Conspiracy Theories

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When Urban Legends Become Dangerous

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Whether or not the Momo Challenge exists, just the thought of it is perceived as dangerous. Read more about it on Snopes.com.


Viral Momo Hoax Makes Schools Across the Country Ban YouTube
by Kelly Weill
March 4, 2019

Kim Kardashian fell for a hoax last week, now schools are falling for it too.

Momo—the stringy-haired, bird-faced puppet lady taunting children—is an overhyped hoax, but no one seems to have told schools, which are banning YouTube in response.

In the so-called “Momo Challenge,” the creepy figure allegedly tells children to complete increasingly dangerous stunts, such as leaving a stove on, supposedly ending with suicide. But the videos are an urban legend, and YouTube says it has no evidence of the trend on its site aside from some obviously staged hoax videos.

Nevertheless, Florida’s Palm Beach County School District blocked YouTube for its 193,000 students last week, out of fear that children would see Momo. Stockton, California’s Lincoln Unified School District went on a similar digital lockdown Thursday. The same day, Arkansas’ Jacksonville North Pulaski School District blocked YouTube searches for “Momo” on school computers.

Palm Beach County sent a district-wide email to the principals of a hundred-plus schools on Friday, announcing a temporary YouTube ban on school computers, WPTV first reported. The email reportedly claimed students had seen Momo appear while they watched educational videos.

A modern urban legend, the Momo panic has spread through unconfirmed rumors like these. (more…)

More Trump TV Time Travel

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Political Pranks, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

There are an eery number of showbiz coincidences foreshadowing the political rise of Donald Trump. This 1958 TV Western, “Trackdown: The End of the World”, anticipates some pretty specific details, including the need for a wall to save the people from annihilation. Fact or fiction?


“A 1950s TV show had a fear-mongering conman named Trump who wanted to build a wall”
by Clara Sinclair
Boing Boing
January 10, 2019

On May 8, 1958, art imitated life in 2018. In an episode of a TV show called Trackdown, there was a conman named Trump, who tried to scare the bejeezus out of a town by preaching, “at midnight tonight, without my help and knowledge, every one of you will be dead.” The only way he could save them is by building a wall.

One sane man tries to talk some sense into the sheriff, with Trump in their presence. “How long are you going to put up with this?” he asks. But the brainwashed sheriff replies with a dumb, “What do you mean?”

How long are you going to let this conman walk around town?” the man persists.

Then Trump speaks his signature line: “Be careful son, I can sue you.” Read more and watch the entire episode here.

Watch a 4 minute promo clip:

The Political Prank That Ensnared the Wall Street Journal

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The World of the Prank

Laura Loomer is a far-right media provocateur known for shambolic publicity stunts. Her toxic racial rhetoric has resulted in her removal from a number of social media platforms, and she hasn’t taken it well. Anxious to stay in the public eye, she was recently tricked into a bizarre caper that oddly also sucked in the Wall Street Journal. This comedy of errors encapsulates much of what is so ridiculous about the current media landscape. See if you can keep up.


“Did the Wall Street Journal Fall for a Prank Directed at Laura Loomer?”
by Jared Holt
Right Wing Watch
January 15, 2019

EXCERPT FROM THE FULL ARTICLE: “She didn’t verify who I am once. Never did she make an attempt,” Gillen said. “Everything I gave her as ‘info,’ she took as gospel. She hasn’t batted an eye or questioned anything that I said, ever.”

In a recorded phone call Bernard shared with us, Loomer expressed her willingness to leverage all means possible to retaliate against Twitter.

“I’m down with anything, honestly. So if whistle-blowers like yourself just want to come to me—I mean, I’m looking to escalate this as much as I can. I don’t even care. The gloves are off right now. [Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey] is banning people simply because they’re conservative. … He is taking money from all these Muslims and implementing Sharia law,” Loomer told Gillen during a phone call.

Bernard told Right Wing Watch that the goal of their stunt was to see if Loomer would go on-air at Alex Jones’ Infowars and repeat what they had told her, after which they planned to reveal the details of their joke in order to make a point about what they said were Loomer’s and Infowars’ non-existent journalistic standards and confirmation bias.

But something else happened.

“Don’t worry it will be big,” Loomer wrote to the pranksters in a December text message. “I have a big network of journalists I know.”

Read the whole story here.


The Best Defense Against a Bad Guy With a Bot

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, The World of the Prank

During the 2016 US election cycle, artificial intelligence was wildly successful at spreading lies and propaganda. These researchers suggest weaponizing better bots and aiming them in the opposite direction.


“Bots spread a lot of fakery during the 2016 election. But they can also debunk it.”
by Daniel Funke
November 20, 2018
Poynter

Aside from their role in amplifying the reach of misinformation, bots also play a critical role in getting it off the ground in the first place. According to the study, bots were likely to amplify false tweets right after they were posted, before they went viral. Then users shared them because it looked like a lot of people already had.

