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

Ghostwatch Remembered

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Looking back on a controversial BBC show called Ghostwatch and its creator Stephen Volk, a hoaxer who out-Orsoned War of the Worlds.


“The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers”
by Jake Rossen
Mental Floss
October 6, 2016

aotp_ghostwatchAfter more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK’s Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death. Read more.


An Internet Writer Breaks Up With Her Boyfriend Over Trump… You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation

The ferocious and funny Anna Merlan takes an impressively deep dive into the made-up career of Rachel Brewson, the JT LeRoy of womens-interest clickbait.


“The Team of Men Behind Rachel Brewston, the Fake Woman Whose Trump-Fueled Breakup Went Viral”
by Anna Merlan
Jezebel
October 4, 2016

aotp_brewsonIn December 2015, readers at women’s site xoJane were enthralled and filled with all-caps rage by Rachel Brewson, a self-described “giant liberal” who boldly declared her love for a Republican named Todd. She described, in rapturous terms, how the couple’s political disagreements fueled an ecstatic third-date bipartisan fuck-fest that soon flowered into a real relationship.

Mid-date, they got into a “heated debate” about politics, Brewson wrote. They fought from wherever the date took place (she didn’t say), into the street, and into a cab. The discussion ended when Todd—who, as it turned out, was a gun-loving, Iraq-war-supporting libertarian—manfully invited himself up to her apartment.

“What followed was the best sex of my life up to that point,” Brewson wrote, whose author bio said she was a “dating editor” at a site called Review Weekly. “Somehow the political tension between us had transformed into sexual tension. I was hooked.”

The post was a modest success—it was shared just under 3,000 times on social media, and racked up 1,000 comments on xoJane itself (whose editor-in-chief is Jane Pratt of Sassy fame. The site was purchased by Time. Inc last fall). Many of those comments complained about Rachel’s privileged white-woman version of liberalism, which allowed her to ignore “petty differences”—her term—between her and Todd on issues like immigration.

“He flashed some money your way and you’re ready to label things like rape culture and systematic racism as ‘petty differences,’” one commenter fumed. “You aren’t as liberal as you want to believe you are.”

Three months later, the fairytale was over. (more…)

Fake Newspaper Endorses Reality TV Politician

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

Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump may have his “personal Pravda,” but everyone from The New York Times to the Arizona Republic has endorsed his opponent, and the media at large have taken the gloves off with him. The real estate developer hasn’t gotten any extra love from the fourth estate in the wake of his rough debate performance on Monday. He’ll be happy to know that the Baltimore Gazette has his back.


“Trump Gets Big Boost From Fake Newspaper”
by Jason Linkins
Huffington Post
September 27, 2016

aotp_baltimoregazetteBig media news for Hillary Clinton Tuesday night as the Arizona Republic ― which had never in its history endorsed a Democrat for president ― has thrown its endorsement to the former secretary of state, citing her lifetime of never coming across like an impulsive man-baby: “The president commands our nuclear arsenal. Trump can’t command his own rhetoric.”

But not so fast! Donald Trump has a media coup of his own to brag about. Seems that some eagle-eyed investigative reporters at the Baltimore Gazette have brought home a dilly of a scoop: “Multiple reports and leaked information from inside the Clinton camp claim that the Clinton campaign was given the entire set of debate questions an entire week before the actual debate.”

Trumpet sting!

Earlier last week an NBC intern was seen hand delivering a package to Clinton’s campaign headquarters, according to sources. The package was not given to secretarial staff, as would normally happen, but the intern was instead ushered into the personal office of Clinton campaign manager Robert Mook. Members of the Clinton press corps from several media organizations were in attendance at the time, and a reporter from Fox News recognized the intern, but said he was initially confused because the NBC intern was dressed like a Fed Ex employee.

That’s some serious shoe-leather! Unfortunately there was un problema. Read more.

Inside the Amazon Million Dollar e-Book Scam

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Literary Hoaxes

In a complex whirlwind of a story, ZDNet digs into a bizarre tech scam involving bots, bad e-books, Amazon Kindle, Tor, and one unscrupulous engineer.


