How to spot a fake viral video in less than 60 seconds

The more sophisticated and innovative viral videos become the more useful it is to be able to spot them. Stephanie Hunt offers her tips on how to spot the fake from the authentic.

Never before has the appetite for viral content been so insatiable. Online media outlets have endless platforms to fill and an ever-hungry audience wanting more. But with this whopping appetite comes an increased danger of being fooled, spoofed and scammed into believing something is real, when in fact, it’s clearly not.

Stephanie Hunt Australia Editor Storyful

The Woolshed Company is an independent Melbourne-based production company that has taken advantage of this seismic shift. The boutique studio admitted to creating and faking eight of the most talked-about viral videos of the past two years. It was part of a social experiment to uncover what engages the global media.

You’ve probably seen some of these fake yet widely popular viral videos. There was a snowboarder being chased by a bear in Japan; a man bravely fighting off a great white shark in Sydney Harbour and lightning almost striking a woman in Sydney, among others.

viral experiment woolshed

Stats on The Woolshed Company’s viral video experiment

It’s been reported the Woolshed’s eight videos have gone viral in more than 180 countries and have been viewed more than 205 million times, racking up more than 1.6m Likes and half a million comments on a range of social media platforms.

Of course, the world seemed divided on whether these videos were real at the time, but that didn’t stop many major media outlets from running them as if they’d been authenticated.

At Storyful, our job is to separate fact from fiction. We’re like online detectives who love to forensically sift through videos and debunk viral phenomena.

In the case of The Woolshed videos, we immediately knew something was fishy. Especially in the case of the Aussie guy fighting off a great white shark. The video has clocked up 34m views on Youtube, but our global news editor, David Clinch, knew it was suss.

“From the camera angle to what people are saying in the video…it just doesn’t add up because nobody reported on it locally; it doesn’t add up because there’s nobody with that name; it doesn’t add up because there’s nothing else on the Youtube account.”

It was a similar story for the Sydney lightning video. The video appears to show a young couple running across the rocks at Tamarama beach for a swim as lightning nearly strikes the woman.

Storyful journalist, Amy Hutchinson, was on the case, and knew immediately that something wasn’t right. “The incident happened too fast and the thunder and lightning coincided. Naturally, lightning is seen before thunder is heard,” says Hutchinson.

“Furthermore, there were no reports of a lightning strike at the popular surf beach on the day the video had been recorded”.

“We then tried to track down the uploader and it proved tricky. ‘Frank DeMayo’ had no web presence, apart from one drone video uploaded to YouTube in 2014…and we could find no record of that name,” says Hutchinson, adding that the uploader did not respond to requests for an interview.

All these factors prompted Storyful to warn news agencies to steer clear of the video until more evidence cropped up.


The snowboarder singing to Rihanna when a bear apparently pops up on the slopes behind her is a highly entertaining video. It would be even better if it weren’t a fake. Our deputy editor, Stephy Burnett, says there were several red flags in this video.

“Even if you were able to overlook the dodgy special effects of the bear running, the audio of the animal’s growl and his paws hitting the snow was far too clear considering the distance between the two and the windy weather conditions.”

Moreover, the snowboarder had no other digital footprint other than two videos she posted to the same Youtube account, adds Burnett.

“That in itself is not too suspicious, except both of these videos were uploaded less than a week before the fake video—and she’s wearing the exact same outfit in similar weather conditions, suggesting the YouTube profile was created for just this one occasion”.

And similarly to the fake Tamarama lightning strike video, the person who supposedly recorded the video was no longer available for follow-up questions.

“If an uploader is pitching a video directly to media organisations and won’t answer follow-up questions, your faith in the veracity of a video vanishes about as quickly as they go quiet,” says Burnett.

So, with the bright lights and many attractions of the internet only going to get brighter and louder, it’s crucial we keep our smarts and not fall prey to the online hoax. We need to think twice before you hit the share button.

We need to remember to do our forensic work and question the small things. Look at people’s reactions, check weather reports, verify locations and question, question and question again.  And, as always, if something looks too good to be true, there’s a very good chance someone is pulling your leg.

Storyful working case study – Brussels attack 

storyful viral video CNN tweet

Stephanie Hunt is the Australia Editor at Storyful 


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