Examining indicators of deceptive, staged videos

This will be a place where I examine indicators of videos being deceptive or staged. There’s only one here now but I will add to this over time. If you have ideas for interesting videos to examine, send them my way and I’d appreciate it.

My experience and interest in fake/staged videos

To skip to the video analyses, keep scrolling down. First I’ll explain a little about my interest in deceptive videos and my experience in that area:

  • I have a video/film degree, and have worked in various video production jobs (writer, director, producer). I also worked for a short time as a forensic video analyst, analyzing videos for law enforcement and legal purposes.
  • I’m a former professional poker player and have written books on poker tells (i.e., poker behavior).
  • I have a psychology/behavior podcast, ‘People Who Read People’, where I sometimes interview people about behavioral indicators of deception.
  • I sometimes do independent research into online deception, and that work has been featured in Washington Post, NY Times, and more.

Long story short: I’m interested in behavioral indicators of deception.

My video production experience, which has included directing actors and shooting/editing a lot of video, has given me a good instinct for when people are not being genuine. And that knowledge, that instinct, is hard to fully put into words; I think the instinct stems mainly from directing actors, because probably the biggest element that will ruin a video production is bad acting. Because this is such a concern, I think video/film people tend to build an instinct about whether someone in a scene seems authentic (a decent actor) or comes across as inauthentic (a bad actor, or maybe a bad take). Because bad acting is a top concern on any production, you’re always looking for ways to foolproof against it (e.g., choosing actors carefully; choosing angles carefully; maybe avoiding need for dialogue that requires strong comedic or dramatic acting skills). And because good/bad acting is always top of mind, I think you build a strong sense for those things.

All this is to say: working in video/film gives you a good instinct about videos. Often I’ll watch a video that’s making the social media rounds and immediately think, “Oh, that’s fake” or “Ok that seems legit” based on an immediate vibe I get from the people in the video. So I’m interested in discussing what the aspects are in a video that can make me, or other people, think a video is staged or authentic. I’m interested in trying to make those instincts more explicit and described. (I had similar interests in researching and writing about poker tells; what’s the logic behind some of those intuitions that experienced poker players can have?)

My other interest in these topics is because I believe that social media has many negative effects, both for our own psychological well being and for society as a whole. One aspect of this is the internet’s role in spreading fake news and inaccurate interpretations. Social media pre-selects for short, brief messages, and it favors emotional takes, both of which add up to make it common for well-meaning people, even quite intelligent and discerning people, to often believe and share fake or inaccurate things online. (To read a piece I wrote examining inherently divisive aspects of social media, see How social media divides us.)

Video from November 2020: White woman tells black jogger, “People like you don’t live here.”

The first video we’ll examine got attention when it was shared by celebrity gossip personality Perez Hilton on November 18th. You can see his tweet and watch the video here. While you’re there, you might check out people’s responses to that tweet, just to see how many people accepted it immediately as genuine.

This video had quite a few pieces written about it by low-quality news sites. I wouldn’t bother checking them out, but just to give you a sense of how much the story spread, here are some of the ones I found:

All that was apparently necessary for it to become “news” for such sites was that Perez Hilton tweeted about it. These articles contain no details about the video other than that Hilton tweeted it. As far as I know, no one knows who the people in the video are, where it was filmed, or any other journalistically important details.

Watching this for the first time, I felt confident within the first few seconds that it was staged, and I tweeted that before I had confirmed it (my tweet here). I mention that just to give you an idea of how confident I was (as there are obvious risks to my image if I claim that a video showing a victim of racism is fake/staged and I’m wrong).

So let’s examine some clues in this that might indicate that this is probably deceptive/staged. Keep in mind that none of these aspects are that damning on their own; it’s only when you add many together that it starts to veer into high-confidence territory.

Some clues:

