Fact or Fiction?

A look at conspiracy theories, “official truths”, political spin, propaganda, tall tales, urban legends, magic, and illusion, all as they relate to the Art of the Prank. When truth intersects with a personal agenda, established facts are challenged, or human gullibility is preyed upon for ulterior motives, we hope that skepticism, logic, reason, and facts have a balancing effect.

Blog Posts

The Story of Snopes

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Prank News, Propaganda and Disinformation

Turbulent times have brought increased attention for Snopes, the long-running, cred-heavy fact-checking website. This longform feature weaves a compelling tapestry of research, analysis, and narrative, including a raw and revealing interview with the site’s embattled cofounder David Mikkelson.


“Snopes and the Search for Facts in a Post-fact World”
by Michelle Dean
Wired
September 20, 2017

“It was early March, not yet two months into the Trump administration, and the new Not-Normal was setting in: It continued to be the administration’s position, as enunciated by Sean Spicer, that the inauguration had attracted the “largest audience ever”; barely a month had passed since Kellyanne Conway brought the fictitious “Bowling Green massacre” to national attention; and just for kicks, on March 4, the president alerted the nation by tweet, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.”

If the administration had tossed the customs and niceties of American politics to the wind, there was one clearly identifiable constant: mendacity. “Fake news” accusations flew back and forth every day, like so many spitballs in a third-grade classroom.

Feeling depressed about the conflation of fiction and fact in the first few months of 2017, I steered a car into the hills of Calabasas to meet with one person whom many rely on to set things straight. This is an area near Los Angeles best known for its production of Kardashians, but there were no McMansions on the street where I was headed, only old, gnarled trees and a few modest houses. I spotted the one I was looking for—a ramshackle bungalow—because the car in the driveway gave it away. Its license plate read SNOPES.” Read more.

Who Do You Believe? Me Or Your Lying Eyes?

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Propaganda and Disinformation, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Why fact-checking can’t stop Trump lies, by Vox’s Brian Resnick

Watch the video

Trump Brand Thrives on the Dark Markets

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Legal Issues, Prank News, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts

Of all the business initiatives pumped by the Trump brand, this may be the darkest.


“Dark Web Drug Dealers are Using the Donald Trump Brand”
by Joseph Cox
The Daily Beast
August 22, 2017

Cybercriminals selling drugs and stolen credit cards have adopted an unlikely new branding trend on the so-called dark web. A host of black-market dealers are using the brand, name and likeness of the 45th president to upsell their shipments of ecstasy, cocaine, and ketamine.

“Let’s make the darknet great again,” pledges one of these illicit online businesses that literally calls itself “Donald Trump.”

Several of the vendor’s listings refer to their store as “Trump Towers,” where they sell “presidential” quality shipments of illicit substances.

“Donald Trump” sells its wares on Dream, an established dark web marketplace. After the FBI closed the largest market called AlphaBay last month, and European cops shuttered a second popular online bazaar, Dream is now likely the busiest underground drug site. Some vendors on Dream also offer your usual array of counterfeit currency and fake identity documents.

According to the ‘Donald Trump’ listings, the dealer posts drugs from Belgium, but they do not ship to the U.S. Photos of the large blocks of cocaine include a Donald Trump bobble-head.

‘Donald Trump’ appears to have plenty of satisfied customers. Whenever someone buys an item on the dark web, the market typically prompts them to leave a rating and short review. That way, potential customers can get a better idea of who sells the real product, and who may be a scammer. Read more.

White House Email Prankster In His Own Words

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Fraud and Deception, How to Pull Off a Prank, Instructionals, Political Pranks, Pranksters

Here’s a playful and illuminating interview with the anonymous prankster who humiliated Donald Trump’s powerful son-in-law Jared Kushner and ex-Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci with duplicitous emails. It touches on the literary merits of email pranks, the repercussions of sending them, and pointers for engaging recipients in high places.


“How to Prank the Rich and Powerful Without Really Trying”
by Adrianne Jeffries
The Outline
August 4, 2017

On Tuesday, a bright spot appeared in this dark, cruel world when CNN first reported that an anonymous mischief maker had tricked multiple White House officials into responding to prank emails.

The Email Prankster, as he’s branded himself, isn’t worried about getting in legal trouble, he told The Outline in an interview Thursday. He duped several high profile targets earlier this year, including Barclay’s CEO Jes Staley, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat, and was not contacted by law enforcement.

He was, however, suspended from his job this morning. His company, which knew about the banker pranks, suspected he was involved in this latest round of hoaxes and opened an investigation. “I think they’ll get me on misuse of IT,” the prankster said. “I did send an email to the White House from my work email address because I forgot to switch the email account over in the drop down.”

