The World of the Prank

The artist as social provocateur and activist incorporates humor, satire, irony, political commentary and/or direct action to provoke critical thinking. Pranks challenge convention and the status quo and expose prejudices and biases.

Blog Posts

Inside the Amazon Million Dollar e-Book Scam

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
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.

A Golden Throne for America’s Royal Hiney

Filed under: Art Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The Prank as Art

In what reads like a pitch for an art film or a postmodern fever dream, journalist Carey Dunne goes on a thoughtful search for the story behind artist Maurizio Cattelan’s “epic troll,” a solid gold toilet named “America”.

“Waiting To Pee in ‘America,’ the Gold Toilet at the Guggenheim”
by Carey Dunne
September 23, 2016

aotp_americaWhile waiting in line to pee in “America,” a toilet cast in 18-karat gold and installed in a Guggenheim Museum bathroom, I ran into my friend Fritz Mead, who lives in a shack he built himself out of scrap wood in a backyard next to a skate bowl he also built himself. The shack doesn’t have plumbing, so to use a working toilet he has to leave his shack and go into the basement apartment next door.

Given his apparent ambivalence about plumbing — let alone luxury plumbing — I was surprised to see Fritz waiting to use the gold toilet, which is the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. Estimated to be worth as much as $2.5 million, “America” (which opened at the Guggenheim last week), will remain installed in an otherwise ordinary fourth floor bathroom for a year. (When asked exactly how much the toilet cost, a guard said, “If you have to ask, you already know,” a riddle I am still trying to solve.)

Cattelan “intends visitors to use the toilet just as they would any other facility in the building,” according to the wall text. It gets special treatment, though: only one visitor is allowed inside the stall at a time, for no more than five minutes; the toilet seat must not be lifted; a security guard inspects the toilet after each visit; and a cleaning crew cleans it with a special gold-cleaning product every 20 minutes. The wait time when I visited was two hours.

Read the rest of the story here.

Uncle Sam’s Imaginary Pen Pal

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

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
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

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

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
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

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
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.

Tech-Savvy Satire for an Absurd Election Year

Filed under: Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Prank News, Satire

As The Onion has evolved from a college-town in-joke into an American satirical institution, it has taken a more active role in critiquing US politics. In the run-up to this year’s elections, it has souped up the media to better serve the message.

“The Onion ramps up speed of satire in Campaign 2016”
by Patrick Mairs
September 11, 2016

Even satire has a shelf life.

The OnionIn a presidential campaign with fast-changing headlines that sometimes defy belief, The Onion has managed to maintain its niche by becoming more agile, just like real news organizations.

The 28-year-old satirical media outlet, famous for creating fake news, has evolved with technology a bit like everyone else, including the news industry it parodies. For the first time, The Onion this summer sent staffers to the Democratic and Republican conventions.

“Although technology requires media to be much quicker, it also allows us to be a bit faster, and we’ve started training ourselves and developing ways that we can be a little more reactive, too,” said Matt Klinman, The Onion’s head writer for video.

Klinman was part of a team of staffers sent to the conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland with a goal of mocking the news in something close to real time. Its video team quickly posted full-length clips of high-profile convention speeches on Facebook, complete with cable news-style graphics that included jokes and commentary.

“We’ve been sort of wanting to crack a way of doing live coverage as The Onion for a long time,” Klinman said.

The Onion’s sarcastic take on political gatherings apparently struck a chord on Facebook, where its convention videos outpaced those from major news outlets such as The New York Times, ABC, NBC and CNN for much of the two-week period when the meetings were held. The data come from Tubular Labs, an analytics firm The Onion uses to track video views.

The Chicago-based Onion is planning similar coverage for the upcoming presidential debates. Read more.

Bare-Assed Pedaling for a Change

Filed under: Creative Activism, Legal Issues, Prank News, Pranksters

World Naked Bike Ride Day, a recurring sight gag with a message of self-care and sustainability, streaks through Philly.

“Thousands of Naked Bicyclists Storm the City of Brotherly Love”
by Dino Hazell
September 10, 2016

AP Photo: Dino Hazell

Thousands of bicyclists dared to be bare for the city’s annual nude ride promoting positive body image, cycling advocacy and fuel conservation.

About 3,000 people gathered Saturday for the eighth annual Philly Naked Bike Ride through the city’s streets. They set off from a park near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Sylvester Stallone ran up the steps in the “Rocky” movies.

The annual ride featured people sporting underwear, body paint, glitter or nothing at all. Some riders concerned about being recognized by their parents or co-workers wore masks while others wore just their shoes.

“It’s a really open and fun way of destigmatizing nudity,” said Oren Eisenberg, who was riding nude for the fifth time. (more…)

Joey Skaggs to the NY Daily News, “You Gotta Realize There Are Consequences”

Filed under: Hoax Etiquette, How to Pull Off a Prank, Legal Issues, Prank News, Pranksters, What Makes a Good Prank?

