Recently, someone in my Facebook news feed shared a video that carried the caption, “Is this real?” It was a newscast from FOX 25 in Boston that cited a German study that found that men who regularly stare at a woman’s breasts have a lower rate of heart problems, a lower resting heart rate, and lower blood pressure. The reporter closes by saying that the study’s authors recommend that men stare at a woman’s breasts for 10 minutes a day.
FOX 25 in Boston did run this story on their newscast back in 2011, but quickly did a mea culpa after viewers pointed out that some version of this internet hoax has been around since 1999. Yet here we are three years after this video aired and 15 years after the original hoax made its way around the internet and some of us are still wondering out loud if it’s true.
Viral videos are all the rage right now. Everyone I know has shared an hilarious or outlandish viral video of some sort. Recently I’ve shared rednecks using a chain link fence gate to shoot off 8,500 fireworks at one time, bad lip-reading of NFL players, and Minions playing soccer. I actually frequent Facebook less and less these days because my 2/3rds of the posts friends share are videos that I don’t have time nor the interest to watch. (Anyone else hate Facebook’s autoplay?) And of those on which I might be interested in wasting a few minutes of my short life, I no longer trust many of them to be authentic thanks to the rise of fake viral videos.
As with all emerging technologies, it takes time for the ability to create new content in a new technology to become ubiquitous. The first thing to become cheap on the internet was email. As a result earliest internet hoaxes were shared via forwarded email from one person to the next. Universities hosted the servers that made up the backbone of the internet. It was a cheap perk for universities to give students free email accounts and those students, fueled with spare time, a penchant for trouble, and long list of friends waiting to be suckered, happily engaged in the popularization of mass-email hoaxes. One of the earliest websites on the internet was Snopes.com dedicated to separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
Despite the almost immediate rise of email hoaxes, fake content generally did not apply to regular web pages. In the early days of the internet, it was really hard to create a website. You had to go to Network Solutions to get a domain name (paying $35 a year), find a provider to host your site (paying an often-steep monthly fee), and have the proper UNIX coding to ensure that when someone typed www.my-awesome-website.com that they ended up in the right place. And then after all that, you had to actually code your content in this language called “HTML” or get someone else to do it for you (along with the opportunity to pay even more $$). A basic website in 1995 easily cost the unexperienced person hundreds or even thousands of dollars to set up the first time. And then you had to maintain it.
Those barriers to entry meant that the content you found online (outside of email) generally had a level of trustworthiness to it. After all, no one wanted to spend that much money or go to that much effort just to play a prank on folks. That reality slowly changed as AOL and other early mass internet providers created the ability of regular people to easily and cheaply create their own web content on the company’s own servers. Soon after, the barrier to creating your own website with your own domain name fell as well giving way to today’s standard where you can now have your own site and content for just a few clicks and even fewer dollars. Now a website content’s trustworthiness is not in the fact that it exists, but is instead based on the brand that runs and maintains it.
This pattern of ‘high trustworthiness due to high barriers of entry’ giving way to ‘low trustworthiness due to low barriers of entry’ is now underway with online video. And it’s not simply because shooting video and posting it online has become easy for anyone with a smartphone to do. It’s also because it has become extremely simple to edit those easily-shot videos into something completely fabricated.
The video that started undermining my faith in the medium was this viral YouTube sensation uploaded back in 2011 showing a man on a security camera struck by lightning twice on the same sidewalk in less than a minute. I was hooked.
The feeling you get later when you learn that something you believed to be real is actually a fake is akin to betrayal. When I saw the man struck by lightning twice, I made an emotional investment by believing what I thought I was seeing and saying to myself, “Wow, that’s amazing.”
Then I went a step further. I shared this video with lots of friends on social media. Soon a kind soul directed me to this video by a visual effects expert with a technical frame-by-frame deconstruction of the original debunking the whole thing. Embarrassed, I deleted it from my social media accounts and swore to myself about how stupid I had been for not checking its authenticity first. Not only had I been betrayed, but now countless people also knew I had been suckered. Anyone who has ever been betrayed by a friend, romantic interest or business associate can attest that it’s bad enough to be betrayed, but worse to know other people watched you waste your trust so easily.
Now there are countless fake viral videos out there that people regularly share believing them to be true such as the clumsy waitress that falls through a window (windows don’t break like that), there’s the kid who lies in between the railroad track rails and driven over by a train (which has been removed from YouTube presumably because of concern over kids actually trying this and dying), the rich girl who freaks out over her dad buying her the wrong color car (a Domino’s Pizza viral campaign), and my favorite, Hamas forgetting to remove the explosive vest before heading off to bury a would-be suicide bomber.
While there is deception and betrayal around us every day, fake viral videos in social media occupy a unique place. They are attractive to people of all ages and stages, they are often difficult to recognize as false, and they are so compelling that they beg to be shared with others. When shared, the lie often turns and bites the person who shared it in a very public and personal way. Every online social circle these days seems to have at least one person whose apparent mission in life is to publicly castigate anyone who shares fake social media content without having done an exhaustive search of Snopes, Urban Legends, Urban Myths and Truth or Fiction first.
Additionally they are visual and directly confuse your visual sensory perception. This is fundamentally different than the breakdown in trust that has existed since the Fall around the true or false nature of words. Words, whether spoken or written, do not directly communicate with the sensory perception other than to merely pass through on their way to being assembled by the brain where they are judged by the ideas they communicate. But when you lose the ability to believe what you perceive through your senses in the first place, especially when perceiving what appears to be an everyday life situation, your mooring on reality becomes tenuous. Imagine how awful perceiving reality would be if magic tricks were constantly being performed around you but without the limiting context of a magician or a stage. It would be simpler to just go crazy.
The prevalence in our culture of fake visual content will have a subtle but real impact on how we share our faith with others. The greater the doubt people have about the veracity of what they are perceiving via a particular sense, the more isolated people become, uncertain of what to believe when faced with some new information. Whenever you have to apply additional tests and verification methods to ensure what you are perceiving is actually real, you lose the desire to both pursue and know reality because getting to truth requires so much work.
A key difference between fake viral videos and any other visual manipulations is that theirs is no limiting factor that helps us differentiate between falsehood and reality. Whether it be in a movie, on a stage or the manipulator himself having an official title, there has always been a point where the false image stops and reality takes back over. With fake visuals masquerading as truth, you cannot be sure what to believe.
Eventually, the current craze over viral videos will fade. We’ll have gotten tired of them and have reached the point that we feel like we’ve seen it all. One more medium will have been saturated with an overabundance of once-compelling content that no longer entertains us.
But the assault on the once-believable medium of visual perception will have a coarsening effect of our ability to perceive truth. Not only will a method of communicating will have been co-opted, but thanks to social media, we will have all been personally and publicly betrayed by it. The quest to believe a message as truth and trust someone as authentic will be a bit harder. Rather than do the extra work to ensure we are correctly perceiving truth, it’ll be easier to simply pick a form of entertainment and allow our mind to turn to mush.