News sites aren’t fooled by fake videos – they play along because it’s good for traffic

Fake viral videos don't fool journalists. They suspend disbelief so they can write about them, argues Mumbrella's Tim Burrowes.

So I have a confession.

Back in 2011, I wrote a story I shouldn’t have.

A video featuring TV chef Matt Moran “losing it on set” popped up on the internet.

It seemed obvious from the start that it was fake.

But I wanted in on the traffic, so I wrote a piece speculating on whether it was fake.

And very quickly, that was confirmed. In this case, it was for a good cause – created by PR agency Liquid Ideas to promote charity Oz Harvest’s attempts to reclaim otherwise-wasted food for those who need it.

The reveal soon followed:

Because of the cause, I didn’t feel too bad about covering it. But the cynicism with which I wrote the piece has always stayed with me. Given that I was certain it was fake, shouldn’t I have just left the story alone?

Which brings us to this week’s work from The Woolshed Company – the Melbourne production house which is rapidly becoming synonymous with fake videos that go viral.

This week saw a video pop up purporting to show a hawk dropping a snake on a family as they enjoyed a barbecue.

The original post has already achieved half-a-million views on Youtube, while a repost by 3AW has enjoyed another 1.1m.

But by the time news sites were covering it, the fact it was a fake was unquestionable, with people having already pointed out the many discrepancies.

But the problem for news outlets is that “Somebody posted a fake video” doesn’t make much of a story.

But “Is this a fake video?” is very traffic-friendly indeed.

So we end up with a bunch of stories speculating about whether something is fake, when all the outlets know what the answer to the question is.

And others will treat the video as authentic in the headline, then cover their backs with a grudging acknowledgment at the end of the story that it probably isn’t real.

Take how the Daily Mail Australia covered it

daily mail hawk snake


“Terrifying moment a hawk drops a live SNAKE on a BBQ” is pretty definitive, isn’t it?

Yet once the reader has clicked, half the article is dedicated to discussing the authenticity or otherwise of the video.

I don’t believe for a second that when journalist Louise Cheer – who’s been with the Daily Mail for two-and-a-half-years, wrote the article she harboured any doubts that the video was fake. But that wasn’t how the story was published.

Not all publications go as far as the Mail. But they still try to play both sides.

The Age’s intro was: “A video has surfaced showing what appears to be a hawk picking up a snake and dropping it onto a family picnicking along the Yarra River”.

Later in the article, by Broede Carmody, it was clear that the journalist knew exactly what was up – even referencing The Woolshed Company.

Then came The Huffington Post’s take from its engagement editor Aimie Rigas (yes, that’s her job title):

huffington post hawk

“Not convinced”? Make that 100% certain it’s fake, but still want to post a piece. I guess that’s what engagement editors are for.

Arguably even more cynical is the take from the Pedestrian content farm.

The headline goes with “A hawk pegs a fkn snake at a Melbs family because nature is borked”. But the intro tells the truth – they also know it’s fake. But write the piece anyway.

pedestrian snake hawk

So the idea that fake videos “fool the world” (which was how we put it in our feature about Woolshed) is itself a hoax.

Creators of such videos don’t actually need to be 100% convincing to get the media on board. They merely need to be convincing enough to allow the drivers of virality – the mainstream media – to speculate about whether they’re real.

“Fake videos” only provide engaging content for news sites when they join in on the conspiracy that they might just be real.


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