“Revealed: How one Amazon Kindle scam made millions of dollars”
by Zach Whittaker
ZDNet
September 27, 2016

Emma Moore could have been the health and weight loss guru you spent your life looking for.

aotp_kindlecatfishYou might be forgiven for not knowing her work — after all, she has a common name, one that she shares with other similarly successful authors on Amazon. Until this week, she had dozens of health, dieting, cooking, and weight loss ebooks to her name. She published over a dozen ebooks on Amazon this year — five ebooks alone this month. And Moore would even work with other authors — like Nina Kelly, Andrew Walker, and Julia Jackson — who have all published about a dozen ebooks each this year as well.

Here’s the snag: to our knowledge, Moore doesn’t exist. None of them do.

Moore was just one of hundreds of pseudonyms employed in a sophisticated “catfishing” scheme run by Valeriy Shershnyov, whose Vancouver-based business hoodwinked Amazon customers into buying low-quality ebooks, which were boosted on the online marketplace by an unscrupulous system of bots, scripts, and virtual servers.

Catfishing isn’t new — it’s been well documented. Some scammers buy fake reviews, while others will try other ways to game the system.

Until now, nobody has been able to look inside at how one of these scams work — especially one that’s been so prolific, generating millions of dollars in royalties by cashing in on unwitting buyers who are tricked into thinking these ebooks have some substance.

Shershnyov was able to stay in Amazon’s shadows for two years by using his scam server conservatively so as to not raise any red flags.

What eventually gave him away weren’t customer complaints or even getting caught by the bookseller. It was good old-fashioned carelessness. He forgot to put a password on his server. Read more.

Uncle Sam’s Imaginary Pen Pal

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks

Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog examines the canon of opinion writer Guy Sims Fitch, a prolific non-existent writer for the United States Information Agency.


“Meet Guy Sims Fitch, a Fake Writer Invented by the United States Government”
by Matt Novak
September 27, 2016
Paleofuture

aotp_guysimsfitchGuy Sims Fitch had a lot to say about the world economy in the 1950s and 60s. He wrote articles in newspapers around the globe as an authoritative voice on economic issues during the Cold War. Fitch was a big believer in private American investment and advocated for it as a liberating force internationally. But no matter what you thought of Guy Sims Fitch’s ideas, he had one big problem. He didn’t exist.

Guy Sims Fitch was created by the United States Information Agency (USIA), America’s official news distribution service for the rest of the world. Today, people find the term “propaganda” to be incredibly loaded and even negative. But employees of the USIA used the term freely and proudly in the 1950s and 60s, believing that they were fighting a noble and just cause against the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism. And Guy Sims Fitch was just one tool in the diverse toolbox of the USIA propaganda machine.

“I don’t mind being called a propagandist, so long as that propaganda is based on the truth,” said Edward R. Murrow in 1962. Murrow took a job as head of the USIA after a long and celebrated career as a journalist, and did quite a few things during his tenure that would make modern journalists who romanticize “the good old days” blush.

But even when USIA peddled its own version of the truth, the propaganda agency wasn’t always using the most, let’s say, truthful of methods. Their use of Guy Sims Fitch—a fake person whose opinions would be printed in countries like Brazil, Germany, and Australia, among others—served the cause of America’s version of the truth against Communism during the Cold War, even if Fitch’s very existence was a lie.

Read more.

Announcing the 2016 Ig Noble Awards

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Filed under: Prank News, Satire, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Organized by the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Noble Awards offer ponderous hilarity every year without fail.


From Collecting Flies to Putting Pants on Rats, Here Is This Year’s Ig Nobel-Winning Research
by Mark Pratt
AP
September 22, 2016

ig-nobel-awards-2016(BOSTON) — A Swede who wrote a trilogy about collecting bugs, an Egyptian doctor who put pants on rats to study their sex lives and a British researcher who lived like an animal have been named winners of the Ig Nobels, the annual spoof prizes for quirky scientific achievement.

The winners were honored — or maybe dishonored — Thursday in a zany ceremony at Harvard University.

The 26th annual event featured a paper airplane air raid and a tic-tac-toe contest with a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist and four real Nobel laureates.

Winners receive $10 trillion cash prizes — in virtually worthless Zimbabwean money. Read more here and here.


DHMO in the Water, Mischief in the Air

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Pranks, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Dan Lewis’s conversation-starting email newsletter “Now I Know” looks back on a morning radio hoax that kicked up a storm.