It’s unclear if the prankster did anything illegal. He did no spoofing or hacking, and lawyers we spoke to in the U.S. and U.K. said it would be difficult to make a criminal case against him. The prankster merely registered addresses that looked semi-legitimate, such as reince.priebus@mail.com and jonhunstmanjr45@gmail.com, made sure his character’s name would show up in the “From” field, and thought up an intriguing subject line. He registered email addresses in the names of senior advisor Jared Kushner, Ambassador-to-Russia designate Jon Huntsman, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump, and had them email various White House staff.

The highlight of these pranks was an exchange between the fake Reince Priebus, whose real counterpart had just been ousted, and then-White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. The exchange, a testy back-and-forth that played on the real rivalry between the two men, ended with Scaramucci telling the person he thought was Priebus to, “Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello.” Scaramucci was ousted the next day, and The Washington Post called the prank “a final indignity.” Read more.

Sam Shepard, Playwright, Actor, Director and Old Friend.. R.I.P.

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Filed under: The Big One

The creative world lost a bright color from its palette.

An old friend from the sixties, Sam Shepard, has passed away.

Here’s an article I wrote for Huffington Post about those times: Lucky Loser: My Aborted Attempt to Kidnap Sam Shepard, by Joey Skaggs
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sam Shepard on his family plays (1 of 3)

Spectacle TV Without the Spectacle…

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Publicity Stunts

Olympian Michael Phelps unsurprisingly lost his Sunday race against a simulated great white shark.


“Twitter users blast Michael Phelps for not racing a real shark”
by Chris Perez
New York Post
July 24, 2017

Can you blame him?

Social media users were tearing Michael Phelps to shreds for his “race” against a Great White shark on Sunday night — calling it a “scam” — after he chose to swim side-by-side with a simulation, instead of the real thing.

“Don’t say Phelps is racing a shark if you’re not going to put him against an actual shark,”
tweeted Breyanna Davis, who was one of countless viewers to get confused over the way the televised swimming competition went down.

“So you mean to tell me Michael Phelps didn’t even race a real shark? It was just a simulation. I’m mad. More like Shark WEAK!” said Frank Costa.

User @M_Frosti added, “smh Michael Phelps isn’t actually racing a shark. He’s just racing a simulation of a shark. Biggest scam of 2017.” Read more.

Portofess: The Church Must Go Where the Sinners Are!

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, The Big One, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art

The Story of the ‘Portofess,’ the Prank Confessional Booth at the 1992 Democratic Convention
by Sarah Laskow
Atlas Obscura
July 14, 2017

Artist Joey Skaggs fooled everyone and pedaled off.

Father Anthony Joseph (aka Joey Skaggs) pedals his Portofess to the 1992 Democratic National Convention, courtesy Joey Skaggs Archive

At 1992’s Democratic National Convention, a Dominican priest showed up on a tricycle. Attached to the back was a confessional booth, with a sign that read “Portofess.” The priest said he biked to New York, where the convention was held, all the way from California. The church, according to the priest, needed to take a “more aggressive stance and go where the sinners are.” He was ready to take confession from any politician who wanted or needed it.

The Portofess made papers all over the country. But soon enough Reuters revealed that the Archdiocese in California had never heard of this priest, who called himself Father Anthony Joseph or, sometimes, Father William. All other efforts to find him after the convention failed, as well, because he wasn’t a priest at all, but a character conceived by artist and activist Joey Skaggs, who has perfected the art of pranking the media.

Skaggs’s works include “Fish Condos” for upwardly mobile guppies, “Santa’s Missile Tow,” which featured Santa and his elves bringing a missile to the United Nations, and many other sculptures and performances. He talked to Atlas Obscura about what it took to create the Portofess and what reactions he got from the police, protestors, and the public. Read the full interview here.


Stand-up Comedians Regroup Against Trump’s Shade

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Filed under: Media Literacy, Parody, Political Challenges, Satire, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Satire has always been our front line of defense against the insanity of our so-called leaders. But with Trump’s alternative reality reaching such exalted new heights, comedians need new strategies.

As we approach the first summer of the Trump presidency, comics are realizing their job isn’t figuring out the perfect way to skewer President Trump—their job is to find the humor that pushes us past him, his acrimony, and his chaos. If that’s even possible.


Funny, How? Inside Stand-Up Comedy’s Donald Trump Problem
by Burt Helm
GQ
June 2, 2017

The absurd usually makes for great comedic fodder. But when the source of that ridiculousness is the man tasked with, you know, running the United States…is it still funny? Everyone from Jerrod Carmichael to Michael Che to Lena Dunham is trying to figure that out.

