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

The Great Jimmy Page Robbie Williams London Times Hoax

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, You Decide

This is an amusing, ridiculous, and absurd story. But more importantly, it’s an example of how a story can grow from a snowflake into an avalanche. Particularly when the media is interested in nothing more than creating click-bait to enhance its bottom line.

It started with this tweet:

The next day I was contacted numerous times by Harry Shukman, a London Times journalist, wanting to know if I was responsible for a letter sent to the Kensington and Chelsea borough in the UK purporting that singer songwriter Robbie Williams (the former Take That star) has been mocking Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin fame) with ridiculous stunts because Page has been trying for five years to protect his historic mansion from potential damage that could be caused by Williams’ proposed construction of an underground pool next door.

In other words, he wanted to know if the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by me. (more…)

Michael Cohen, Idle Worship

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Filed under: Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin

When vanity gets the best of you…


11 Tweets From The Fake Fan Account ‘Stud’ Michael Cohen Paid To Fawn Over Him
by Lee Moran
HuffPost
January 18, 2019

Michael Cohen reportedly hired an IT company to create a fake Twitter account and post fawning tweets about him.

And that’s exactly what the @WomenForCohen feed did.

It repeatedly called Cohen — a former fixer and lawyer to President Donald Trump who was in December sentenced to three years in prison for crimes involving lying to Congress and campaign finance ? a “sex symbol,” “stud” and “pit bull.”

Its bio reads: “Women who love and support Michael Cohen. Strong, pit bull, sex symbol, no nonsense, business oriented, and ready to make a difference!”

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Cohen failed to pay John Gauger, the owner of RedFinch Solutions LLC and whose female friend operated the account until December 2016, most of the $50,000 fee they had agreed to run the Twitter account and for the rigging of online polls in Trump’s favor.

Check out 11 of the feed’s most flattering (fake) tweets

In Search of Ethical Artificial Intelligence

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Legal Issues, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Spin, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

In a noble effort to assure the ethical use of AI in legal matters, the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) of the Council of Europe is catching up with Joey Skaggs’ visionary 1995 Solomon Project hoax. h/t Miso.


“Council of Europe adopts first European Ethical Charter on the use of artificial intelligence in judicial systems”
by Newsroom staff
Council of Europe
April 12, 2018

The European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) of the Council of Europe has adopted the first European text setting out ethical principles relating to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in judicial systems.

The Charter provides a framework of principles that can guide policy makers, legislators and justice professionals when they grapple with the rapid development of AI in national judicial processes.

The CEPEJ’s view as set out in the Charter is that the application of AI in the field of justice can contribute to improve the efficiency and quality and must be implemented in a responsible manner which complies with the fundamental rights guaranteed in particular in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Personal Data. For the CEPEJ, it is essential to ensure that AI remains a tool in the service of the general interest and that its use respects individual rights.

The CEPEJ has identified the following core principles to be respected in the field of AI and justice:

  • Principle of respect of fundamental rights: ensuring that the design and implementation of artificial intelligence tools and services are compatible with fundamental rights;
  • Principle of non-discrimination: specifically preventing the development or intensification of any discrimination between individuals or groups of individuals;
  • Principle of quality and security: with regard to the processing of judicial decisions and data, using certified sources and intangible data with models conceived in a multi-disciplinary manner, in a secure technological environment;
  • Principle of transparency, impartiality and fairness: making data processing methods accessible and understandable, authorising external audits;
  • Principle “under user control”: precluding a prescriptive approach and ensuring that users are informed actors and in control of their choices.

For the CEPEJ, compliance with these principles must be ensured in the processing of judicial decisions and data by algorithms and in the use made of them. Read more.

Reality: Now Faker Than Ever

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin

In a brilliant and dizzying end-of-year rant, Max Read takes stock of how much of our digital world is constructed from weapons-grade fraud, deception, nonsense, hokum, and miscellaneous bullshit.


“How Much of the Internet is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually”
by Max Read
New York Intelligencer
December 26, 2018

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head. Read more.

Deep Fakes: Down the Horrifying Rabbit Hole

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation, The Future of Pranks

On the topic of our tenuous collective relationship with the concept formerly known as “truth,” this examination of “deep fakes,” high-tech simulated video recordings of people you recognize doing things they’ve never actually done, may be the most frightening and portentous emerging story of 2018. And that’s saying a mouthful.


