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’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.

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.

An image of the tweet by Perez Hilton that brought this video to public attention.
  • 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.
A still of the video maker after the woman said that his “kind” doesn’t live there. There doesn’t seem to be much actual negative emotion (anger, frustration) in his facial reactions or voice, just an over-the-top depiction of shock and anger. Someone actually in a situation like this is likely to focus on the offending person, not focus so much on their own behavior.

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.

A common response when telling people that something they believed or shared was fake. I’ve gotten such responses from conservatives and liberals.
  • 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 psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).