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Aviv Ovadya and the Coming “Infocalypse”

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fraud and Deception, Legal Issues, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, The Future of Pranks

In a far-ranging, frightening, and fascinating interview, Buzzfeed News catches up with engineer and tech prognosticator Aviv Ovadya, who anticipated the current scourge of “fake news” and says we haven’t seen anything yet.

“He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis. Now He’s Worried About An Information Apocalypse.”
By Charlie Warzel
February 11, 2018

In mid-2016, Aviv Ovadya realized there was something fundamentally wrong with the internet — so wrong that he abandoned his work and sounded an alarm. A few weeks before the 2016 election, he presented his concerns to technologists in San Francisco’s Bay Area and warned of an impending crisis of misinformation in a presentation he titled “Infocalypse.”

The web and the information ecosystem that had developed around it was wildly unhealthy, Ovadya argued. The incentives that governed its biggest platforms were calibrated to reward information that was often misleading and polarizing, or both. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google prioritized clicks, shares, ads, and money over quality of information, and Ovadya couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all building toward something bad — a kind of critical threshold of addictive and toxic misinformation. The presentation was largely ignored by employees from the Big Tech platforms — including a few from Facebook who would later go on to drive the company’s NewsFeed integrity effort.

“At the time, it felt like we were in a car careening out of control and it wasn’t just that everyone was saying, ‘we’ll be fine’ — it’s that they didn’t even see the car,” he said.

Ovadya saw early what many — including lawmakers, journalists, and Big Tech CEOs — wouldn’t grasp until months later: Our platformed and algorithmically optimized world is vulnerable — to propaganda, to misinformation, to dark targeted advertising from foreign governments — so much so that it threatens to undermine a cornerstone of human discourse: the credibility of fact.

But it’s what he sees coming next that will really scare the shit out of you. Read more.

Forget About Getting a Table Here

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, How to Pull Off a Prank, Instructionals, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The World of the Prank

Update January 25, 2018: Vice Video: How to Become TripAdvisor’s #1 Fake Restaurant. Thanks Frank.

The London restaurant so exclusive that no one could ever get a reservation. H/t Bob O’Keefe.

Bonus: Oobah Butler’s Vice play book on how he pulled it off.

‘The Shed at Dulwich’ was London’s top-rated restaurant. Just one problem: It didn’t exist.
By Eli Rosenberg
The Washington Post
December 8, 2017

It was a unique restaurant in London and certainly the hardest to get into. And it beat out thousands of upscale restaurants in the city to earn the top ranking on the popular review site TripAdvisor for a time, drawing a flood of interest.

There was just one small problem: It didn’t exist.

The restaurant was just a listing created this year by a freelance writer, Oobah Butler, who used his home — a shed in the Dulwich area in South London — as the inspiration for a high-concept new restaurant that he posted on TripAdvisor: “The Shed at Dulwich.”

With hardly more than some fake reviews — “Best shed based experience in London!” a particularly cheeky one read — and a website, it had gamed the site’s ratings in London, a highly sought after designation that could bring a surge of business to any restaurant, let alone one in major global capital.

The story has by now traveled around the globe and back, after Butler wrote a piece that exposed the ruse on Vice. It has been hailed as an incredible feat. But in an era increasingly influenced by disinformation online, it also has served as another reminder of the ease with which pranksters and other dishonest actors are able to manipulate online platforms to sometimes unthinkable results. Read more.

Indecline’s “Grave New World”

Filed under: Art Pranks, Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters

The activist art collective Indecline, which previously goosed U.S. President Donald Trump with controversial naked statues and other photogenic stunts, has created a new piece of fake real estate for him to own.

“Artists Create a Cemetery for the Things Donald Trump Killed in 2017”
By Elena Goukassian
January 23, 2018

Late last Friday night at a golf course in rural New Jersey, a group of people wearing ski masks pulled up in a white van disguised as a Time Warner Cable vehicle and proceeded to plant six gravestones, complete with votive candles, miniature American flags, and roses. When the sun came up, they returned to the scene of the crime, documenting their deed.

Commemorating the anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration, guerrilla street art collective Indecline — who installed naked Trump statues in public parks throughout the country in 2016 and strung “Ku Klux Klowns” in Richmond’s Bryan Park last fall — decided to create a kind of “political report card, in essence, a year in review,” an anonymous representative of the group told Hyperallergic in a phone interview.

Titled “Grave New World,” the project’s gravestones mark the end of concepts like “Decency,” which died with Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017 (as the stone crudely says, “We ‘moved on her like a bitch’”) and “The Last Snowman,” which died the day Trump decided to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement (“Rest assured he was giving a scientist the finger as he went”). The remaining four stones mark the death of the American Dream with the immigration ban; of “Our Future” with the end of DACA; of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with the arrival of Mick Mulvaney; and of “Those Bootstraps They Keep Talking About” with the latest tax bill. The anonymous representative noted that they really had to narrow down the gravestones from “a diverse selection of things Trump fucked up” in the last year. “We would have needed a much larger budget to cover everything.” Read more.

