Media Literacy

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Aviv Ovadya and the Coming “Infocalypse”

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fraud and Deception, Legal Issues, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, The Future of Pranks

In a far-ranging, frightening, and fascinating interview, Buzzfeed News catches up with engineer and tech prognosticator Aviv Ovadya, who anticipated the current scourge of “fake news” and says we haven’t seen anything yet.

“He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis. Now He’s Worried About An Information Apocalypse.”
By Charlie Warzel
February 11, 2018

In mid-2016, Aviv Ovadya realized there was something fundamentally wrong with the internet — so wrong that he abandoned his work and sounded an alarm. A few weeks before the 2016 election, he presented his concerns to technologists in San Francisco’s Bay Area and warned of an impending crisis of misinformation in a presentation he titled “Infocalypse.”

The web and the information ecosystem that had developed around it was wildly unhealthy, Ovadya argued. The incentives that governed its biggest platforms were calibrated to reward information that was often misleading and polarizing, or both. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google prioritized clicks, shares, ads, and money over quality of information, and Ovadya couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all building toward something bad — a kind of critical threshold of addictive and toxic misinformation. The presentation was largely ignored by employees from the Big Tech platforms — including a few from Facebook who would later go on to drive the company’s NewsFeed integrity effort.

“At the time, it felt like we were in a car careening out of control and it wasn’t just that everyone was saying, ‘we’ll be fine’ — it’s that they didn’t even see the car,” he said.

Ovadya saw early what many — including lawmakers, journalists, and Big Tech CEOs — wouldn’t grasp until months later: Our platformed and algorithmically optimized world is vulnerable — to propaganda, to misinformation, to dark targeted advertising from foreign governments — so much so that it threatens to undermine a cornerstone of human discourse: the credibility of fact.

But it’s what he sees coming next that will really scare the shit out of you. Read more.

Forget About Getting a Table Here

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, How to Pull Off a Prank, Instructionals, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The World of the Prank

Update January 25, 2018: Vice Video: How to Become TripAdvisor’s #1 Fake Restaurant. Thanks Frank.

The London restaurant so exclusive that no one could ever get a reservation. H/t Bob O’Keefe.

Bonus: Oobah Butler’s Vice play book on how he pulled it off.

‘The Shed at Dulwich’ was London’s top-rated restaurant. Just one problem: It didn’t exist.
By Eli Rosenberg
The Washington Post
December 8, 2017

It was a unique restaurant in London and certainly the hardest to get into. And it beat out thousands of upscale restaurants in the city to earn the top ranking on the popular review site TripAdvisor for a time, drawing a flood of interest.

There was just one small problem: It didn’t exist.

The restaurant was just a listing created this year by a freelance writer, Oobah Butler, who used his home — a shed in the Dulwich area in South London — as the inspiration for a high-concept new restaurant that he posted on TripAdvisor: “The Shed at Dulwich.”

With hardly more than some fake reviews — “Best shed based experience in London!” a particularly cheeky one read — and a website, it had gamed the site’s ratings in London, a highly sought after designation that could bring a surge of business to any restaurant, let alone one in major global capital.

The story has by now traveled around the globe and back, after Butler wrote a piece that exposed the ruse on Vice. It has been hailed as an incredible feat. But in an era increasingly influenced by disinformation online, it also has served as another reminder of the ease with which pranksters and other dishonest actors are able to manipulate online platforms to sometimes unthinkable results. Read more.

Time Traveling with The Simpsons

Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, The History of Pranks, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction, You Decide

The beloved, long-running animated satirical program’s eerie track record of anticipating the future. h/t Andrea!

Watch the video.

Meet the Right-Wing Street Artists of Hollywood

Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

From Breitbart on down, well-compensated conservative media trolls ramp up their presence in the entertainment capital of the world.

“How Hollywood’s Conservative ‘Street Artists’ Troll the Industry”
By Paul Bond
The Hollywood Reporter
December 22, 2018

In a booth on the Westside of Los Angeles sit a trio of conservative provocateurs plotting their next “street art” prank on a liberal celebrity destined to be thrust into the limelight for reasons beyond the person’s control. The restaurant has become a watering hole for conservatives who work in Hollywood and don’t usually share their political opinions with their liberal colleagues for fear of retribution.