“You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are where truth goes to die”
by Oscar Schwartz
November 12, 2018
The Guardian

Fake videos can now be created using a machine learning technique called a “generative adversarial network”, or a GAN. A graduate student, Ian Goodfellow, invented GANs in 2014 as a way to algorithmically generate new types of data out of existing data sets. For instance, a GAN can look at thousands of photos of Barack Obama, and then produce a new photo that approximates those photos without being an exact copy of any one of them, as if it has come up with an entirely new portrait of the former president not yet taken. GANs might also be used to generate new audio from existing audio, or new text from existing text – it is a multi-use technology.

The use of this machine learning technique was mostly limited to the AI research community until late 2017, when a Reddit user who went by the moniker “Deepfakes” – a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake” – started posting digitally altered pornographic videos. He was building GANs using TensorFlow, Google’s free open source machine learning software, to superimpose celebrities’ faces on the bodies of women in pornographic movies.

A number of media outlets reported on the porn videos, which became known as “deep fakes”. In response, Reddit banned them for violating the site’s content policy against involuntary pornography. By this stage, however, the creator of the videos had released FakeApp, an easy-to-use platform for making forged media. The free software effectively democratized the power of GANs. Suddenly, anyone with access to the internet and pictures of a person’s face could generate their own deep fake. Read more.

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.

Improv Everywhere: The Giant Boom Box

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Illusion and Magic, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts

Note from Editor Joey Skaggs: This brings back fond memories of my 1978 Disco Radio, a 4 foot by 2 foot by 8 foot wide radio on wheels, built by my New York SVA students for a class project. It was a commentary on the proliferation of loud disco radios blaring music throughout the streets of New York at that time. Students dressed in costumes, each with their own disco radio, wheeled the giant radio into Washington Square Park where they played music matching their costumed characters, all at the same time.

Charlie Todd’s wonderfully sweet Giant Boombox event, sponsored by Target, looks a lot less noisy!


Improv Everywhere’s Giant Boombox

We placed a 10-foot tall boombox on Pier 17 in Manhattan and waited for unsuspecting people to plug it in. Real New Yorkers worked together to carry the 160-foot long cord across the pier to an oversized outlet.

Once the boombox was plugged in, everyone was surprised by a massive holiday dance party with 100 acrobatic dancers, thousands of Christmas lights placed on two historic ships, and 10 hidden snow machines.

For more photos and a look behind the scenes at how this event came together, visit https://improveverywhere.com/2018/12/17/the-giant-boombox/.

Sponsored by Target

Music to Whose Ears?

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Hype, Illusion and Magic, Prank News, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts, Spin

A mystery tour with fake websites, fake audiences, fake interviews, fake music label, fake management, fake video production company and at least one really good musician.

As Jered Threatin (if that’s his real name) says… “What is Fake News? I turned an empty room into an international headline. If you are reading this, you are part of the illusion.”


The Story of Threatin, a Most Puzzling Hoax Even for 2018
by Jonah Engel Bromwich
The New York Times
November 16, 2018

A rock band went on tour in the U.K. and nobody came. Then it got weird.

In April, Jered Threatin began to hold auditions for a backing band. He chose three musicians and told them they would embark on an all-expenses paid European tour with his band, Threatin.

The first stop was The Underworld in London. Someone representing Threatin had paid £780 (roughly $1,010) to book it for the night of Nov. 1 and told Patrice Lovelace, an in-house promoter at the club, that the band had sold 291 tickets for the show.

But when the band went on, there were only three people in the audience.

“It was only on show day when no customer list for the 291 customers was produced that we realized we’d been duped,” Ms. Lovelace said. “The show went ahead with only the supports, staff and crew in attendance. The bar made almost zero money, and it was all extremely bizarre. And empty, obviously.”

The next few gigs were similarly barren. After a show at The Exchange in Bristol on Nov. 5, for which a promoter claimed to have sold 182 tickets, staff at the venue decided to investigate the band. After all, someone had paid more than $500 to book the venue.

Nearly everything associated with Threatin, it would turn out, was an illusion. Iwan Best, a venue manager at The Exchange, said they found that each of the websites associated with Threatin — the band’s “label” Superlative Music Recordings; its management company, Aligned Artist Management; and the video production company that directed the band’s video — were all registered to the same GoDaddy account. (The pages were built under a parent site seemingly associated with Superlative Music, the fake label.)