Time Traveling with The Simpsons

Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, The History of Pranks, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction, You Decide

The beloved, long-running animated satirical program’s eerie track record of anticipating the future. h/t Andrea!

Watch the video.

Meet the Right-Wing Street Artists of Hollywood

Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

From Breitbart on down, well-compensated conservative media trolls ramp up their presence in the entertainment capital of the world.

“How Hollywood’s Conservative ‘Street Artists’ Troll the Industry”
By Paul Bond
The Hollywood Reporter
December 22, 2018

In a booth on the Westside of Los Angeles sit a trio of conservative provocateurs plotting their next “street art” prank on a liberal celebrity destined to be thrust into the limelight for reasons beyond the person’s control. The restaurant has become a watering hole for conservatives who work in Hollywood and don’t usually share their political opinions with their liberal colleagues for fear of retribution.

Friends of Abe, the private group of Hollywood conservatives, used to meet at the same place. The three artists, in fact were often spotted at FOA gatherings, where actors like Tom Selleck, Gary Sinise, Robert Duvall, Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton generously hobnobbed with others in the entertainment industry who lacked their fame and fortune.

One of the street artists usually works independent of the others, but recently they’ve banded together to focus their efforts on Harvey Weinstein and all those who, they claim, allegedly enabled his predatory behavior for decades. Their aim is to call out Hollywood for its “hypocrisy,” they say. Two of them have careers in the industry to protect so they remain anonymous, and their anonymity is fodder for detractors who take to social media to call them out for cowardice and slander.

One justifies his secrecy by noting he’d surely be fired for his very public artwork — which sometimes amounts to attacks on actors, movies and TV shows he is associated with through his full-time job. Another is a freelancer in the industry who used to design interactive media for Steven Spielberg. Read more.

New Dirty Politics: Fake Internet Comments

Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Political Pranks, Prank News, Propaganda and Disinformation

Fake internet comments may be the only thing worse than real internet comments.

“Fake Comments on Trump Administration Website are Trying to Take Down an Obama-era Rule”
By Greg Price
December 27, 2018

Critical fake comments, attributed to a real person, were reportedly posted against a controversial fiduciary rule to the Department of Labor’s website, presumably to convince the department to do away with the rule altogether.

Altogether, 40 percent of people who responded to a survey conducted for The Wall Street Journal stated they did not write the negative comments against the rule first implemented under former President Barack Obama to protect investors and avoid conflicts of interest at brokerage firms and other financial institutions.

The survey was conducted by research firm Mercury Analytics for The Journal. It was sent to 345 people out of the 3,100 comments posted to the Labor Department’s site about the fiduciary rule. Most of the 345 comments were critical of the rule, but of the 50 people to respond to the survey, 20 told The Journal they did not author the critical post.

The Angriest Man on the Internet?

Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, The History of Pranks

As long as computers have been part of mainstream life, people have been mad at them. This history of one of the first viral videos tells the tale of how information spreads across the digital landscape. Interestingly… having nothing to do with its enormous popularity… it wasn’t at all what it was purported to be.

“The Strange History of One of the Internet’s First Viral Videos”
By Joe Veix
January 12, 2018

You’ve seen the video. Everyone on the internet has. A man sits in a cubicle and pounds his keyboard in frustration. A few seconds later, the Angry Man picks up the keyboard and swings it like a baseball bat at his screen—it’s an old PC from the ’90s, with a big CRT monitor—whacking it off the desk. A frightened coworker’s head pops up over the cubicle wall, just in time to watch the Angry Man get up and kick the monitor across the floor. Cut to black.

The clip began to circulate online, mostly via email, in 1997. Dubbed “badday.mpg,” it’s likely one of the first internet videos ever to go viral. Sometimes GIFs of it still float across Twitter and Facebook feeds. (Most memes barely have a shelf life of 20 minutes, let alone 20 years.)

Beyond its impressive resilience, it’s also unexpectedly significant as the prime mover of viral videos. In one clip, you can find everything that’s now standard in the genre, like a Lumière brothers film for the internet age: the surveillance footage aesthetic, the sub-30-second runtime, the angry freakout in a typically staid setting, the unhinged destruction of property.

The clip also serves up prime conspiracy fodder. Freeze and enhance: The computer is unplugged. The supposed Angry Man, on closer inspection, is smiling. Was one of the first viral videos—and perhaps the most popular viral video of all time—also one of the first internet hoaxes? Read more.

