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

When Life Imitates Satire: Israeli Newspaper Spooked by The Onion’s Prescient Report

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

‘Netanyahu cheered up by US missile offer’: how the Onion scooped Haaretz
by Jessica Elgot
The Guardian
July 21, 2015

Satirical site’s joke about the US offering missiles to the Israeli prime minister to appease him over the Iran nuclear deal turned out to be uncannily accurate

Binyamin Netanyahu‘US Soothes Upset Netanyahu With Shipment of Ballistic Missiles’ sounds like a headline from the Onion. And it is – except that this time it’s true. International media organisations have regularly been caught out by the satirical news site, fooled into thinking that Kim Jong-un really was voted the world’s sexiest man, or that Americans would prefer a beer with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than Barack Obama.

But this time editors of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz were spooked by a story in the Onion from the previous day that matched what they had heard as fact.

Last week, the paper reported a senior US official as saying that Obama had spoken to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, offering to “begin immediate talks about upgrading the Israel Defence Forces’ offensive and defensive capabilities” after US negotiators reached a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, which was condemned by Israel. But the day before, the Onion had published a tongue-in-cheek piece announcing that the Israeli government would receive “a nice, big shipment of ballistic missiles” to help them come to terms with the Iran deal.

The piece included jokey quotes from a “State Department spokesperson”, which said: “Bibi always gets a little cranky when he sees us talking to Iran, but a few dozen short-range surface-to-surface missiles usually cheer him right up … At least we’ll have a couple months of peace and quiet around here.”

Life does not entirely imitate satire: Haaretz reported that the Israeli leader has said he would not accept the offer, because to do so would imply that the Iran deal had been tacitly accepted, though Israeli army radio on Monday quoted unnamed defence ministry officials as saying they would discuss compensation from the US.

Read the rest of this article here.


Non-profit that entrapped Planned Parenthood in supposed “fetus selling” scandal is not what it purports to be

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Filed under: Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation

Update, August 1, 2015: A Los Angeles judge has placed a temporary injunction on the Center for Medical Progress, stopping them from issuing any further anti-Planned Parenthood videos they may have illegally obtained using fake IDs.


CMP logoHuffington Post states that the Center for Medical Progress, the anti-abortion group behind the sting that has discredited Planned Parenthood by publishing a video about the organization selling fetal parts, is a sham non-profit. The Center, in turn, created a “shell” group called Biomax, calling it a “fetal tissue procurement company,” to entrap a Planned Parenthood executive into speaking casually over a meal with wine about procedures for shipping fetuses to laboratories for research.

The final video was edited to make it appear that Planned Parenthood sells fetuses from abortions, when in actuality, at the request of some women, they donate the fetuses for research. Reimbursements are to cover the cost of transportation. None of this is illegal. According to Slate.com, there appears to be a link between the head of the group David Daleiden and James O’Keefe, known for creating similar dishonest and inflamatory videos in support of hot right wing political issues.

Here’s the video in question. Watch carefully. Look for the numerous camera angles, as there are at least 2 if not 3 concealed cameras. And listen to the dialog to see how easy it is to take what someone says out of context, turning it into a story about something totally different.

Read more about this here:

  • Slate.com: What Is the Center for Medical Progress, the Group Behind the Latest Viral Abortion Video?
  • Huffington Post: Group Behind Planned Parenthood Sting Video May Have Tricked IRS, Donors

  • Ricky & Doris: An Unconventional Friendship in New York City. With Puppets!

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    Filed under: Urban Legends

    My long-time friend and former neighbor, activist Doris Diether, is featured in this short film by photographer and filmmaker David Friedman. He made this wonderful homage to the friendship between Doris and artist RicKy Syers for AARP.


    Doris Diether with her RicKy Syers puppet, photo by Victor Shoup
    Pulling her own strings, 2013, Victor Shoup

    Ricky Syers is an off-beat 50 year old street performer who found his calling as a puppeteer after a lifetime of manual labor. While performing in New York City’s Washington Square Park, he met Doris Diether, an 86 year old community activist. They became friends and he made a marionette that looks just like her. Now she’s joined his act and the two of them can often be seen performing together.

    via Colossal


    Loverly Delusion

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    Filed under: Fraud and Deception

    This Is What It’s Like To Fall In Love With A Woman Who Doesn’t Exist
    by Patrick Smith
    BuzzFeed
    May 24, 2015

    Leah Palmer was a high-flying fashionista with a jet-setting lifestyle and a host of admirers on social media. But her entire existence was a fraud – a multiyear hoax that depended on stealing someone else’s life. BuzzFeed News tells the extraordinary story.

    longform-32066-1432312839-3

    Images from Leah Palmer’s Instagram account, @LeahPalmerFashion. Instagram

    Leah Palmer was a hard girl to pin down. She worked in fashion and had a jet-setting lifestyle that took her around the world. She would often enthusiastically arrange to meet her friends and male admirers, only to pull out at the last minute. She’d get ill at the worst moments, or have family crises.