Watch the “Living is Dying” music video

(more…)

Shooting Fish in a Barrel for Profit

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation

This pathetic story oozes with irony.
h/t Felipe & Eli


‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America
by Eli Saslow
Washington Post
November 17, 2018

Christopher Blair, 46, sits at his desk at home in Maine and checks his Facebook page, America’s Last Line of Defense. He launched the political-satire portal with other liberal bloggers during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

NORTH WATERBORO, Maine — The only light in the house came from the glow of three computer monitors, and Christopher Blair, 46, sat down at a keyboard and started to type. His wife had left for work and his children were on their way to school, but waiting online was his other community, an unreality where nothing was exactly as it seemed. He logged onto his website and began to invent his first news story of the day.

“BREAKING,” he wrote, pecking out each letter with his index fingers as he considered the possibilities. Maybe he would announce that Hillary Clinton had died during a secret overseas mission to smuggle more refugees into America. Maybe he would award President Trump the Nobel Peace Prize for his courage in denying climate change.

A new message popped onto Blair’s screen from a friend who helped with his website. “What viral insanity should we spread this morning?” the friend asked. (more…)

Glory Holes in New Zealand… Who’s Got the Balls?

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Publicity Stunts, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Letting it all hang out…
h/t Erin


New Zealand launches balls checking booth for testicular cancer
BBC
November 15, 2018

If you’re too shy to face a doctor, the Testimatic is just the thing for you. TESTICULAR CANCER NZ

Ever thought of getting a health check but worried about having to, well, drop your pants? Meet the Testimatic.

That’s a booth to allow New Zealand men to have their testicles checked without having to face a doctor.

Testicular cancer is the number one cancer in young men in Western nations and the booth is being rolled out with fanfare at a big expo in Auckland.

How does it work? Into the booth, down with the pants and a doctor will check you anonymously through a little hole.

The booth is set up at this weekend’s Big Boys Toys expo, a huge exhibition catering to all things men stereotypically are supposed to be into.

So that’s stuff like cars, gadgets, action sports, barbeque or construction machinery.

Read the rest of this article here.

Cockroaches on the Menu!

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Creative Activism, Fact or Fiction?, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks, You Decide

Roaches are yummy and good for you too! Joey Skaggs’ Metamorphosis: Miracle Roach Hormone Cure hoax remembered…


The Right Chemistry: Cockroach milk a ‘superfood’?
by Joe Schwarcz
Montreal Gazette via The London Free Press
October 12, 2018

It’s not a prank, but any suggestion that the crystals represent a viable alternative to dairy milk for people is a very, very big stretch.

Back in 1981, entomologist Josef Gregor called a press conference to announce a remarkable discovery. He had bred a novel species of cockroach from which he managed to extract a hormone that, when incorporated into a pill, exhibited amazing properties. It cured conditions ranging from acne and allergies to asthma and arthritis! “Roach hormone hailed as miracle drug” crowed headlines. Some 175 newspapers went on to feature testimonials attesting to the wonders of the hormone pills.

Subsequently, Gregor was invited to appear on various television programs where he described that cockroaches were impervious to radiation and that in addition to its curative properties for a plethora of ailments, his pills would offer protection against radiation exposure. It all sounded great, but there was one tiny little problem. There was no Josef Gregor, and there was no cockroach hormone! Gregor was actually Joey Skaggs, a teacher at New York’s School of Visual Arts, who relished pulling off hoaxes to show how the media could be duped into reporting nonsensical stories because of a failure to fact-check. And that was decades before the current wave of publicity about “fake news!”

Watch the video

Recalling the “cockroach hormone” episode, I figured a prankster must have been at work when the headline, “Scientists Think Cockroach Milk Could Be the Next Superfood,” recently scooted across the internet. Obviously, fact-checking was in order. While the headline was typical click-bait, it was actually spawned by legitimate research.

In 2016, a paper in the Journal of the International Union of Crystallography reported some intriguing research about the unique “Pacific Beetle” cockroach (Diploptera punctate). Why unique? Because it is viviparous, meaning the females give birth to live offspring. The term derives from the Latin “vivus” for “alive,” and “parere,” meaning “to bring forth” or “to bear.”

Read the rest of this article here.

Banksy Shreds His Own Art at Auction

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Prank News, Pranksters, You Decide

Banksy pulls confetti stunt with/at auction house to shock art buyers.


