, these six myths seem almost as far-fetched as the Furby craze itself.
Furbys start out speaking a fictional language called Furbish, but with time and interaction, they begin incorporating more English words into their vocabulary. It might seem as if the doll is “learning,” but all of the messages are pre-programmed, with some of the phrases timed to an internal clock. Parents in the ‘90s didn’t know that, though. One Boston-based radio producer told The Wall Street Journal that he kept getting calls from parents who claimed “that Furby was picking up some of their foul language and repeating it in front of the children.” In 2000, one Walmart in Pennsylvania removed some of its Furbys from store shelves after customers complained that the toys had been cursing like sailors. Apparently, the phrase "hug me" sounded like something far filthier.
The general public grossly overestimated how advanced these toys were. Furbys had sensors that allowed them to respond to light, movement, and touch; they could also communicate with other Furbys, thanks to an infrared communication system—all of which was considered pretty cutting-edge at the time. Although the technology wasn't exactly Earth-shattering, it still ended up fueling a number of false rumors and conspiracy theories. "I've been told that we're developing a Furby that can drive a car in the year 2000," Roger Shiffman, the president of Tiger Electronics, a subsidiary of Hasbro, told CBS in 1999. "We've also been told that the current Furby has the technology to launch the space shuttle. We have one woman who is absolutely insistent that her Furby sings Italian operas.”
Another widespread myth was the belief that Furbys could record or repeat conversations. Some of the country’s highest-ranking security officials even fell for it. Concerned that confidential information might be compromised, the NSA, Pentagon, and Norfolk Naval Shipyard banned the toy from each of their premises in 1999. “Personally owned photographic, video, and audio recording equipment are prohibited items,” the NSA wrote in a memo at the time. “This includes toys, such as ‘Furbys,’ with built-in recorders that repeat the audio with synthesized sound to mimic the original.” (Why anyone would want to bring a Furby to work remains an unanswered question. But then again, it was the ‘90s.) The rumors got so bad that Shiffman had to issue a statement to dispel them. “Although Furby is a clever toy, it does not record or mimic voices,” he said. “The NSA did not do their homework. Furby is not a spy!”
Around the same time that national security officials were discussing the possibility that Furby might be a foreign spy, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was also doing its part to protect the American people from a Furby-led hijacking. Travelers were prohibited from using CD players and laptops during take-offs and landings, and the FAA soon added Furbys to the list of restricted items. At the time, it was believed that Furbys might interfere with the plane’s equipment. Speaking to CBS in January 1999, one aviation safety consultant said he thought the new protocol might be a tad extreme. "I can just see the announcement being made: 'Turn off your laptops, put away your Gameboys, and don't play with your Furby,’” he said.
Furbys were banned from some wards of a hospital in Scotland out of fear that the toys' low-level electromagnetic waves would interfere with medical devices. (One dean at the University of Calgary also expressed concern that Furbys might confuse voice-activated medical equipment: "Let’s say the Furby hears the doctor saying ‘begin procedure 305’ or something like that," the dean said. "[The Furby] plays it again and all of a sudden you find radiation is being shot into some poor person.")
In response, the Emergency Care Research Institute conducted an investigation and found no such danger. The Canadian government’s health ministry carried out a similar study and reached the same conclusion. The latter study “revealed that the electric and magnetic fields given off by the ear wiggling, eye blinking, fuzzy creature are about 70 times weaker than those emitted by a digital telephone and are ‘very unlikely’ to affect the performance of medical devices."
As if a wide-eyed, incoherently babbling, Gremlin-like creature weren’t gruesome enough, rumors surfaced in the late ‘90s that Furbys were covered in actual pet fur. Someone went to the trouble to create a fake Humane Society press release which claimed that Furby samples had “tested positive for feline and canine DNA.” The statement, which lambasted the makers of Furby for animal cruelty, was sent to a number of media outlets. The animal welfare organization had to release a statement explaining that it wasn’t behind the previously released statement. Tiger Electronics also had some explaining to do. “It’s 100 percent acrylic,” a company spokesperson said of the toy's fur. “Yep, a lot of acrylics were killed in the name of Furbys.”