    “Whenever we had arranged to meet, there was always an excuse,” says Justin, a semiprofessional athlete who developed a friendship – and then a relationship – with Leah. (Justin is not his real name; he spoke to BuzzFeed News under condition of anonymity.)

    Images from Leah Palmer’s Instagram account, @LeahPalmerFashion. Instagram
    “Given her apparent career in fashion, she was supposedly away a lot with work,” he says. “She pulled at the heartstrings a little, claiming the death of her brother, and various other family tragedies, throughout the time we were in contact. So I often gave her the benefit of the doubt when it came to meeting up.”
    The pair started flirting in July 2012 and tweeted each other several times a day. They spoke regularly on the phone and would use Skype – but never via a video call, because Leah’s camera was invariably broken. Leah would occasionally put her mother Scarlett on the phone to speak to Justin.

    He knew, he tells BuzzFeed News, that something didn’t add up. “She always seemed to have answers and was able to cover her tracks rather well – speaking to friends, having an international dial tone when away, being very knowledgeable about her industry, posting things on social media. But obviously the fact that you could never tie her down to a time and place to meet would sound alarm bells.”

    Read the whole story here.

    The Credibility Crisis: Who do you believe? Me or your lying eyes?

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    Filed under: Propaganda and Disinformation

    A must-read recommendation from Joey Skaggs: Don’t miss Adrian Chen’s article, The Agency, in The New York Times, June 2, 2015


    Wag the Dog, online and updated
    David Strom’s Web Informant
    June 3, 2015

    In one of my favorite movies, Wag the Dog, we declare a fictional war on Albania in an attempt to manipulate a presidential election. While the movie (which was made 18 years ago) posits a ridiculous scenario, it is coming of age in today’s era of ubiquitous Internet and inexpensive video editing and social media aggregation tools.

    MV5BMjA4OTQzODE1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDIyMjY0NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_-300x201According to Adrian Chen’s article in the New York Times, a secretive Russian agency has been fabricating various events for both American and Russian audiences using very similar “Wag the Dog” scenarios. Chen finds You Tube videos, fake Twitter accounts by the truckload, and phony websites and other postings that seem to all come from this agency. The effort is so realistic that many people are fooled into thinking its fabricated disasters, conflicts, and other newsworthy events are real, rather than the work of some clever and dedicated troll army. (more…)

    The Amazing Story of Mingering Mike

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    Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Urban Legends

    The mystery of Mingering Mike: the soul legend who never existed
    by Jon Ronson
    The Guardian
    11 February 2015

    When a ‘crate-digger’ found a massive vinyl collection at a flea market, he couldn’t understand how a soul star who’d released over 100 records could just disappear. But the truth turned out to be even stranger. Jon Ronson goes in search of Mingering Mike

    Intensely shy ... Mingering Mike at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photograph: Jocelyn Augustino for the Guardian

    Intensely shy … Mingering Mike at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photograph: Jocelyn Augustino for the Guardian


    This story begins with a record collector unearthing something extraordinary at a flea market one dawn in 2003. His name is Dori Hadar. He worked as a criminal investigator for a law firm in Washington DC and he’d been up all night with a client at the jail next door.

    “It’s a miserable place to be, the DC jail,” Hadar tells me. “It’s stuffy and muggy and everything’s old and decaying.”

    “Do you remember what your client had been accused of?” I ask.

    Hadar shakes his head. “It’s basically drugs, guns and murders. Mainly.”

    Hadar finally left the jail at 5am, just as a nearby flea market was setting up. He was a regular there – a “crate-digger” – for ever rifling through boxes of secondhand soul and funk albums, hunting for rarities. “It’s very competitive, the crate-digger world,” Hadar says. “People guard their boxes, they don’t want you to see, they pull the records out really fast.”

    But Hadar had never been at the flea market at 5am before, and was thrilled to find no other crate-digger in sight. “And suddenly this enormous collection turned up. There must have been 15 boxes of albums.”

    “As a crate-digger, that must be …”

    “It’s the dream.”