On a Monday night in January, people looking to escape the gloom and chaos of Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office gathered at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory for Michael Che’s Secret Show. Tickets to the special comedy event, which benefitted Planned Parenthood, went on sale five days after the inauguration and four days after the Women’s March became one of the largest-scale protests in American history (also, three days after the birth of “alternative facts,” two days after the President pushed false voter fraud rumors, and one day after the first reports of his impending refugee ban). The show sold out in under an hour. As soon as Cipha Sounds, a New York City-based DJ and comedian, took the stage and started spinning, heads in the crowd were bobbing, expectant smiles on their faces. “Out of the five fingers on your hand, which one do you feel represents your feelings toward Donald Trump?” asked Cipha, cranking the volume on CeeLo’s “Fuck You.”

“It’s not about an agenda. It’s more about bringing you guys a fun fucking show,” Che said, welcoming the audience. He brought up a comedy Dream Team: Kevin Iso, Mike Birbiglia, Amy Schumer, Colin Quinn, Lena Dunham, Leslie Jones, John Mulaney, and Che’s partner on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” Colin Jost. But this was not a night for liberals to forget their woes. None of the performers could finish his or her set without referencing the political climate. They went dark; they looked for bitter laughs. (more…)

“‘Right-wing news’ is oxymoronic”

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks

With interesting clarity, Terry Heaton shows how he and other producers of Evangelical television used propaganda to seed the false narrative of the liberal “elite” news media and in the process created right-wing news and, ultimately, the Republican religious right. Now he wants to take it all back.


How The Religious Right Pioneered Propaganda As News
by Terry Heaton
HuffPost
June 16, 2017

Before Fox News, there was Pat Robertson’s ‘700 Club,’ where I was an executive producer.

Television evangelist and conservative political activist Pat Robertson poses in the control room for his 700 Club TV show. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

So-called “fake news” took center stage on several occasions during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. More than once, Comey pointed to specific articles by the New York Times as not true or completely false. However, he did validate others, including one in which he himself had been the Times’ source. The fake news meme has become one of the most troubling arguments in the history of contemporary journalism, ever since Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN at his first press conference as president.

Americans find themselves drowning in this unseemly and childish battle for the soul of news and information purveyance, and the undiscussed problem is that the entire mess is built on the false narrative of “the liberal (elite) press.” I know, because I was among the people who advanced the concept and shaped the discussion in the early ‘80s, as senior and executive producer of Pat Robertson’s flagship television program The 700 Club.

Before Fox News, there was The 700 Club with CBN News and “TV Journalism With A Different Spirit.” We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal,” and truth-telling demands its deconstruction today. The all-or-nothing split between conflicting political narratives has reached its pinnacle with the election of Donald Trump, and it needs to be hacked into a million pieces.

William F. Buckley was among the first to give the word “liberal” a pejorative interpretation, but it was the wordsmith William Safire writing for Spiro Agnew who in 1969 elevated it to a political talking point in his famous speech that opened the war against the press during Richard Nixon’s secret battles in Vietnam. The word became the central weapon in a strategy that involved attacking the messenger instead of changing the message.

That political strategy has been so effective to date that it has given birth to the idea that mainstream news is actually “fake news” and not to be believed in the administration of President Donald Trump. The number of people who now believe this falsehood is staggering, and it poses a real threat to our democracy. (more…)

Comedian Lee Camp Deconstructs New York Times Hatchet Job

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Filed under: Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation

Lee Camp, comedian, writer and creator, host, and head writer of the comedy news show Redacted Tonight gives a propaganda tutorial based on the hatchet job The New York Times did on him. H/T to Boris.


Lee Camp: How to Write Propaganda for the NY Times—As Demonstrated in an Article About Me
by Lee Camp
Alternet.org
June 13, 2017

The comedian debunks the lies and distortions spread about him in the New York Times.

On June 7, the New York Times vomited up a hit piece on little ol’ me – a guy who has been doing stand-up comedy for nearly 20 years and thought maybe that comedy could be used to inform and inspire audiences, rather than just make fun of the differences between men and women.

At first when you’re the center of a smear job, you’re annoyed and frustrated. But as I read further through the piece, I realized it was a master class in how to write propaganda for one of the most “respected” news outlets in our country. I’m actually grateful it was written about me because now I can see with my own eyes exactly how the glorious chicanery is done. I count no less than 15 lies, manipulations, and false implications in this short article, a score that even our fearless prevaricator-in-chief Donald Trump would envy.

So here now is a “How To” for writing propaganda for the New York Times, using the smear piece against me as an example. Read the full article here.

First Responders to BS: Fact-Checkers are Heroes for Our Times

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin, You Decide

Like at Snopes, the team at Politifact has its work cut out for it. Here’s a rousing rant from editor Aaron Sharockman.


“PolitiFact: The Power of Fact Checking in a Post-Truth World”
by Aaron Sharockman
Tampa Bay Times
June 7, 2017
Here’s a quick test: Think about how Donald Trump announced he was running for president. Now, do the same for Hillary Clinton.