“The Dangerous-Sounding Threat of DHMO”
by Dan Lewis
Now I Know
September 14, 2016

aotp_dhmoSt. John and Fish were, at the time, morning hours radio hosts for a Florida radio station. On April 1st of that year — and yes, that date should have been a clue — the duo decided to issue a public service announcement, telling listeners that dihydrogen monoxide was coming out of water taps in the area.

The reaction from what would hope was a small, small minority the listeners was fierce and nearly immediate. Enough people were fooled by the PSA that the county water board began fielding calls, and at 8:30 AM that day — about three-and-a-half hours into what should have been a five-hour radio show — St. John and Fish were taken off the air. The county issued a statement telling residents that the water was entirely safe and that this was just a joke gone bad (although without explaining the science), and the radio station, per the Atlantic, spent the rest of the day informing listeners of the same.

But beyond that, no big deal, right? Wrong — at least, according to the state’s Department of Health. Its spokesperson told the press that calling in “a false water quality issue” could be considered a felony in the state. The station, perhaps fearing liability, suspended the pair of DJs indefinitely. And listeners seemed OK with the punishment: according to USA Today, a (hardly scientific, but why should we get science involved here?) poll on the radio station’s website had a large majority — 77% — hoping that the two would never be welcomed back on the air. Read more.


Facebook Fights the Fakers

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Prank News, Urban Legends

From duplicitous “satire” to malicious BS, Facebook helps people spread untrue stories. With a new step in the sustained controversy over its algorithms and curatorial practices, the big blue giant is now taking measures to cut some of the crap.


“Facebook to roll out tech for combating fake stories in its trending topics”
by Sarah Perez
Techcrunch
September 14, 2016

aotp_facebookFollowing the controversial firing of the editorial team who managed the Trending Topics that appear next to Facebook’s News Feed, the company is now actively working on technology that will help prevent fake news stories from showing up in the Trending section. Similar systems have been rolled out to News Feed in recent months, and now that same technology is making its way to Trending, said Facebook’s News Feed head, Adam Mosseri, at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this morning.

The social network came under attack earlier this year for allegedly suppressing conservative news from appearing in the Trending Topics section. While it was later discovered that this was largely due to individual judgement, not institutional bias, the company took the heavy-handed measure of letting the entire team of Trending Topics news curators go.

Explained Mosseri, Facebook made this decision because “we wanted to be clear – in the wake of a lot of feedback – about our role and the role of people in the Trending product.”

That being said, the remaining product, which is now entirely driven by algorithms, has become much worse, many say. It has even allowed fake news stories to show up as trending topics – something a human-powered editorial team would likely catch.Read more.


The Strange Case of JT LeRoy

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Hype, Literary Hoaxes, Prank News, Publicity Stunts

JT LeRoy was widely presumed to be a gay prostitute from West Virginia who became the toast of NYC art-hipsterdom on the strength of his autobiographical books. The problem was that he didn’t exist at all – he was a character invented by a frustrated failed writer named Laura Albert and played by a friend of Albert’s in a blonde wig. Frauds and fabulists ran amok in the Bush years, and LeRoy’s unmasking didn’t garner the same attention and schadenfreude as the downfalls of rouge reporter Jayson Blair or manly-man poseur James Frey. But as a new documentary explores, his story was a hell of a lot weirder.


“JT LeRoy doc explores absorbing literary scandal”
by Lindsey Bahr
AP
September 7, 2016

downloadTo the general public, the name JT LeRoy probably rings only the vaguest of bells, if any at all. It didn’t for this particular critic. But that innocent ignorance is all the more reason to seek out the documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story ,” a fascinating peek into one of the wildest literary scandals in recent years and the bizarre nature of celebrity relationships. Director Jeff Feuerzeig’s film, while undeniably one-sided, will have your mind spinning with questions about authorship, authenticity, art and fame.

Read more.


No Ostriches Were Harmed in the Making of This Marketing Campaign

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Prank News, Publicity Stunts

Hate to be the bearers of bad news, but that dude riding an ostrich in rush-hour traffic was part of a viral marketing stunt. Shocker.


“Yep, That Video Of A Guy Riding An Ostrich Through Traffic Is Totally Fake”
by Lee Moran
Huffington Post
September 4, 2016

It was a brilliant idea to beat the traffic.