Banksy painting ‘self-destructs’ moments after being sold for $1.4 million at auction
CNN
by Andreas Preuss
October 6, 2018

For an artist that’s known for his stunts, this could be Banksy’s most perfect art world prank.

After the gavel fell Friday at Sotheby’s auction house in London, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon was reduced to shreds — another apparent act in the disruptive career of the anonymous British graffiti artist.

The iconic image of a girl reaching out for a red, heart-shaped balloon, sold for $1.4 million and moments later, a shredder hidden inside the “artist’s frame” started its work, according to a news release from Sotheby’s and the art “self-destructed.”

Banksy summed up the stunt with this quote on his Instagram account – “Going, going, gone…” and a posted picture showed stunned onlookers as the shredded art emerges from the bottom of the frame. (more…)

Academic Journalism?

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Prank News, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation

Three academic scholars prove once again that you can’t trust academic journalism, especially when it comes to “grievance studies”. From Vinay Menon in The Star: “They are self-described liberals. They are merely exposing what many others have claimed in recent years, namely that radicals are polluting certain disciplines from the inside. These “social justice warriors,” the argument goes, are sacrificing objective truth for social constructivism. They are blowing up enlightenment values and the scientific method to advance agendas in the culture wars.”

h/t Peter, Linda, Susanne


Universities get schooled on ‘breastaurants’ and ‘fat bodybuilding’
by Vinay Menon
The Star
October 5, 2018

Oh, the humanities.

Fake news grabbed academia by the tweedy lapels this week, after three scholars confessed to a brazen hoax. Over the last year, Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay wrote bogus papers, which they submitted to peer-reviewed journals in various fields they now lump together as “grievance studies.”

James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian (Mike Nayna)

In one “study,” published in a journal of “feminist geography,” they analyzed “rape culture” in three Portland dog parks: “How do human companions manage, contribute, and respond to violence in dogs?”

In another, using a contrived thesis inspired by Frankenstein and Lacanian psychoanalysis, they argued artificial intelligence is a threat to humanity due to the underlying “masculinist and imperialist” programming.

They advocated for introducing a new category — “fat bodybuilding” — to the muscle-biased sport. They called for “queer astrology” to be included in astronomy. They offered a “feminist rewrite” of a chapter from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. They searched for postmodern answers to ridiculous queries such as: why do straight men enjoy eating at “breastaurants” such as Hooters? (more…)

Tom Bob’s Street Art

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Illusion and Magic

Artist Tom Bob takes everyday functional urban pipes, meters and hardware and turns them into creative and amusing works of art. Thanks Don.


Early Hoax?

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Fact or Fiction?, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane. It’s…


The Painting “Madonna of the UFO”
FlorenceInferno.com
June 9, 2014

The “Madonna of the UFO” or “Madonna of the flying saucer” is a painting located in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in the Hall of Hercules. Also called “Madonna and Child with the Infant St John”, the painting has been the topic of much debate between art experts and ufologists. While the painting depicts the Nativity with the infant St. John in the foreground, in the background one can see a man curiously watching an unidentified flying object (UFO).

THE AUTHOR OF THE MADONNA OF THE UFO
The painting is of unknown origin, but it probably dates from as early as the sixteenth century. The caption under the picture attributes authorship to either Sebastiano Mainardi or Jacopo del Sellaio; conversely, some scholars attribute it to Filippo Lippi, also known as “Maestro del Tondo Miller,” after the title of one of his last works.

Moreover, we only know that the work comes from the forgotten convent of Sant’Orsola in the district of San Lorenzo in Florence.

THE DESCRIPTION OF THE PAINTING
The painting is round, is one meter in diameter, and is adorned with a precious golden frame; it is located in the Hall of Hercules on the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio, which takes its name from the coffered ceiling depicting the Twelve Labours of Hercules.

The circular painting bears the usual iconographic motif of the Renaissance: in the foreground the Virgin is seen kneeling with folded hands and leaning toward the baby, who is lying on a hem of her garment.

While the baby Jesus is reaching his hand toward his mother, St. John is attempting to support him. Behind the head of the Madonna, an ellipsoidal object can be seen in the sky, one that is very similar to modern depictions of UFOs. There is also a man painted in the background, a shepherd, with his hand on his forehead and his head turned toward the sky. Next to him is a dog that is also looking in the direction of the flying object.

Read the rest of this article here

Read more about this at Historic Mysteries.