Viral videos like these are the internet’s junk food, a guilty pleasure you should probably ignore, but reach for anyway. Just this once. More often than not, you’re left exclaiming, “Well that can’t be real,” but how can you tell when you’re looking at the real deal? If you didn’t know, all three of the videos linked above are fake.
To help, we turned to filmmaker and visual effects specialist Alan Melikdjanian, better known as Captain Disillusion — a character Melikdjanian has been playing on YouTube for a decade, and who’s responsible for some of the best (and wittiest) debunkings online. Here are his top tips for spotting forgeries and fakes:
1) FIRST ASK YOURSELF: IS THIS REAL?
“I think it’s best to start with the laziest options, and then move to the hardest,” says Melikdjanian. “The first thing I recommend is, if you see an unusual thing in a video, just ask yourself: ‘Is this a thing?’ Every day someone sends me a video saying ‘Is this real?’ and it’ll be something normal but just not something they’ve seen before.”
There are plenty of unusual videos out there that might seem incredible, but are real and perfectly normal phenomena. From wonders of the natural world like shape-shifting cuttlefish to industrial processes like hydrographic printing and new inventions like jet-powered hoverboards.
You should Google whatever it is you’re looking at, and just see if there are other examples. Also, check news coverage. Did journalists track down people involved in the video, or are they caveating their write-ups with phrases like “appears to be”? Do you trust the site you’re looking at, or did it just randomly appear in your Facebook feed?
(It’s also worth remembering that sometimes videos are just the result of someone trying to do something — like flip a bottle into the bottle-holder of a bike — many, many, many times. See, for example, the whoop-heavy trick shots of Dude Perfect.)
2) GO TO THE SOURCE
“If it goes through all those filters and there’s still something fishy or inexplicable about the video, try to find the earliest incarnation,” says Melikdjanian. You can do this either by searching for the video’s title (or an approximation of it) and finding the earliest upload, or by doing a Google reverse image search of the thumbnail. (You can read more on these methods here in this guide from open-source investigators Bellingcat.)
Once you’ve found what you think is the original video, ask yourself: does the uploader’s online presence seem genuine? If it was uploaded to social media, how long has their account been active, and do they have a history of interacting with other users? If not, it might be a plant. “And if you trace it back to something like a YouTube channel and every other upload is that person doing visual effects or animation, well, you can stop right there,” says Melikdjanian.
3) LOOK OUT FOR BRANDS
You might also find that the uploader has some connection to an advertising agency. Plenty of viral videos are really undercover sponsored content, meant to draw the viewer’s attention to a certain product or brand. Often there’s no mystery about this (like Instagram “magician” Zach King doing tricks with Snickers bars for example) but sometimes the relationship is quite subtle.
For example, you might have seen a video of builders with “superhuman tape measure skills” messing about on a construction site, opening doors and turning on light switches with their tape measures. But, you might not have known that this is an advertisement for super-tough windows. Just about every shot in the video features a window in the background, helpfully labelled with the brand’s logo.
4) CHECK THE TAPE
And of course, just because you can see that something is a setup, doesn’t mean you know how it was faked. For that, it’s best to download the video, and go through it frame by frame, checking for inconsistencies. You don’t need any particularly advanced software to do this (something like QuickTime will do) but you do need to know what to look for.
In Melikdjanian’s breakdown of the tape measure video, for example, he examines the trick shots one by one, and highlights telltale signs of editing and visual effects. These include shadows and reflections that pop in and out of view, and weird blurring that shows where things like filament wire (used to move objects) have been erased from the shot.
Melikdjanian says it’s usually much easier to remove elements than add them in, and you should keep this in mind when examining videos. “You can make something look amazing just by erasing a wire, or a person helping you off camera. I’d say most hoaxes are about erasing things rather than introducing them into the shot,” he says. “I like to apply a visual effects version of Occam’s razor. You look at a video and think, ‘If I had to fake this, what’s the laziest, least amount of work I would have to do to make it look real?’”
Fake or hoax videos also rely on poor-quality footage to hide imperfections, or ask viewers to interpret normal camera defects as inexplicable phenomena. “That’s a common trope with UFO videos: ghostly orbs are lens flares and reptilian disguises are compression artifactsshowing up on the video on someone’s face,” says Melikdjanian.
He adds that the advent of the smartphone camera has helped weed out a lot of these hoaxes. “As the quality of the camera in everyone’s pocket increases, it gives away the fakes simply by the fact that the video quality is bad. For some reason, the most amazing phenomena are captured on crappy cameras, even though most people have a HD camera in their pocket.”
5) DON’T OVERTHINK IT
Melikdjanian says that one of the biggest problems he sees now is not people believing in fakes, but doubting genuine videos. He says debunking itself has become a bit of a meme, with people using it to prove their cleverness online. “I see these detailed explanations where someone very authoritatively writes step-by-step how some video was faked,” he says. “But what they’re claiming is not correct, and they’re so sure about it.”
So, what have we learned? Well, be skeptical, but not too skeptical. Trust your instincts, but remember they’re easily deceived. Look for signs of visual effects, but don’t forget that some things can be “faked” simply through luck and practice.