I think most of you probably got one but not the other. We remember Trump and his wife Melania gliding down the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015. And we remember some of the things Trump said that day.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As for Clinton? (more…)

From Russian Satire to Serious (but Fake) News–a Flowchart

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation

The NYT tracks an item from a Russian satirist to FOX News.


How Russian Propaganda Spread From a Parody Website to FOX News
by Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Rossback
The New York Times
June 7, 2017

Born in the shadowy reaches of the internet, most fake news stories prove impossible to trace to their origin. But researchers at the Atlantic Council, a think tank, excavated the root of one such fake story, involving an incident in the Black Sea in which a Russian warplane repeatedly buzzed a United States Navy destroyer, the Donald Cook.

Like much fake news, the story was based on a kernel of truth. The brief, tense confrontation happened on April 12, 2014, and the Pentagon issued a statement. Then in April, three years later, the story resurfaced, completely twisted, on one of Russia’s main state-run TV news programs.

The new version gloated that the warplane had deployed an electronic weapon to disable all operating systems aboard the Cook. That was false, but it soon spread, showing that even with all the global attention on combating fake news, it could still circulate with alarming speed and ease.

In the days after the incident in the Black Sea, a Russian writer named Dmitri Sedov wrote an opinion piece, apparently meant to be satirical, that imagined the incident as an electronic warfare attack and described the panicked reaction of one crew member. Read the rest of the story here.


And You Thought that Doggedly Fanatic Approach to Accuracy Was Working…

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Prank News, Pranksters

Turns out the accomplished academic Dr. Olivia Doll, who sits on numerous medical journal editorial boards, is a terrier. Huh? H/t to Ed Coll.


“The Perth Dog That’s Probably Smarter Than You”
by Cathy O’Leary
PerthNow
May 21, 2017

Move aside quokkas and black swans, Perth is now home to the world’s smartest dog, at least on paper.

Local “academic” Dr Olivia Doll — also known as Staffordshire terrier Ollie — sits on the editorial boards of seven international medical journals and has just been asked to review a research paper on the management of tumours.

Her impressive curriculum vitae lists her current role as senior lecturer at the Subiaco College of Veterinary Science and past associate of the Shenton Park Institute for Canine Refuge Studies — which is code for her earlier life in the dog refuge.

Ollie’s owner, veteran public health expert Mike Daube, decided to test how carefully some journals scrutinised their editorial reviewers, by inventing Dr Doll and making up her credentials.

The five-year-old pooch has managed to dupe a range of publications specialising in drug abuse, psychiatry and respiratory medicine into appointing her to their editorial boards.

Dr Doll has even been fast-tracked to the position of associate editor of the Global Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine.

Several journals have published on their websites a supplied photo of Dr Doll, which is actually of a bespectacled Kylie Minogue. Read more.

A Vintage Vino Hoax

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Practical Jokes and Mischief, The History of Pranks

You may think academics will fall for anything. But have you met any wine snobs? Here’s a hoax flashback…


“The Winning Wine List That Wasn’t”
by Dan Lewis
Now I Know
May 23, 2017

If you’re a wine fan, Wine Spectator is probably on your go-to list for magazine reading. Fifteen times a year, it hits newsstands and subscriber mailboxes with ratings and reviews of various vintages and types of wine. And once a year, the magazine announces its “Restaurant Awards,” an honor for — you guessed it — restaurants. Wine Spectator’s website sets it up thusly: “Attention restaurateurs: If you’ve got a good wine list, you deserve the credibility and publicity that comes with a Wine Spectator Restaurant Award.” For example, here’s a screenshot of Milan restaurant Osteria L’Intrepido’s honor on the Wine Spectator website from 2008:

The cuisine type, the price range, a top-line summary of the wine available, and of course, some contact information for the restaurant itself. If you’re looking for a $70 dollar dinner for two while in Milan, and you’re willing to fork over a moderately extra amount for the wine, Osteria L’Intrepido may be for you. With more than 250 wine selections, you’re likely to find something that enhances your experience — or at least, that’s what the “Award of Excellence” would imply. Read more.

Gender Studies Hoaxers Kick an Academic Hornet’s Nest

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Parody, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire

Skeptic magazine reveals an Alan Sokal-style hoax on the journal Cogent Social Sciences–an attempt to mock both what the authors perceive to be the excesses of feminist academia and open-access or pay-to-publish journals. So far, they have at least succeeded in getting a lot of attention, pro and con.


“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies”
by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsey
Skeptic
May 19, 2017

The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.
This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper was published in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences. (In case the PDF is removed, we’ve archived it.)

Assuming the pen names “Jamie Lindsay” and “Peter Boyle,” and writing for the fictitious “Southeast Independent Social Research Group,” we wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory. The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal. Read more.

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