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

Replacement Family Available. No Questions Asked.

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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

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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.

Suburban Camouflage

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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.

Noted Twitter Conservatives Exposed as Russian Ops

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Spin

It’s been a year since the 2016 US presidential election. As part of the larger story of Russian interference on behalf of President Donald Trump, the fever swamp of conservative digital media is starting to look a lot more mysterious. The story of “Jenna Abrams,” exposed in The Daily Beast, is fascinating by itself, and it appears to be the rim of the rabbit hole.


“Two popular conservative Twitter personalities were just outed as Russian trolls”
By Rob Tornoe
Philly.com
November 3, 2017

Jenna Abrams was a popular figure in right-wing social media circles. Boasting nearly 70,000 followers, Abrams was featured in numerous news articles during the 2016 election, spotlighted by outlets as varied as USA Today, the Washington Post, the BBC, and Yahoo! Sports. Her tweet about CNN airing porn during Anthony Bourdain’s show (it didn’t) was reported by numerous outlets.

According to information released by House Democrats earlier this week, Abrams was one of more than 2,750 fake Twitter accounts created by employees at the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” funded by the Russian government based in St. Petersburg. In addition to the Abrams account, several other popular conservative social media personalities — @LauraBaeley, SouthLoneStar, Ten_GOP — were all revealed to be troll accounts. All have been deactivated on Twitter.

According to the Daily Beast, the agency developed a following around the Abrams account by offering humorous, seemingly non-political takes on pop culture figures like Kim Kardashian. The agency also furnished the fake account, which dates back to 2014, with a personal website, a Gmail account and even a GoFundMe page.

Once the Abrams account began to develop a following, the tone of its tweets shifted from pokes and prods at celebrities to divisive views on hot topics like immigration and segregation. Read more.

Sim Cities

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Illusion and Magic, Prank News, Pranksters

Photographer Gregor Sailer’s new book focuses on incredibly detailed, entirely uninhabited, completely fake urban landscapes.


“These Cities Might Look Real But They’re 100% Fake”
By Laura Mallonee
Wired
October 25, 2017

Junction City has all the trappings of an Iraqi town: a brightly painted mosque; shops adorned with Arabic script; the occasional humvee or tank rumbling by. But you won’t find it anywhere near Mosul. It’s a stage set at Fort Irwin, in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, where US troops simulate fighting insurgents.

“It’s a lonely place, full of buildings no one will ever live in,” says photographer Gregor Sailer. “It’s like a ghost city—the wind smashing the doors, blowing through the streets.”

Sailer captured Junction City and 21 other fake urban landscapes for his fascinating new book The Potemkin Village. They include a New York-themed town in Sweden built to test cars for road safety; a Russian city with elaborate facades disguising forlorn buildings; and a Dutch hamlet in China that tourists visit for a taste of Europe. “Sometimes they’re more real and other times they’re more an illusion,” Sailer says. “I’m jumping between these two worlds, and that’s what makes it exciting for me.” Read more.

Confessions of a Social Engineer

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fraud and Deception, Pranksters, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

Working at the dangerous intersection of technology and security, social engineers help organizations stay safe(r) by exposing their vulnerabilities. Often, this relies less on advanced coding skills than it does on old-fashioned behavioral psychology and the reflexes of a trickster. In this humorous account, an infosec con artist spills her secrets.


“How I Socially Engineer Myself Into High-Security Facilities”
By Sophie Daniel
Vice
October 20, 2017

Hello! My name is Sophie and I break into buildings. I get paid to think like a criminal.

Organizations hire me to evaluate their security, which I do by seeing if I can bypass it. During tests I get to do some lockpicking, climb over walls or hop barbed wire fences. I get to go dumpster diving and play with all sorts of cool gadgets that Q would be proud of.

But usually, I use what is called social engineering to convince the employees to let me in. Sometimes I use email or phone calls to pretend to be someone I am not. Most often I get to approach people in-person and give them the confidence to let me in.

My frequently asked questions include:
What break-in are you most proud of?
What have you done for a test that you were the most ashamed of?

What follows is the answer to both of these questions. Read more.


Carl Sagan’s Crash Course in Critical Thinking

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

This could hardly be more timely, so we’re revisiting Maria Popova’s Brainpickings review of “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” a chapter from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which the legendary scientist distills his years of professional skepticism into a primer for recognizing and calling BS in everyday life. H/t Dino.