    All artworks courtesy the artist/Smithsonian American Art Museum

    All artworks courtesy the artist/Smithsonian American Art Museum


    Hadar was a true soul aficionado, with an encyclopaedic knowledge and 10,000 records at home. Which is why he was so amazed to discover 38 albums by a soul singer he had never heard of. His name was Mingering Mike. Hadar stared at the record covers. He read the liner notes. There was Mingering Mike’s 1968’s debut, Sit’tin by the Window. The cover art was a painting of a young man in a green T-shirt, good-looking, serious. The comedian Jack Benny had written the liner notes, calling him “a bright and intelligent young man with a great, exciting future awaiting him”.

    So it transpired. There were greatest hits collections and a Bruce Lee concept album and movie soundtracks – including one for an action film called Stake Out. And there were live albums, like 1972’s Live from Paris, The Mingering Mike Review: ‘Their biggest show ever,’ read the liner notes. ‘What a night that was.’

    Most of the song titles were upbeat and optimistic, like There’s Nothing Wrong With You Baby and Play It Cool, Don’t Be No Fool, Get Your Thing Together and Go Back to School. But other records had darker themes, like The Drug Store and Mama Takes Dope. Some were still wrapped in their original cellophane, price tags intact.

    Hadar pulled out a few discs to see what condition they were in. Which was when he discovered to his enormous surprise that they weren’t vinyl. They were black-painted cardboard, with fake labels and hand-drawn grooves.

    What had begun to dawn on Hadar was now totally apparent: Mingering Mike did not exist. He was somebody’s hugely detailed fantasy.

    Read the whole story here.


    Mingering Mike’s prodigious album collection is on exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2nd floor South, 8th and F Streets, N.W., February 27, 2015 – August 2, 2015


    Looking Back at Some Superstar Scambaiters

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

    419 scams (a/k/a “NIGERIAN PRINCE” emails) have long, long fascinated certain quarters of the internet. They’ve flooded inboxes with outsider poetry and inspired satire and scambaiting, a prankish and dangerous literary subgenre explored at length in the fascinating work of journalist Eve Edelson.

    Craigslist killers, social media “catfishing” scams, and the internet vigilantes of Anonymous now get much more attention, making 419ers look like relics, at least by internet standards. And yet, great work still emerges from the scambaiter milieu.

    Here’s the absurd story (from 2013) of how a few intrepid 419-eaters orchestrated the cover of Vice, for posterity.


    “How We Got the Skammerz Ishu Cover”
    By Mishka Henner
    Vice
    December 17, 2013

    Scam-baiting is a form of internet vigilantism in which the vigilante poses as a potential victim to expose a scammer. It’s essentially grassroots social engineering conducted as civic duty or even amusement, a cross-cultural double bluff in which participants on separate continents try to outdo each other in an online tug-of-war for one’s time and resources – and the other’s private banking information.

    The baiter begins by “biting the hook” – answering an email from the scammer. The “victim” feigns receptivity to the financial lure, engaging the scammer in a drawn-out chain of emails. The most important element of baiting is to waste as much of the scammer’s time as possible – when a scammer is preoccupied, it prevents him from conning genuine victims.

    Vice Skammerz IshuThe cover of the issue you’re looking at is a trophy from the most elaborate bait I’ve ever been involved in. Three scammers, spread across Libya and the United Arab Emirates, set the con. They posed as a widow named Nourhan Abdul Aziz, a doctor named Dr. Ahmadiyya Ibrahim and a banker going by Ephraim Adamoah. From Nourhan’s initial contact with my associate, Condo Rice, to Ephraim’s actually donning an Obama mask and shooting our cover for us, 7,000 words were exchanged over nearly four months of emails. During that time, Condo and I negotiated our way through a labyrinthine network of fake websites, bogus documents and broken English, and ended up with the weirdest photograph I’ve seen in a long time. Read the actual email correspondence here.


    VICE Falls for Dream Hoax

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    Filed under: Media Pranks, Pranksters, Urban Legends

    thisman.org
    thisman.org

    If you’ve ever seen this man in your dreams, you’re not alone. Famed prankster Andrea Natella’s long-lived dreamy hoax just caught VICE sleeping.

    Read VICE’s mea culpa: Ugh, We Just Got Hoaxed: The Real Story About the ‘This Man’ Dream Face, January 15, 2015

    Glitter-bomb Prankster Can’t Stop His Own Creation

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

    It was an idea that practically shimmered with brilliance: Have packages full of glitter shipped to your enemies, assuring they won’t get your sparkly animus out of their sweaters for a long time. It exploded on blogs and social media, and now Matthew Carpenter, its creator, is not having fun anymore. He’s trying to sell the business after just one day. Sounds like a marketing ploy if there ever was one. “This is too successful. Please take it off my hands for a lot of money.”