Fake California Road Signs Mock the State’s Immigration Policies

Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters

Since mid-2017, the Golden State has seen a number of politically charged fake road signs, mostly focused on its perceived friendliness to immigrants.

“Prank California highway signs ‘welcome’ felons, illegal immigrants and MS-13”
by Greg Norman
Fox News
January 2, 2018

Drivers entering California are being greeted with signs proclaiming the liberal bastion an “OFFICIAL SANCTUARY STATE,” according to photos and videos circulating on social media appearing to show a prankster attached the official-looking blue signs just below legitimate “Welcome to California” markers.

The sanctuary state sign, which adds “Felons, Illegals and MS13 [gang members] welcome,” is similar to one hung up by a Malibu activist last year.

“Democrats Need The Votes!” reads a message on the signs, which are plastered with the Great Seal of California and a donkey, one of the symbols of the Democratic Party.

California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) spokesman Mark Dinger told Fox News on Tuesday that one of the signs was taken down yesterday on Interstate-15 near the California/Nevada border. A crew has been dispatched today to remove another sign spotted on I-40 near the border with Arizona, he added. Read more.

Tracing the Roots of Wishful Thinking

Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hype, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin, The History of Pranks

As the year-end recaps gather on the horizon, many will attempt to make sense of Donald Trump’s ascent to the Presidency. Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire provides a fascinating road-map.

The Atlantic posted a long excerpt. This is from Delancey Place about the roots of our inbred susceptibility to advertising.

“Are Americans More Willing to Believe in Advertising?”
Delancey Place
December 4, 2017

From the earliest days, and continuing for decades and even centuries, promoters of the New World enticed colonizers with the promise of riches, causing the historian Daniel Boorstin to suggest that ‘American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising’:

“Although [Sir Walter] Raleigh never visited North America himself, he believed that in addition to its gold deposits, his realm might somehow be the biblical Garden of Eden. … A large fraction of the first settlers dispatched by Raleigh became sick and died. He dispatched a second expedi­tion of gold-hunters. It also failed, and all those colonists died. But Sir Walter continued believing the dream of gold.

“In 1606 the new English king, James, despite Raleigh’s colonization di­sasters, gave a franchise to two new private enterprises, the Virginia Com­pany of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, to start colonies. The southern one, under the auspices of London, they named Jamestown after the monarch. Their royal charter was clear about the main mission: ‘to dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold … And to HAVE and enjoy the Gold.’ As Tocqueville wrote in his history two centuries later, ‘It was … gold-seekers who were sent to Virginia. No noble thought or conception above gain presided over the foundation of the new settlements.’ Two­-thirds of those first hundred gold-seekers promptly died. But the captain of the expedition returned to England claiming to have found ‘gold showing mountains.’ … In fact, Jamestown ore they dug and refined and shipped to England turned out to be iron pyrite, fool’s gold….” Read more.

Another James O’Keefe’s Failed Trolling Op

Filed under: Creative Activism, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Legal Issues, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Score 1 for investigative journalism on James O’Keefe‘s botched attempt to discredit The Washington Post on behalf of a Senate candidate and alleged pedophile.

“A woman approached The Post with dramatic — and false — tale about Roy Moore. She appears to be part of undercover sting operation.”
By Shawn Boburg, Aaron C. Davis and Alice Crites
The Washington Post
November 27, 2017

A woman who falsely claimed to The Washington Post that Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, impregnated her as a teenager appears to work with an organization that uses deceptive tactics to secretly record conversations in an effort to embarrass its targets.

In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public.

The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists.

But on Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover “stings” that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias. Read more.

Well, Here’s a Novel Phone Prank… Threatening Pro-Trump Robocalls

Filed under: Creative Activism, Political Pranks, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts, You Decide

Gizmodo investigates confusing robocalls warning people to stop criticizing President Trump. Some of the recipients are harsh Trump critics, some aren’t. Some known political provocateurs may or may not be involved, and no one really gets it.

“People Are Getting Robocalls About Their ‘Derogatory’ Trump Posts”
by Kashmir Hill
November 29, 2017

Brett Vanderbrook was driving for Uber last week when he got a call from an unfamiliar number. He let it go to voicemail and when he listened to it later, he got a shock: It was a recorded message telling him to stop making “negative and derogatory posts about President Trump.”

“It was kind of threatening. I was dumbfounded at first and then creeped out,” Vanderbrook, who lives in Dallas, Texas, said in a phone interview. “Then I was angry and that’s when I decided to share it.”

Vanderbrook makes progressive political posts on Facebook, voicing support for gun control, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights. None of his public posts mention President Trump or come across as “derogatory.”

Vanderbrook is not alone, though. Across the country, and even in Canada, people have reported on social media that they’ve received the same robocall. The earliest complaint dates back to July. The intensity of the calling campaign is hard to gauge; a search of complaints turned up 10 reports scattered across different platforms.