  • His focus is mostly on himself. The focus of the young man’s recording is on his own face and reactions, not on the woman. When she says something to him, he will often turn the camera on himself so we can see his reaction. This is the instinct of a performer; to focus on themselves, to capture their own reactions (especially as reaction shots are known as being a key part of drama and comedy).
  • The woman is not focused on. He avoids showing the woman’s face; she is mostly shot so that her head is outside the frame. Compare this to genuine videos of people recording offensive behavior: the focus of these videos is on the person doing the bad thing. The natural inclination is to capture the offending behavior, to gather evidence, to hold someone accountable. But here, we only get a quick glimpse of her face. And this makes sense if the video were staged; if you were going to be portraying a horrible person, you’d probably want to avoid showing your face and being easily identified. And the hat adds to making it harder to identify her.
  • Probable story inconsistency. He says he was jogging around the neighborhood, but is not out of breath. He also says she’s been following him for several blocks, and it seems unlikely she’d be right next to him if he were actually jogging. (Again, these are nothing convincing on their own, as it’s easy to imagine scenarios where both these things could be true, but they are things to add to the list of clues.)
  • He doesn’t seem angry. This is admittedly a subjective aspect, hard to quantify, because people respond to offenses in different ways. But his facial expressions and tone of voice don’t communicate anger. He seems like someone trying to act angry and shocked, but there seems to be no real edge or quaver to his voice, no stress in his eyes or facial expression, no verbal awkwardness that people who are genuinely upset often have. The reactions are over-the-top. He seems too calm.
  • The woman is relaxed. The woman is strangely relaxed given the circumstances. You’d expect that if she were actually following someone and saying such horrible, offensive things, she might be a bit uncomfortable and might want to avoid aggravating him. But instead, she seems relaxed, and is quite comfortable walking near him. Put another way: if she were actually concerned/scared of him being in the neighborhood, it’d be a bit unusual for her to simultaneously be so relaxed around him. (Of course she could have some mental issues, but we’re just considering some likely scenarios here.)
  • The dialogue makes the offensiveness very obvious. Everything that in a similar video might be a bit subtle or ambiguous is here made entirely explicit. He says, “What is you following me for? Is it cause I’m black? This that racist shit; yo, you voted for Trump, didn’t you?”. She responds, “I just never seen anybody like you around here before.” He says, “What you mean? Like me?” She says, “You know, like your kind.” He emphasizes the offending line by giving the camera a shocked expression and asks the audience, “Did y’all hear that?” then says to her, “You said ‘my kind’”. She says, “Yeah, people like you don’t live in here.” The dialogue leaves no room for misinterpretation; there is no subtlety in trying to figure out what her motivations are; it is clearly racist. While there are obviously many videos of people treating people badly in ways attributed to race (for a list of some well known ones, see this piece), in most of these types of videos, the cause of the behavior is not made explicit; there is usually some room for error in trying to determine what exactly a person’s motivations were.
  • Related to above point: In general, I’d argue that the more obviously despicable the “villain” in a video is, the more likely two explanations become: either the video is staged, or the villain is suffering from some mental issues. And this is because most normal-functioning people don’t want to make their bad qualities so obvious. Most decent-functioning people don’t wish to be captured behaving like horrible people on camera, so most offensive behavior is on the more subtle side. (I examine offensive behavior displayed in viral videos in two podcast interviews: here and here.) But in this video, nothing is left to the imagination. And making things obvious and over-the-top, not subtle like real life usually is, is what deceivers (and bad actors) will often do. (In my book on verbal poker tells, I talk about the “degree of subtlety” being a factor in poker tells, too. It’s a similar idea; the more obvious and on-display a behavior is, the more likely it becomes that it’s displayed purposefully and is deceptive.)
  • His calling her “weirdo” stood out to me as a likely indicator of him not actually being angry. Think about yourself being in such a situation, where someone is following you, recording you, and harassing you: would calling that person “weirdo” be near the top of your mind? “Weirdo” in this context stands out to me as an abnormally mild thing to call someone in such a situation. Again, it’s totally possible, but it did strike me as unusually low-key a word choice.

To confirm that this was fake, here’s the longer video, which I found several weeks after I first saw the clip Perez Hilton shared. Perez also learned the clip was staged, as you can see him say in this tweet. (Interestingly, he left the original tweet up, which is not necessarily bad, but he should have at least responded to his own tweet with a note that the video was staged.)

Why care about fake, staged videos?

Sometimes, when you point out that someone is sharing or believing something fake, they don’t care. I’ve had many people directly tell me something like, “I don’t care that it’s fake; it could be real.” An example of this can be seen below; this was a response to me telling this person that the video they’d expressed shock and dismay about was fake.

So let’s look at some negative things about such fake videos being believed:

  • Distorted views of the world. When people uncritically accept fake news or skewed interpretations of events, they form a distorted view of the world and the problems we face.
  • More negative emotions. Content that arouses negative emotions (anger, fear) spreads more easily on the internet than other content (something examined in my piece about social media). We are attracted to negative things; we are attuned to threat and conflict. And social media exposes us constantly to inaccurate interpretations aimed at arousing negative emotions. It’s easy to imagine that such a landscape has a negative impact on our emotional well being.
  • Less credibility for a person or associated group. When people believe fake news or false interpretations of real events, those people’s political opponents will have reason to mock them, or to downplay their concerns in general. For example, when some liberals believe a staged video and act as if it’s real and appalling, it causes some conservatives to view liberals’ concerns as less serious in general. And vice versa. In short, you are letting down the group or cause that you’re perceived to be a part of.

Have an idea for a video that’d be interesting to examine? Please let me know via the contact form on my site. And if you enjoyed this piece, I highly recommend my piece about the ways in which social media and internet communication may be amplifying our polarization and extreme beliefs.

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).

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