    ViceGlitter-020


    “Evil genius behind ‘Ship Your Enemies Glitter’ didn’t quite think it through”
    by Andrea Romano
    Mashable
    January 15, 2015

    Mathew Carpenter has made a huge mistake, and much like his creation, it’s not going anywhere for a while.

    The 22-year-old creator of ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com — and self-proclaimed person who “live[s] for moolah” on Twitter — is urging his millions of fans to stop using his brilliantly evil website to get revenge on their enemies.

    After a boom in sales that also caused a temporary site crash, Carpenter decided he is in way over his sparkly head and put the site up for grabs to anyone who wants to buy it from him.

    He also posted on the website ProductHunt.com, pleading with customers to stop buying his shiny and swift revenge methods.

    Read the rest here.

     

    Je Suis Charlie

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    Filed under: The Big One

    Here’s an example of the cartoons created by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo prior to today’s brutal attack on their office by Muslim extremists in Paris, France, during which 12 people were killed and numerous others wounded. The cartoon says: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”

    This issue, published in 2011, invited Muhammad to become a “guest editor.” After its publication, their office was fire-bombed. They refused to stop using humor and satire to combat fanatic fundamentalism. We stand in solidarity with them.

    o-100-LASHES-570

    See more Charlie Hebdo cartoons at Huffington Post here.

    TV Viewers Disappointed to Not See Host Eaten Alive

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    Filed under: Publicity Stunts, Spin

    Promotional materials for the Discovery Channel program Eaten Alive led some viewers to expect that they would see host Paul Rosolie devoured by a wild anaconda. When he wasn’t, animal-rights activists and passive sadists alike expressed dismay.


    ‘Eaten Alive’ Watched by 4.1 Million Viewers
    by Lynn Elber
    ABCNews
    December 8, 2014

    eaten aliveLOS ANGELES (AP) – Discovery Channel’s “Eaten Alive” special that pitted snake against man drew more than 4 million viewers, but not all considered it time well spent.

    Although the title and a promotional video indicated that naturalist Paul Rosolie would be swallowed by a giant anaconda, Sunday’s pre-taped special didn’t go that far.

    Rosolie, described by Discovery as a snake researcher and conservationist, ended his Amazon jungle encounter with the snake after it encircled his body and began squeezing. Wearing bulky protective gear, Rosolie escaped with a sore arm but uneaten.

    Online, some viewers jeered the show for falling short of its promise. One posting showed a photo of a mild-looking dog nibbling on a person’s finger, accompanied by a request for their own Discovery show. (more…)

    New York Teenager Confesses to Not Being a Millionaire

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    Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Pranks, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Pranksters

    The December 15, 2014 issue of New York magazine reported that 17-year-old Mohammed Islam brought down $72 million swapping stocks between classes, but the story quickly dissolved into a mixture of journalistic credulity and outright bullshit. After a cancelled TV appearance and protests from his fellow members of the high school Leaders Investment Club, Islam comes clean in a chat with the New York Observer.


    “New York Mag’s Boy Genius Investor Made It All Up”
    by Ken Kurson
    The New York Observer
    December 15, 2014

    fullsizerender4It’s been a tough month for fact-checking. After the Rolling Stone campus rape story unraveled, readers of all publications can be forgiven for questioning the process by which Americans get our news. And now it turns out that another blockbuster story is—to quote its subject in an exclusive Observer interview — ”not true.”

    Monday’s edition of New York magazine includes an irresistible story about a Stuyvesant High senior named Mohammed Islam who had made a fortune investing in the stock market. Reporter Jessica Pressler wrote regarding the precise number, “Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the ‘high eight figures.’” The New York Post followed up with a story of its own, with the fat figure playing a key role in the headline: “High school student scores $72M playing the stock market.”

    And now it turns out, the real number is… zero.

    In an exclusive interview with Mr. Islam and his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov, who also featured heavily in the New York story, the baby-faced boys who dress in suits with tie clips came clean. Swept up in a tide of media adulation, they made the whole thing up.

    Speaking at the offices of their newly hired crisis pr firm, 5WPR, and handled by a phalanx of four, including the lawyer Ed Mermelstein of RheemBell & Mermelstein, Mr. Islam told a story that will be familiar to just about any 12th grader—a fib turns into a lie turns into a rumor turns into a bunch of mainstream media stories and invitations to appear on CNBC.