“People tend to put greater trust in messages that appear to originate from many people,” said co-author Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of South Florida, in the press release. “Bots prey upon this trust by making messages seem so popular that real people are tricked into spreading their messages for them.”

The study suggests Twitter curb the number of automated accounts on social media to cut down on the amplification of misinformation. The company has made some progress toward this end, suspending more than 70 million accounts in May and June alone. More recently, the company took down a bot network that pushed pro-Saudi views about the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi and started letting users report potential fake accounts.

Nonetheless, bots are still wrecking havoc on Twitter — and some aren’t used for spreading misinformation at all. So what should fact-checkers do to combat their role in spreading misinformation?

Tai Nalon has spent the better part of the past year trying to answer that question — and her answer is to beat the bots at their own game.

“I think artificial intelligence is the only way to tackle misinformation, and we have to build bots to tackle misinformation,” said the director of Aos Fatos, a Brazilian fact-checking project. “(Journalists) have to reach the people where they are reading the news. Now in Brazil, they are reading on social media and on WhatsApp. So why not be there and automate processes using the same tools the bad guys use?” Read more.

The Anti-Algorithm Hat

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction, You Decide

For savvy fashionista paranoiacs, tinfoil just won’t cut it anymore.


“There’s Now a Hat That Can Fool Facial Recognition Technology”
By Sean Keach
The Sun
March 23, 2018

Scientists have invented a baseball cap that can trick facial recognition tech into thinking you’re someone else entirely.

The hi-tech headwear uses laser dots to fool software like Apple’s Face ID, which works by scanning your face to identify who you are.

Scientists at China’s Fudan University laced the inside of the cap with tiny LED lights, which project infrared dots onto your face.

These dots aren’t visible to the naked eye, but they’ll be picked up by facial recognition systems.

Apple’s iPhone face-scanning works by using an infrared blaster to project dots all over your face. By tracking these dots, it can work out the structure of your face — and identify you. Read more.

Disinformation at the Speed of Light

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fraud and Deception, Propaganda and Disinformation, You Decide

At a time of unspeakable tragedy, Russian propagandists and right wing conspiracy theorists work together to neutralize a rational, well-spoken high school student pleading for safe schools.


How the Florida school shooting conspiracies sprouted and spread
by Paul P. Murphy and Gianluca Mezzofiore
CNN
February 22, 2018

(CNN)Conspiracy theories after mass shootings follow a familiar thread and the Florida school shooting is no exception.

They originate in the dark corners of the internet — often from the 4chan “politically incorrect” board (abbreviated as /pol/) — and migrate onto social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook from conservative pages, alt-right personalities, nationalist blogs and far-right pundits.

What drives hoaxes and conspiracy theorists is unclear. But their faith in the conspiracies they spread seems to be unwavering.

Less than an hour after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, Twitter accounts were claiming that eyewitnesses were “crisis actors.” The term refers to people who are paid to play disaster victims in emergency drills. More recently, though, the phrase has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists who claim mass shootings are events staged to achieve a political goal.

A CNN investigation into 4chan’s /pol/ archive counted at least 121 times that school shooting survivor David Hogg was mentioned on the board. Read the rest of this article here.

Time Traveling with The Simpsons

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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.

The Angriest Man on the Internet?

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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
Wired
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.

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.

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.


First Responders to BS: Fact-Checkers are Heroes for Our Times

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin, You Decide

Like at Snopes, the team at Politifact has its work cut out for it. Here’s a rousing rant from editor Aaron Sharockman.


“PolitiFact: The Power of Fact Checking in a Post-Truth World”
by Aaron Sharockman
Tampa Bay Times
June 7, 2017
Here’s a quick test: Think about how Donald Trump announced he was running for president. Now, do the same for Hillary Clinton.

I think most of you probably got one but not the other. We remember Trump and his wife Melania gliding down the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015. And we remember some of the things Trump said that day.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As for Clinton? (more…)

Alex Jones: Post-Reality Rodeo Clown?

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fact or Fiction?, Legal Issues, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Pranksters, Spin, You Decide

Talk show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones began his career as an Austin eccentric, known for his associations with comedian Joe Rogan and filmmaker Richard Linklater. His paleoconservative media profile has risen steadily since the election of Barack Obama – he's now better known for egging on Charlie Sheen's meltdown, describing the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre as "crisis actors," and throwing his bulk behind the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Now, he's engaged in a vicious custody battle, and his lawyers are suggesting that he's not an increasingly unhinged paranoid maniac, but a performance artist playing a character.

Blogger Ken White adds some insight on the importance of this story.