The reports, though, are all consistent. When the call goes to voicemail, as it did for Vanderbrook, the beginning of the recording gets cut off, but people describing the calls on Twitter, Facebook, and the telemarketer-reporting site ShouldIAnswer.com have said that the recording claims to come from “Citizens for Trump.” Read more.

Replacement Family Available. No Questions Asked.

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Illusion and Magic, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

Why suffer through the ups and downs of real relationships when you can have the perfect friend, husband or father for a fee? This is a stunning tale of hyper-normalization in Japan.

“How to Hire Fake Friends and Family”
by Roc Morin
The Atlantic
November 7, 2017

Money may not be able to buy love, but here in Japan, it can certainly buy the appearance of love—and appearance, as the dapper Ishii Yuichi insists, is everything. As a man whose business involves becoming other people, Yuichi would know. The handsome and charming 36-year-old is on call to be your best friend, your husband, your father, or even a mourner at your funeral.

His 8-year-old company, Family Romance, provides professional actors to fill any role in the personal lives of clients. With a burgeoning staff of 800 or so actors, ranging from infants to the elderly, the organization prides itself on being able to provide a surrogate for almost any conceivable situation.

Yuichi believes that Family Romance helps people cope with unbearable absences or perceived deficiencies in their lives. In an increasingly isolated and entitled society, the CEO predicts the exponential growth of his business and others like it, as à la carte human interaction becomes the new norm.

I sat down recently with Yuichi in a café on the outskirts of Tokyo, to discuss his business and what it means to be, in the words of his company motto, “more than real.” Read more.

Today In Human Head Transplants

Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Hype, Publicity Stunts, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction, You Decide

In the “quit while you’re ahead” department…

“World’s first human head transplant a success, professor says”
By Yaron Steinbuch
New York Post
November 17, 2017

The world’s first human head transplant has been carried out on a corpse in China, according to a controversial Italian doctor who said Friday that scientists are now ready to perform the surgery on a living person.

Professor Sergio Canavero, chief of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, said the operation was carried out by a team led by Dr. Xiaoping Ren, who last year successfully grafted a head onto a monkey’s body.

“The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done. A full head swap between brain-dead organ donors is the next stage,” Canavero said at a press conference in Vienna, the Telegraph reported.

“And that is the final step for the formal head transplant for a medical condition which is imminent,” said Canavero, who has gained a mix of fame and notoriety for his Frankenstein-like pursuits. Read more.

Canards For Humanity

Filed under: Creative Activism, Political Pranks, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Prank News, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts, Satire

In what has become an annual American holiday tradition, the creative team behind the party game Cards Against Humanity is pulling a satirical marketing stunt. (In 2014, we talked with ringleader Max Temkin about the “Box of Bullshit” and his reverence for Abbie Hoffman.) This time, their gimmick carries a fresh and righteous political charge.

“Cards Against Humanity is the undisputed champion of holiday promotions”
by Lindsey Quinn
The Hustle
November 16, 2017

The world’s raunchiest card game has purchased a plot of vacant land along the Mexico-US border and has hired an eminent domain lawyer to make it “as time-consuming and expensive as possible” for the Trump administration to build its proposed wall.

To fund their effort, CAH offered a package of “six surprises” for $15 — all of which are now sold out.

Since the game was launched by 8 high school friends in 2011, it’s gained a reputation for pulling incredibly on-point PR stunts. Read more.

Suburban Camouflage

Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Illusion and Magic, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks, The World of the Prank

All’s fair in war, (and the love of deceit) including manufacturing urban landscapes. The podcast 99 Percent Invisible has built its audience on the power of paying attention to details that most people don’t think about… or even know. From its blog comes this tale of an aircraft manufacturing facility concealed within a fake neighborhood in Seattle.

“Prop Town: The Fake Rooftop Suburb That Hid a Whole WWII Airplane Factory”
by Kurt Kohlstedt
99 Percent Invisible
November 3, 2017

Boeing’s aircraft manufacturing facilities were critical to the World War II efforts of Allied forces. But the unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor stoked fears of potential aerial assaults by Japanese forces. Some factories put up camouflage netting to disguise structures, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took things a big step further on top of the Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle, crafting an entire faux neighborhood.

By the mid-1930s, Boeing’s old Plant 1 was becoming increasingly outdated. Interested in keeping the company local, an area truck driver offered to sell Boeing a large plot of land (for a nominal one-dollar fee) on which to build a new factory. Plant 2 was designed and erected to apply modern assembly-line technologies and speed up production.

This new complex grew and expanded, ultimately spanning 1.7 million square feet. It would come to facilitate the assembly of B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-29 Superfortresses, B-47 Stratojets, B-52 Stratofortresses and other aircraft through and beyond the war. Read more.