K9418 BC-TB-FAKE-VIDEOS-200807 07-11 0896

Believe it or not, these are fake


By Eric Benderoff

Chicago Tribune



Jul. 11--We’ve seen some really fantastic videos online lately.

How to use your cell phone to pop popcorn. A professional kicker putting a football between the uprights from 110 yards away. A ball girl making a remarkable catch as she scales the outfield wall. And a tornado ripping through Nebraska.

All these videos have one thing in common: They didn’t happen.

Well, the twister happened, but news organizations that used the video retracted it Thursday. According to The Associated Press, which distributed the clip, a storm chaser claimed the footage as a manipulated version of a video shot four years ago.

There have long been doctored photos, and the advent of digital photography and computer programs taught some hard lessons in skepticism.

But now in the video age, the world of fake imagery has reached new levels of sophistication and believability because of the power of moving pictures and the relative ease of digital manipulation. Add to that the availability of cheap video cameras and the rise of Web sites like YouTube and there is a widespread distribution system and audience for video clips, and thus a temptation for some to fiddle with reality.

"We’re not only gullible but we’re becoming greedy as consumers," said Bob Steele, an ethics professor for journalism at DePauw University in Indiana. "We want more and more information and we’re willing to believe anything these days.

"That greed is manifested in putting out a lot of information that is not properly vetted and verified. That’s dangerous. Not only does it erode the credibility of news organizations, but it also erodes the confidence of our society in what we see."


The issue will likely become more common as technology gets even better and video cameras become more widespread. News organizations already have recognized that the public, armed with cell phones that shoot video, is a source of news.

WTSP-Ch. 10 in St. Petersburg, Fla., for example, plans to seek 20 viewers to participate in a year-long experiment to shoot news. The station didn’t respond for comment about how it would assure accuracy and fairness, but Steele said the widespread dissemination of video cameras can be problematic.

"If you send a baker or banker with a camera to a meeting, will there be context in the reporting? Can you trust that person to give an authentic accounting of what happened? Are they giving any thought to fairness?"

But it’s not just news media professionals who don’t want to get fooled.

Jeff Bohnson, the chief executive for Chicago’s AnswersMedia, which creates videos for cooks, pet lovers and gardeners at, said his company decided not to open its site to user-generated content because of the risk. "It takes too much monitoring."

Many of the most fantastic fake videos, which captivate viewers and often fool many of them, can be seen on YouTube. One video for example, shows a fleet of UFOs flying low over Haiti. It is so realistic that even as viewers posted comments labeling it a well-done bit of computer generated mischief, others seemed to hedge their bets.

Another video making the rounds is the cell phone popcorn ruse, which shows a group of people setting down several corn kernels on a table and surrounding them with four cell phones. The participants call the phones, allegedly sending "radiation" through the air, which causes the popcorn to pop. It appears convincing, but it’s a camera trick.

Some early versions of the videos were watched millions of times and generated hundreds of comments. They range from "It is not possible" to "It will work if you face the antennas in the same direction as the kernels."


Many of these video hoaxes are viral advertisements designed to flabbergast the public. Only later does the marketer acknowledge its participation.

That was the case with "Ball Girl," a widely watched video that purported to be a clip from a televised baseball game. It showed a young women, stationed along the left field foul line at a minor-league game, who makes a stunning catch of a long foul ball by springing up the outfield wall.

It was shot as a Gatorade commercial but never aired because the sports drink-maker changed its agency. So it was released online, not labeled as an ad, and caught fire with "Did she really make that catch?" buzz.

"Using a minor-league park made it more believable," said Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer for Element 79, the Chicago agency that created the video. "If it was in a major-league park, it would have been on SportsCenter."

Such subtle touches created "an element of plausibility so people were willing to believe," Ryan said.

As for the possibility of citizen journalists creating fake news, he’s not concerned.

"Have you watched some of your friends’ videos?" Ryan asked. "Do you know how boring those are? To do it right, to make it worth watching, it’s going to take effort."


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(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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