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

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Debunked

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Filed under: Publicity Stunts, Urban Legends

Snopes sheds light on the origins of another beloved Christmas myth: “The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… was developed for commercial purposes by a Montgomery Ward copywriter at the specific request of his employer…”


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Snopes.com

Was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer created to bring comfort to a girl whose mother was dying of cancer?

CLAIM
The character ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ was created by a father to bring comfort to his daughter as her mother was dying of cancer.

WHAT’S TRUE
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by a man whose wife was dying of cancer.

WHAT’S FALSE
The story of Rudolph was created by a father to bring comfort to his daughter as her mother lay dying of cancer.

ORIGIN
To most of us, the character of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, immortalized in song and a popular holiday television special, has always been an essential part of our Christmas folklore, but Rudolph is in fact a mid-twentieth century invention whose creation can be traced to a specific time and person

Read the whole story here.

The Long Overdue Trump Apology

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation

From Liz Plank’s Twitter @feministabulous. Click through to watch this inspired video:
The president won’t apologize to women so I did it for him.

Forget About Getting a Table Here

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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

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.

Tracing the Roots of Wishful Thinking

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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

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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.

Well, Here’s a Novel Phone Prank… Threatening Pro-Trump Robocalls

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Political Pranks, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts, You Decide

Gizmodo investigates confusing robocalls warning people to stop criticizing President Trump. Some of the recipients are harsh Trump critics, some aren’t. Some known political provocateurs may or may not be involved, and no one really gets it.


“People Are Getting Robocalls About Their ‘Derogatory’ Trump Posts”
by Kashmir Hill
Gizmodo
November 29, 2017

Brett Vanderbrook was driving for Uber last week when he got a call from an unfamiliar number. He let it go to voicemail and when he listened to it later, he got a shock: It was a recorded message telling him to stop making “negative and derogatory posts about President Trump.”

“It was kind of threatening. I was dumbfounded at first and then creeped out,” Vanderbrook, who lives in Dallas, Texas, said in a phone interview. “Then I was angry and that’s when I decided to share it.”

Vanderbrook makes progressive political posts on Facebook, voicing support for gun control, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights. None of his public posts mention President Trump or come across as “derogatory.”

Vanderbrook is not alone, though. Across the country, and even in Canada, people have reported on social media that they’ve received the same robocall. The earliest complaint dates back to July. The intensity of the calling campaign is hard to gauge; a search of complaints turned up 10 reports scattered across different platforms.

The reports, though, are all consistent. When the call goes to voicemail, as it did for Vanderbrook, the beginning of the recording gets cut off, but people describing the calls on Twitter, Facebook, and the telemarketer-reporting site ShouldIAnswer.com have said that the recording claims to come from “Citizens for Trump.” Read more.

Replacement Family Available. No Questions Asked.

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Illusion and Magic, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

Why suffer through the ups and downs of real relationships when you can have the perfect friend, husband or father for a fee? This is a stunning tale of hyper-normalization in Japan.


“How to Hire Fake Friends and Family”
by Roc Morin
The Atlantic
November 7, 2017

Money may not be able to buy love, but here in Japan, it can certainly buy the appearance of love—and appearance, as the dapper Ishii Yuichi insists, is everything. As a man whose business involves becoming other people, Yuichi would know. The handsome and charming 36-year-old is on call to be your best friend, your husband, your father, or even a mourner at your funeral.

His 8-year-old company, Family Romance, provides professional actors to fill any role in the personal lives of clients. With a burgeoning staff of 800 or so actors, ranging from infants to the elderly, the organization prides itself on being able to provide a surrogate for almost any conceivable situation.

Yuichi believes that Family Romance helps people cope with unbearable absences or perceived deficiencies in their lives. In an increasingly isolated and entitled society, the CEO predicts the exponential growth of his business and others like it, as à la carte human interaction becomes the new norm.

I sat down recently with Yuichi in a café on the outskirts of Tokyo, to discuss his business and what it means to be, in the words of his company motto, “more than real.” Read more.

Today In Human Head Transplants

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

In the “quit while you’re ahead” department…


“World’s first human head transplant a success, professor says”
By Yaron Steinbuch
New York Post
November 17, 2017

The world’s first human head transplant has been carried out on a corpse in China, according to a controversial Italian doctor who said Friday that scientists are now ready to perform the surgery on a living person.

Professor Sergio Canavero, chief of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, said the operation was carried out by a team led by Dr. Xiaoping Ren, who last year successfully grafted a head onto a monkey’s body.

“The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done. A full head swap between brain-dead organ donors is the next stage,” Canavero said at a press conference in Vienna, the Telegraph reported.

“And that is the final step for the formal head transplant for a medical condition which is imminent,” said Canavero, who has gained a mix of fame and notoriety for his Frankenstein-like pursuits. Read more.

Suburban Camouflage

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Illusion and Magic, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks, The World of the Prank

All’s fair in war, (and the love of deceit) including manufacturing urban landscapes. The podcast 99 Percent Invisible has built its audience on the power of paying attention to details that most people don’t think about… or even know. From its blog comes this tale of an aircraft manufacturing facility concealed within a fake neighborhood in Seattle.


“Prop Town: The Fake Rooftop Suburb That Hid a Whole WWII Airplane Factory”
by Kurt Kohlstedt
99 Percent Invisible
November 3, 2017

Boeing’s aircraft manufacturing facilities were critical to the World War II efforts of Allied forces. But the unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor stoked fears of potential aerial assaults by Japanese forces. Some factories put up camouflage netting to disguise structures, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took things a big step further on top of the Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle, crafting an entire faux neighborhood.

By the mid-1930s, Boeing’s old Plant 1 was becoming increasingly outdated. Interested in keeping the company local, an area truck driver offered to sell Boeing a large plot of land (for a nominal one-dollar fee) on which to build a new factory. Plant 2 was designed and erected to apply modern assembly-line technologies and speed up production.

This new complex grew and expanded, ultimately spanning 1.7 million square feet. It would come to facilitate the assembly of B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-29 Superfortresses, B-47 Stratojets, B-52 Stratofortresses and other aircraft through and beyond the war. Read more.

Noted Twitter Conservatives Exposed as Russian Ops

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sim Cities

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

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


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

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

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

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

Confessions of a Social Engineer

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Carl Sagan’s Crash Course in Critical Thinking

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


The Spooky History of a Time-Travel Hoax

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole story here.


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

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

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

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

Here’s a snippet:

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

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

Read the whole story here.