Call us snobs, sticklers… call us the Emily Post of prankdom. But releasing a bunch of live crickets in a crowded subway car, as Brooklyn’s Zadia Pugh was recently arrested for doing, isn’t much of a prank. When there is so much groupthink and hypocrisy to expose and so many passersby thirst for wonder and delight, it’s not enough to simply scare and annoy people. That’s a sad and boring way to go viral. People are plenty scared and annoyed as it is.

Legendary prankster Joey Skaggs was asked to comment on Pugh’s stunt and to lend some guidance to cavalier young instigators of her ilk. Irreverence is just the beginning.

“Seasoned prankster Joey Skaggs chides rookie Zadia Pugh for unleashing crickets on packed D train: ‘You gotta realize there are consequences'”
by Graham Rayman
New York Daily News
September 3, 2016

crickets4n-2-webAs a prankster, Zaida Pugh — who terrified straphangers in August when she released live crickets on a packed subway train — is no more than a misguided rookie.

And Joey Skaggs should know.

For the past 40 years, Skaggs, 70, a New Yorker who now lives “somewhere in the south,” has conned the media into reporting fake stories as fact.

His elaborate pranks include creating a brothel for dogs and posing as a man who invented a vitamin pill made of cockroaches which supposedly would make people invulnerable to radiation.

The press bought it.

He got the press to buy that he had windsurfed from Hawaii to California. He created a Celebrity Sperm Bank, and a “Fat Squad,” made up of commandos who supposedly physically restrained people from breaking their diets.

He unrepentantly posed as a priest and pedaled a full-size confessional booth around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and got on the news for that, too.

Author Andrea Juno once wrote that he “uses the media as a painter uses a canvas.”

crickets4n-4-webSkaggs told the Daily News on Saturday even though Pugh claimed to be making a statement about homelessness, her stunt on the Manhattan Bridge on Aug. 24 was “irresponsible and dangerous.”

“To me, the expose’ is the most important part,” he said. “It’s not the ‘hahaha, I got you.’ It’s the ‘Aha.’ When they realize they have put aside critical thinking.

“The goal is to get people to become more media literate and more skeptical about information that’s given to them by governments and corporations. And you have to be ethical and careful in going about it.” Read more.

No Ostriches Were Harmed in the Making of This Marketing Campaign

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.

Trolls are Eating the Internet

Filed under: First Amendment Issues, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The World of the Prank

If a prankster is a surgeon, a troll is a drunk swinging an axe. They are distinct but have a few things in common, including a tendency to thrive on the internet. In this piece, Joel Stein addresses a particularly artless strain of digital hate and warns that it’s poisoning the pool.

“How Trolls are Ruining the Internet”
by Joel Stein
August 18, 2016

AOTP_TrollfaceThis story is not a good idea. Not for society and certainly not for me. Because what trolls feed on is attention. And this little bit–these several thousand words–is like leaving bears a pan of baklava.

It would be smarter to be cautious, because the Internet’s personality has changed. Once it was a geek with lofty ideals about the free flow of information. Now, if you need help improving your upload speeds the web is eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself. Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building. And it’s seeping from our smartphones into every aspect of our lives.

The people who relish this online freedom are called trolls, a term that originally came from a fishing method online thieves use to find victims. It quickly morphed to refer to the monsters who hide in darkness and threaten people. Internet trolls have a manifesto of sorts, which states they are doing it for the “lulz,” or laughs. What trolls do for the lulz ranges from clever pranks to harassment to violent threats. There’s also doxxing–publishing personal data, such as Social Security numbers and bank accounts–and swatting, calling in an emergency to a victim’s house so the SWAT team busts in. When victims do not experience lulz, trolls tell them they have no sense of humor. Trolls are turning social media and comment boards into a giant locker room in a teen movie, with towel-snapping racial epithets and misogyny. (more…)

We’ve been Truummmp’d

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Filed under: Parody

“Trumped” Starring Matthew Broderick & Nathan Lane

From the producers who brought you “The Producers,” #Trumped is a new musical starring Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Cloris Leachman and the unlikely candidate himself, Donald Trump. From Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Thanks Joe & Spencer

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.

The Emporer Has No Balls

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

Update from about artist, Ginger (thanks Sal): Meet the sculptor behind the naked Donald Trump statues

A Cleveland-based group, INDECLINE, erected flacid Trump statues overnight in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Seattle.

INDECLINE Trump Statue by Ginger

Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Dawsey tweeted the New York City Parks Department comment about the statue’s removal:

Jack Dawsey tweet

Watch the “making of” video:
Artist: Ginger
Original Score: Ryder Reynolds

Read more here, here, and here. Thanks Nancy.