But sadly the viral video (above) of a man riding an ostrich to beat rush hour in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is totally fake.

The Bank of Astana claimed it was behind the hoax dash cam-style footage on Friday, after the video spread like wildfire across the web.

”What possessed us when creating this idea? The thought that many of us live bored and pragmatic lives,” the bank posted on Facebook.

“Team Bank of Astana believes that we need to stop just daydreaming ― and we must act to embody our wildest dreams, here and now,” it added. Read more.

Late-night Devil Worship at the CERN?

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Pranksters, Urban Legends

Someone filmed a fake human sacrifice at CERN laboratory
by Amar Toor
August 19, 2016

Officials at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) have launched an internal investigation after someone filmed a fake human sacrifice ritual at its Geneva headquarters, home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). In the video, posted online this week, a group of people wearing dark robes stand in front of a Hindu statue before “stabbing” a woman, purportedly as some sort of ritual. It was filmed from afar, and the person who shot it pretended to freak out and ran away after the stabbing.

A CERN spokesperson tells the AFP that the prank video was shot without permission on its Geneva campus, and that the people who orchestrated it had badge access to the site. The spokesperson did not identify the people responsible for it, describing the investigation as an “internal matter.” Read the rest of the story here.

Can Snopes Keep Up with the BS?

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Propaganda and Disinformation, Urban Legends

Our friends Barbara and David Mikkelson have been separating facts from fakes since 1995, when the internet looked like it might be a fad. Their immensely popular and credible argument-settling website Snopes.com has held steady against a rising tide of digital lies. But in the era of Reddit, Twitter, and Trump, David admits that he sometimes feels a tad overwhelmed.


“Can mythbusters like Snopes.com keep up in a post-truth era?”
by Rory Carroll
The Guardian
August 1, 2016

davidmikkelsonThe most scenic way to find truth on the internet is to drive north of Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway, blue ocean foaming to the left, sunlit hills cresting to the right, until Malibu Canyon Road, where you take a sharp right and wind for a few miles through the oak-lined knolls and dips of Calabasas, past gated estates that are home to the likes of Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Mel Gibson, and keep going until you reach an odd-looking wood-and-brick house with a US flag on the porch: the home of David Mikkelson.

It feels like a good jumping off point for a hike, or a pony trek. But really it is the ideal place to explore fibs like whether Hillary Clinton stole $200,000 in White House furnishings, or whether Donald Trump called Republicans the “dumbest group of voters”, or whether Black Lives Matter protesters chanted for dead cops, or whether Nicolas Cage died in a motorcycle accident, or whether chewing gum takes seven years to pass through the digestive system, or whether hair grows back thicker after being shaved, or, if you really, really must know, whether Richard Gere had an emergency “gerbilectomy” at Cedars-Sinai hospital.

Mikkelson owns and runs Snopes.com, a hugely popular fact-checking site which debunks urban legends, old wives’ tales, fake news, shoddy journalism and political spin. It started as a hobby in the internet’s Pleistocene epoch two decades ago and evolved into a professional site that millions now rely on as a lie-detector. Every day its team of writers and editors interrogate claims ricocheting around the internet to determine if they are false, true or somewhere in the middle – a cleaning of the Augean stables for the digital era.

“There are more and more people piling on to the internet and the number of entities pumping out material keeps growing,” says Mikkelson, who turns out to be a wry, soft-spoken sleuth. “I’m not sure I’d call it a post-truth age but … there’s been an opening of the sluice-gate and everything is pouring through. The bilge keeps coming faster than you can pump.” Read more.


The Strange Saga of Melania Trump’s Speechwriter

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Prank News

In one of many remarkable moments in this year’s Republican National Convention, potential First Lady Melania Trump delivered a speech blatantly plagiarized from incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama. A little-known Donald Trump speechwriter named Meredith McIver showed up to take the blame, sparking conspiracy theories. And things have stayed weird.


“Who’s Impersonating Melania Trump’s Plagarist Meredith McIver?”
by Gideon Resnick
The Daily Beast
August 2, 2016

meredith-mciver-melania-trump-8Meredith McIver, a former ballerina turned Donald Trump co-author, is definitely a real person. But her social media persona, which came into being after she took the blame for Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech, definitely is not.