“Alex Jones Says He's A Performance Artist. Surprisingly, Actual Performance Artists Agree.”
by Priscilla Frank
The Huffington Post
April 19, 2017

Following his 2015 divorce, far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is embroiled in an ugly and somewhat bizarre custody battle.

In response to his ex-wife's claims that the InfoWars founder and Pizzagate controversy propagator is "not a stable person" — and therefore should not receive custody of their children — Jones is arguing that his publicly jacked-up, trumped-up, vitriolic rants are merely instances of "performance art."

Jones' lawyer Randall Wilhite outlined the novel defense, telling those present at a recent pretrial hearing that Jones' InfoWars persona does not reflect who he is as a person. "He's playing a character," Wilhite said. "He is a performance artist."

Jones himself made a similar claim in early April while facing criticism — and potential criminal proceedings — after calling Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) an "archetypal cocksucker" and threatening in an expletive-laden rant to "beat [his] goddamn ass." Jones later posted a follow-up video describing the comments as "clearly tongue-in-cheek and basically art performance, as I do in my rants, which I admit I do, as a form of art."

Jones' most famed "performances" to date include calling the 9/11 attacks an inside job, claiming the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was "completely fake with actors," and suggesting that the American government is "encouraging homosexuality with chemicals so that people don't have children." Is it possible that Jones has been putting on some sort of persona to stir up controversy and garner public attention? Of course. It is unlikely, however, and ultimately dangerous, that Jones' approximately 2 million listeners — including his most famed fan, President Donald Trump — were all aware that Jones' red-faced tirades are for show.

In calling himself a performance artist, Jones is referencing a controversial live art tradition with roots in the 1950s and ‘60s, involving movements like Gutai and Fluxus and individuals like Marina Abramović and Vito Acconci. One of the earliest artists recognized for her performances is Carolee Schneemann, who was recently awarded the Venice Biennale's Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. In one of her most iconic performances, 1975's "Interior Scroll," Schneemann stood nude on a table, painted her body with mud, and extracted a scroll from her vagina, from which she proceeded to read.

When asked about Jones' performance art defense, Schneemann responded swiftly: "I think it's all a load of crap," she told The Huffington Post. But ultimately, any attempts to strictly classify what is or is not performance art, she clarified, are futile. Read more.

Pizzagate: Cheesy Hand-tossed Lies

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fact or Fiction?, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation

The bizarre tale of Comet Ping Pong restaurant and “Pizzagate” provides a case study in how fake stories proliferate online.
Update: And now it’s somehow gotten darker.
Another update: There is now a direct link between the spread of Pizzagate rumors and the nascent Trump Administration.


“The saga of ‘Pizzagate’: The fake story that shows how conspiracy theories spread”
BBC
December 2, 2016

_92730809_pizzagate3

No victim has come forward. There’s no investigation. And physical evidence? That doesn’t exist either.

But thousands of people are convinced that a paedophilia ring involving people at the highest levels of the Democratic Party is operating out of a Washington pizza restaurant.

The story riveted fringes of Twitter – nearly a million messages were sent last month using the term “pizzagate”.

So how did this fake story take hold amongst alt-right Trump supporters and other Hillary Clinton opponents?

Let’s start with the facts.

In early November, as Wikileaks steadily released piles of emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, one contact caught the attention of prankster sites and people on the paranoid fringes.

James Alefantis is the owner of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington. He’s also a big Democratic Party supporter and raised money for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He was once in a relationship with David Brock, an influential liberal operative.

Alefantis – who’s never met Clinton – appeared in the Podesta emails in connection with the fundraisers.

And from these thin threads, an enormous trove of conspiracy fiction was spun. Read more.


Uncle Sam’s Imaginary Pen Pal

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

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


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

aotp_guysimsfitchGuy Sims Fitch had a lot to say about the world economy in the 1950s and 60s. He wrote articles in newspapers around the globe as an authoritative voice on economic issues during the Cold War. Fitch was a big believer in private American investment and advocated for it as a liberating force internationally. But no matter what you thought of Guy Sims Fitch”™s ideas, he had one big problem. He didn”™t exist.

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

“I don”™t mind being called a propagandist, so long as that propaganda is based on the truth,” said Edward R. Murrow in 1962. Murrow took a job as head of the USIA after a long and celebrated career as a journalist, and did quite a few things during his tenure that would make modern journalists who romanticize “the good old days” blush.

But even when USIA peddled its own version of the truth, the propaganda agency wasn”™t always using the most, let”™s say, truthful of methods. Their use of Guy Sims Fitch””a fake person whose opinions would be printed in countries like Brazil, Germany, and Australia, among others””served the cause of America”™s version of the truth against Communism during the Cold War, even if Fitch”™s very existence was a lie.

Read more.

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.