From news hoaxes to online hoaxes: the rise of “fake” viral videos

A few days ago the Australian company Woolshed admitted it created eight fake viral videos which in the last two years have been viewed over 205 million times on Youtube, and received more than a half million likes on Facebook. The feature of these videos is that until now many people have deemed them authentic and this was the reason for their overwhelming success. Among the eight videos there is that of the girl who was almost struck by lightning, that of another girl pursued by a bear while snowboarding, the boy who dives into the sea with a GoPro on the head and comes close to a white shark and that of a couple of hunters attacked by a lion.

None of these videos was authentic (many experts already had expressed strong doubts about their authenticity) but all have become viral and were shared by several online publications: most often without even a preliminary check, in other cases, however, it was the debate about their authenticity that created virality and increased the number of shares.

Woolshed – an Australian video production company – in 2014 decided to create some fake videos and post them online to see how they would do: to do this the company also used some funds given by Screen Australia, a project of the Australian government whose purpose is “to stimulate inventive and creative approaches to storytelling“. The result of this experiment has been very positive: however it is not the first time that video production professionals create fake videos without revealing their true nature.

We can now say that the online “fake viral video” has become a genre: it is used by small companies or professionals to show their skills but also it’s used as a teaser for more complex videos, or to experiment and learn what makes a successful viral. Woolshed Company producer David Christison says: “Every video created debate. [..] People buy into viral content for the entertainment value, and that’s quickly followed by a critical analysis of the videos authenticity. […] If viral videos help people understand that not everything can be taken at face value, I see that as a positive outcome for the series we’ve created”.

In a world of online communication more and more “drugged” by unverified news or myths passed off as facts, there is no doubt that stimulating questions and debates about the contents we find online every day is a good thing. Similarly we can say that the exploit of Woolshed basically updates some dynamics that has existed since the dawn of mass communication: the hoax and media manipulation, although in this case the manipulation was not to favor a particular interest but only to stimulate a debate and make a sociological experiment.