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:

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.

An image of the tweet by Perez Hilton that brought this video to public attention.

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:

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.

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.

A common response when telling people that something they believed or shared was fake. I’ve gotten such responses from conservatives and liberals.

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

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).