“The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking”
By Maria Popova
BrainPickings
January 3, 2014

Sagan reflects on the many types of deception to which we’re susceptible — from psychics to religious zealotry to paid product endorsements by scientists, which he held in especially low regard, noting that they “betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers” and “introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.” (Cue in PBS’s Joe Hanson on how to read science news.) But rather than preaching from the ivory tower of self-righteousness, Sagan approaches the subject from the most vulnerable of places — having just lost both of his parents, he reflects on the all too human allure of promises of supernatural reunions in the afterlife, reminding us that falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.

Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:

The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.

But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation. Sagan shares nine of these tools. Read more.


The Spooky History of a Time-Travel Hoax

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

For some retro Halloween fun, this fascinating oral history dives into a carefully constructed paranormal e-drama from the early ’00s.


“The Oral History of John Titor, the Man Who Traveled Back In Time to Save the Internet”
by K. Thor Jensen
Thrillist
October 19, 2017

Anyone can be anybody from the other side of a screen: a Nigerian prince pleading for money; a lonely housewife “catfishing” a romantic interest; or a 14-year-old girl posing as just about anyone. From the “bonsai kitten” scandal of 2000 to the Lonelygirl15 “vlogs,” the internet has proved itself to be fertile ground for hoax-makers, scam artists, and digital charlatans.

One legendary hoax captivated fans of the supernatural and the paranormal like few others. November 2, 2000 saw the first online post by the individual who would come to be known as “John Titor.” Titor claimed to be a man from the future, sent to the past to retrieve… a portable computer. Though shrouded by forum avatars, his specific instructions on what he was here to accomplish, and what society would look like in his version of the future, kicked off a frenzy of investigation, speculation, and deception that has lasted for nearly two decades.

Some people believed “John Titor” completely. Others became obsessed with errors and inconsistencies, digital detectives trying to uncover the truth behind the story. Before it was over, Titor would make his way to an animation studio in Japan, a wrestling ring in Pennsylvania, and a prison cell in Oregon.

This is his story, as told by the people who fell deep into it.

Read the whole story here.


New Joey Skaggs Article and a Sneak Preview of ART OF THE PRANK Movie on HuffPost

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Filed under: Art of the Prank - the movie, Art Pranks, Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art, Urban Legends

Roach Vitamins Hailed as Miracle Drug. Bon Appétit!
by Joey Skaggs
HuffPost
October 10, 2017

Joey Skaggs as Dr. Josef Gregor in his Metamorphosis Roach Cure hoax, 1981

Here’s a snippet:

As an artist, I discovered in the 1960s that I could use the mass media as a vehicle to make social and political commentary on a broad scale. So, for the last 50+ years, I’ve used the media as my medium as a painter uses a canvas. From my earliest performance pieces (a.k.a. media hoaxes), the Hippie Bus Tour to Queens, followed by the Cathouse for Dogs and the Celebrity Sperm Bank, I found that by creating plausible, but totally fictitious stories, played out in real life, I could hook the media into reporting them as fact.

The key to success has always been a salacious, sensational or ironic hook with a great visual that is just irresistible to reporters on tight deadlines…

Read the whole story here.

Fake News Is the New Real News

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation

Fake news (aka propaganda) has always been with us, just not in the hands of so many little people. Now it appears the genie’s out of the bottle and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men might not be able to put it back in…


“Fake news is here forever, study says”
by Fox News Staff
The New York Post
October 6, 2017

Fake information will pervade mature economies in the next few years, a new study has noted.

By 2022, most people in mature economies will consume more false information than true information, according to the study from research firm Gartner.

This trend will be fueled, in part, by “confirmation bias,” that “leads all people to seek out, select and value information that parallels what they believe and expect to be proven true,” the study’s authors, Magnus Revang and Whit Andrews, found.

And even improved artificial intelligence (AI), which companies like Facebook and Google are working on, won’t be able to stop it, a separate study by Gartner found. “Counterfeit reality” or fake content, will “outpace AI’s ability to detect it.”

Generating false information will always cost less than the cost of detecting it. “False information will consequently outpace true information where there is economic or political interest to purvey it,” Revang and Andrews wrote. Read more.

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)