Friends of Abe, the private group of Hollywood conservatives, used to meet at the same place. The three artists, in fact were often spotted at FOA gatherings, where actors like Tom Selleck, Gary Sinise, Robert Duvall, Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton generously hobnobbed with others in the entertainment industry who lacked their fame and fortune.

One of the street artists usually works independent of the others, but recently they’ve banded together to focus their efforts on Harvey Weinstein and all those who, they claim, allegedly enabled his predatory behavior for decades. Their aim is to call out Hollywood for its “hypocrisy,” they say. Two of them have careers in the industry to protect so they remain anonymous, and their anonymity is fodder for detractors who take to social media to call them out for cowardice and slander.

One justifies his secrecy by noting he’d surely be fired for his very public artwork — which sometimes amounts to attacks on actors, movies and TV shows he is associated with through his full-time job. Another is a freelancer in the industry who used to design interactive media for Steven Spielberg. Read more.

The Angriest Man on the Internet?

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

As long as computers have been part of mainstream life, people have been mad at them. This history of one of the first viral videos tells the tale of how information spreads across the digital landscape. Interestingly… having nothing to do with its enormous popularity… it wasn’t at all what it was purported to be.

“The Strange History of One of the Internet’s First Viral Videos”
By Joe Veix
January 12, 2018

You’ve seen the video. Everyone on the internet has. A man sits in a cubicle and pounds his keyboard in frustration. A few seconds later, the Angry Man picks up the keyboard and swings it like a baseball bat at his screen—it’s an old PC from the ’90s, with a big CRT monitor—whacking it off the desk. A frightened coworker’s head pops up over the cubicle wall, just in time to watch the Angry Man get up and kick the monitor across the floor. Cut to black.

The clip began to circulate online, mostly via email, in 1997. Dubbed “badday.mpg,” it’s likely one of the first internet videos ever to go viral. Sometimes GIFs of it still float across Twitter and Facebook feeds. (Most memes barely have a shelf life of 20 minutes, let alone 20 years.)

Beyond its impressive resilience, it’s also unexpectedly significant as the prime mover of viral videos. In one clip, you can find everything that’s now standard in the genre, like a Lumière brothers film for the internet age: the surveillance footage aesthetic, the sub-30-second runtime, the angry freakout in a typically staid setting, the unhinged destruction of property.

The clip also serves up prime conspiracy fodder. Freeze and enhance: The computer is unplugged. The supposed Angry Man, on closer inspection, is smiling. Was one of the first viral videos—and perhaps the most popular viral video of all time—also one of the first internet hoaxes? Read more.

Tracing the Roots of Wishful Thinking

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

As the year-end recaps gather on the horizon, many will attempt to make sense of Donald Trump’s ascent to the Presidency. Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire provides a fascinating road-map.

The Atlantic posted a long excerpt. This is from Delancey Place about the roots of our inbred susceptibility to advertising.

“Are Americans More Willing to Believe in Advertising?”
Delancey Place
December 4, 2017

From the earliest days, and continuing for decades and even centuries, promoters of the New World enticed colonizers with the promise of riches, causing the historian Daniel Boorstin to suggest that ‘American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising’:

“Although [Sir Walter] Raleigh never visited North America himself, he believed that in addition to its gold deposits, his realm might somehow be the biblical Garden of Eden. … A large fraction of the first settlers dispatched by Raleigh became sick and died. He dispatched a second expedi­tion of gold-hunters. It also failed, and all those colonists died. But Sir Walter continued believing the dream of gold.

“In 1606 the new English king, James, despite Raleigh’s colonization di­sasters, gave a franchise to two new private enterprises, the Virginia Com­pany of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, to start colonies. The southern one, under the auspices of London, they named Jamestown after the monarch. Their royal charter was clear about the main mission: ‘to dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold … And to HAVE and enjoy the Gold.’ As Tocqueville wrote in his history two centuries later, ‘It was … gold-seekers who were sent to Virginia. No noble thought or conception above gain presided over the foundation of the new settlements.’ Two­-thirds of those first hundred gold-seekers promptly died. But the captain of the expedition returned to England claiming to have found ‘gold showing mountains.’ … In fact, Jamestown ore they dug and refined and shipped to England turned out to be iron pyrite, fool’s gold….” Read more.