    Here’s how it happened. Read more.

    Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries Exhibition

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    Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, The History of Pranks, Urban Legends

    From Marty Elvin:

    The Milton S. Eisenhower Library of Johns Hopkins University presents:


    Fakes, Lies & Forgeries

    Fakes, Lies & Forgeries
    George Peabody Library Exhibition Hall
    17 East Mount Vernon Place
    Baltimore, Maryland
    October 5, 2014–February 1, 2015

    In 2011, Johns Hopkins University acquired the world’s most comprehensive collection of rare books and manuscripts on the history of forgery in the West, some 1,700 items in all spanning the ancient world to the 20th century. This exhibition of 70 treasures from the collection explores the phenomenon of forgery as a creative literary form, and addresses particular highlights of this extraordinary gathering of scholarly materials from classical antiquity to the early decades of the 20th century.

    Bibliotheca Fictiva

    Highlights will include: editions of Jesus’ posthumous “Letter from Heaven,” eyewitness accounts of the Fall of Troy, the only surviving autograph of the martyr Thomas Beckett, unpublished manuscript verses of Martin Luther expositing “The Lord’s Prayer, annotated books from Shakespeare’s personal library, (more…)

    Catching Up With Serial Fabulist Stephen Glass

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    Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy

    Hanna Rosin attempts to square up with her former bestie, one of American journalism’s most notorious bullshitters.

    Bonus: Longform.org has a confounding collection of essays on frauds in journalism.


    “Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry”
    By Hanna Rosin
    The New Republic
    November 10, 2014

    He nearly destroyed this magazine. Sixteen years later, his former best friend finally confronts him.

    shattered-glass2

    The last time I talked to Stephen Glass, he was pleading with me on the phone to protect him from Charles Lane. Chuck, as we called him, was the editor of The New Republic and Steve was my colleague and very good friend, maybe something like a little brother, though we are only two years apart in age. Steve had a way of inspiring loyalty, not jealousy, in his fellow young writers, which was remarkable given how spectacularly successful he’d been in such a short time. While the rest of us were still scratching our way out of the intern pit, he was becoming a franchise, turning out bizarre and amazing stories week after week for The New Republic, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone—each one a home run.

    I didn’t know when he called me that he’d made up nearly all of the bizarre and amazing stories, that he was the perpetrator of probably the most elaborate fraud in journalistic history, that he would soon become famous on a whole new scale. I didn’t even know he had a dark side. It was the spring of 1998 and he was still just my hapless friend Steve, who padded into my office ten times a day in white socks and was more interested in alphabetizing beer than drinking it. When he called, I was in New York and I said I would come back to D.C. right away. I probably said something about Chuck like: “Fuck him. He can’t fire you. He can’t possibly think you would do that.”

    I was wrong, and Chuck, ever-resistant to Steve’s charms, was as right as he’d been in his life. (more…)

    Spreading Fear for Profit

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    Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoax Etiquette

    Fake news sites are using Facebook to spread Ebola panic
    by Josh Dzieza
    The Verge
    October 22, 2014

    They call themselves satire sites, but they’re really spreading scary rumors for profit

    There’s a scary story bouncing around Facebook, accruing hundreds of thousands of likes: the small town of Purdon, Texas, has been quarantined after a family of five was diagnosed with Ebola. The story is a total hoax, put out by a deeply cynical site called the National Report. But to the 340,000 people who saw it pop up in their news feed, it looked real enough to share.

    “We’ve seen stories on satire sites — fake news sites — getting tremendous traction because they feed on people’s fears,” says Craig Silverman, the founder of Emergent.Info. “It’s really becoming an epidemic now.” Silverman launched Emergent with Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism last month to track the spread of rumors online in real time. Many of the stories he’s seen have been organic rumors, things like the pumpkin spice condom or the 50-foot crab that begin life as jokes, get taken out of context, are written up in news stories, and take off on Facebook before anyone bothers to verify them. But he’s finding that a surprising number, especially when it comes to Ebola, are deliberate attempts to deceive. “I’ve had people emailing me about the Purdon story, very scared, asking if it was true,” says Silverman.

    Emergent's chart of the spreading Purdon hoax. Green represents shares linking to the hoax, red represents shares debunking it.

    Emergent’s chart of the spreading Purdon hoax. Green represents shares linking to the hoax, red represents shares debunking it.

    (more…)