The account @imeredithmciver began tweeting on July 20, the day after Melania Trump’s prime-time Republican National Convention speech was upended by the revelation that she had cribbed some lines from an address by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And it is still posing as McIver to this day, with no comment or pushback from the Trump campaign.

As the campaign is in the throes of daily sparring with a Gold Star family, fire marshals, and even the speaker of the House, there’s been no acknowledgment of the fake social media presence of McIver, who told The Daily Beast she has no online presence. Multiple people have emailed The Daily Beast claiming to have some knowledge about the mysterious appearance of the account, ranging from abject satire to claims the Trump campaign is actually behind it.

“I just wanted to set the record straight. @realDonaldTrump is a wonderful man,” the account tweeted just as McIver was getting roped into the burgeoning scandal. With her social media proclamation, the account included a photoshopped image of McIver and Trump standing next to each other in his office. (more…)

Pokemon Go Crime Wave… Not

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Filed under: All About Pranks, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hype, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The World of the Prank

In less than a week, Nintendo’s new mobile game Pokemon Go has become a 2016 pop-culture phenomenon. (It is, you see, pretty much the only recent news item that isn’t wildly depressing.) With all the hype, think-pieces, newsjacking, and Facebook-sharing, some skepticism was lost in the shuffle.


“The Man Behind the Pokemon Crime Wave”
by Ben Collins and Kate Briquelet
The Daily Beast
July 11, 2016

wigglytuffAmerica is going crazy for the new game—crazy enough to kill, if you believe all the stories on Facebook. But the bloodbath is fake, and The Daily Beast tracked down the man behind it.

At CartelPress.com, the death toll from the first weekend of Pokémon GO is still piling up.

If you’re to believe that website, the new augmented reality game that has users walking into public parks and streets to catch Pokémon—and is nearing as many daily active users as Twitter—is responsible for a bloodbath. A teen killed his brother over a low-rent Pokémon called a Pidgey, the site reports. Countless were left dead on a Massachusetts highway when a 26-year-old stopped in the middle of the road to catch a Pikachu, it also alleges. And now, on CartelPress.com, the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS is claiming credit for the biggest Pokémon tragedy of all: rampant server issues.
Unbelievable.

No, really. It should be unbelievable. But 10,000 people shared that first story on Facebook. More than 64,000 shared the last one. And the Pokémon highway accident? Three hundred eighty-four thousand shares on Facebook in a couple of days.

And none of them are real.

CartelPress is just one part of the Pokésteria.

Now gamers on other sites are fooling people into donating to a Texas-based Uber driver who claims he witnessed a murder scene while trawling for Pokémon over the weekend—even though that murder scene, just like the rest of these stories, never existed.

That didn’t stop plenty of reputable news agencies from recycling the Satanic Panic-esque stories that were always too good to be true. The Atlantic referenced the highway death in the middle of its story “The Tragedy of Pokémon GO.” The New York Post did the same.

There are plenty more. Pablo Reyes almost caught ’em all. According to the 26-year-old internet prankster—who flooded America’s elevators and drive time radio shows with fake Pokécrime he invented on CartelPress, a new site he created—it’s all one big coding mistake. Read on for the interview.

Step 1: Crack a Raw Egg Open into a Glass; Step 2: Hatch a Chick?

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

Thanks Andrea Marini (director of Art of the Prank, the movie) for this tip.


“Did Japanese students really hatch a chick outside a shell?”
by Robert Ferris
CNBC Science
June 8, 2016

103700352-maxresdefault.530x298A video making the rounds on the internet depicts a group of Japanese students cracking an egg, dropping it into a plastic pouch, and incubating it until a baby chick emerges several days later.

The video has received about 50 million views on Facebook, and other versions have popped up on YouTube and other platforms.

A video making the rounds on the internet depicts a group of Japanese students cracking an egg, dropping it into a plastic pouch, and incubating it until a baby chick emerges several days later.

The video has received about 50 million views on Facebook, and other versions have popped up on YouTube and other platforms.

Though questions remain surrounding the video’s authenticity, the process is possible, according to E. David Peebles, a professor of poultry science at Mississippi State University. In fact, this is not the first time such a thing has been attempted.

“I remember seeing a similar kind of thing when I was in a lab North Carolina State University,” Peebles told CNBC in an interview. “They had relatively limited success with it, but they did have some success.” Read more here and watch the video below.