Another James O’Keefe’s Failed Trolling Op

Filed under: Creative Activism, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Legal Issues, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Score 1 for investigative journalism on James O’Keefe‘s botched attempt to discredit The Washington Post on behalf of a Senate candidate and alleged pedophile.

“A woman approached The Post with dramatic — and false — tale about Roy Moore. She appears to be part of undercover sting operation.”
By Shawn Boburg, Aaron C. Davis and Alice Crites
The Washington Post
November 27, 2017

A woman who falsely claimed to The Washington Post that Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, impregnated her as a teenager appears to work with an organization that uses deceptive tactics to secretly record conversations in an effort to embarrass its targets.

In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public.

The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists.

But on Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover “stings” that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias. Read more.

Did Fake News Skew the Presidential Election?

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Prank News, Pranksters

UPDATE November 9, 2017: Paul Horner, the protagonist of this story, was found dead at home on September 18, 2017, possibly from a drug overdose. investigates how his websites have disappeared in recent weeks, plus other unanswered questions.

Among the myriad of influences on the presidential election results, a prominent and pervasive force has been fake news, propagated by unscrupulous merchants seeking traffic via social media. Here’s a quasi-confession of one such voice.

Here also, from is “An Extremely Helpful List of Fake and Misleading News Sites to Watch Out For“.

Facebook fake-news writer: ‘I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me’
by Caitlin Dewey
Washington Post
November 17, 2016


What do the Amish lobby, gay wedding vans and the ban of the national anthem have in common? For starters, they’re all make-believe — and invented by the same man.

Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years. He has twice convinced the Internet that he’s British graffiti artist Banksy; he also published the very viral, very fake news of a Yelp vs. “South Park” lawsuit last year.

But in recent months, Horner has found the fake-news ecosystem growing more crowded, more political and vastly more influential: In March, Donald Trump’s son Eric and his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, even tweeted links to one of Horner’s faux-articles. His stories have also appeared as news on Google.

In light of concerns that stories like Horner’s may have affected the presidential election, and in the wake of announcements that both Google and Facebook would take action against deceptive outlets, Intersect called Horner to discuss his perspective on fake news. This transcript has been edited for clarity, length and — ahem — bad language. ” target=”_blank”>Read more

Noted Twitter Conservatives Exposed as Russian Ops

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
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.

Carl Sagan’s Crash Course in Critical Thinking

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
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.

Fake News Is the New Real News

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

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
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.

White People Take On Facebook Racists

Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Prank News, Pranksters

As most celebrities know, there are advantages to letting other people handle your social media. Significantly, you don’t have to spend hours of your day engaging with strangers who hate you for no good reason. Now, a volunteer Facebook group gives non-famous people of color the same advantage.

“These White People Will Respond To Your Racist Trolls So You Don’t Have To”
by Sara Ruiz-Grossman
The Huffington Post
September 19, 2017

“If a white person is filling your social media with white nonsense ― anything from overt racism to well-intentioned problematic statements, tag us and a white person will come roundup our own,” the group’s Facebook post reads.

The volunteer-run Facebook group, founded last year by friends Layla Tromble and Terri Kompton in Washington state, has white people respond to racist trolls online at the request of people of color.

At a time of deep political divides and tensions around racism and white supremacy, the group exists to support people of color, who are all too often the targets of online hate but are also often asked by white people to explain everyday race-related issues, from why NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to why you can’t just touch a black woman’s hair.

“It’s the responsibility of us white folks to do the emotional labor that’s required to educate other white folks ― and it shouldn’t be required of people of color again and again,” Tromble told HuffPost. “One of the goals of the service is to do some of that labor for people. Let them go have a drink and not worry about nonsense going on on their Facebook.” Read more.

Spectacle TV Without the Spectacle…

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

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

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

Can you blame him?

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

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

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

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

Stand-up Comedians Regroup Against Trump’s Shade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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