“When I create a false reality, I always try to create a plausible
structure to help convince people”
— Joey Skaggs
One might ask, why the heck am I writing about all of this as a graphic designer? The thing is that, hoaxes in their realisation deal with the same phenomena graphic designers deal with - the credibility. For the good hoax to succeed, such deception principles as common medium, qualities of the deceived, emotion factor, decision sensivity and confirmation bias are not enough, and even more, some of them rely directly on how a hoax is executed itself practically - how credible it is. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, creedibility is “ the quality of being believed or accepted as true, real, or honest”. Credibility refers to the objective and subjective components of the believability of a source or message.
Traditionally, modern, credibility, reliability has two key components: trustworthiness and expertise, which both have objective and subjective components. Trustworthiness is based more on subjective factors, but can include objective measurements such as established reliability. Expertise can be similarly subjectively perceived, but also includes relatively objective characteristics of the source or message (e.g., credentials, certification or information quality). Secondary components of credibility include source dynamism (charisma) and physical attractiveness. In case of hoaxes, secondary components of credibility are actually the most important, since, as we can see from previous chapters, if the story or the situation is catchy or looks convincing enough, nobody is bothering to check the sources anyway; for instance, if there is a bus with a company logo sticker on it, it’s automatically assumed that people inside of this bus work in this company, and this kind of assumptions is regularly abused by people with let’s say wrong intentions.
As an example of a brief credibility analysis I would like to bring up the infamous case of The “Surgeon’s Photograph” published in Daily Mail in 1934, that depicts a “head and neck” of a creature, referred to as Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie :
1. First of all, the picture doesn’t create any clash with the basic common sense or logic, in terms that it’s obviously depicting a creature, capable of living in the water, reptile or so. It also looks quite like a solid, proper piece. If there, in the water, would be shown something furry, birdlike, or consisting of different parts of different animals, it would be more obvious from the beginning that the picture was fabricated.
2. The “story” of taking a picture, is a small, but necessary detail - Robert Kenneth Wilson, the creator of the photograph and a London gynaecologist, claimed that he was looking at the loch when he saw the monster, so he grabbed his camera and snapped four photos. Only two exposures came out clearly: the first one shows what was claimed to be a small head and back, while the second one shows a similar head in a diving position .
3. The legends and myths about sea monsters inhabiting Scottish lakes make a concrete base supporting the hoax.
4. The appearance and aesthetics of the picture itself, - it looks real enough, but not too much, to create as less doubts as possible.
The points #3 and #4 deserve a more elaborate and detailed explanation which follows further.
To understand why the Loch Ness Monster hoax happened in the first place, it’s very important to look at the context of it’s place, history and environment. There are 2 layers in preparing this hoax, first of which could be considered, when the term “monster” was reportedly applied for the first time to the creature on 2 May 1933 by Alex Campbell, the water bailiff for Loch Ness and a part-time journalist, in a report in The Inverness Courier. On 4 August 1933, the Courier published as a full news item the assertion of a London man, George Spicer, that a few weeks earlier while motoring around the Loch, he and his wife had seen “the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life”, trundling across the road toward the Loch carrying “an animal” in its mouth. Other letters began appearing in the Courier, often anonymously, with claims of land or water sightings, either by the writer or by family or acquaintances, or stories they remembered being told. These stories soon reached the national (and later the international) press, which described a “monster fish”, “sea serpent”, or “dragon”, eventually settling on “Loch Ness Monster”.
But there is also another, and more important layer, with the roots going much deeper into the history, folklore and the spoken narrative.
Without the legends, surrounding Scotland throughout the centuries, it simply wouldn’t work, and arguably wouldn’t happen at all.
Particularly, the stories about the lake (loch) monsters were quite common in Scotland back in a day, i.e. there are documented myths about such beasts as Water-horse from Loch Arkaig, Beathach mór from Loch Awe, Lizzie from Loch Lochy, Lomond Monster from Loch Lomond, Muc-sheilch from Loch Maree, Mòrag from Loch Morar, Wee Oichy from Loch Oich, Seileag from Loch Shiel and etc. It just happened to be that the monster of Loch Ness, since it is the largest by volume in the British Isles, gave a bigger room for one’s imagination and gained most publicity. Many authors have claimed that sightings of the monster go as far back as the 6th century .
If to look at it from a shallow perspective, such tales were probably being created from seeing the river animals not known back then scientifically, such as large eels or otters, and from deep archaic fear of unknown, deep water and what could be hiding in it. Nevertheless, legends and myths in general are crucially linked with culture, and by looking at them it is possible to guess about the society of a time the legend was created and it’s mentality. Myths are a widely and variously used term referring to a culture’s way of understanding, expressing and communicating to itself concepts that are important to its self-identity as a culture. There are two main uses of the term—the ritual/anthropological and the semiotic .
The ritual/anthropological takes the form of an anonymously composed narrative that offers explanations of why the world is as it appears to be, and why people act as they do. It is specific to its own culture, though it presents its explanations as universal, or natural. It is a crucial means of turning nature into culture, and thus works also reciprocally as a naturalizing agency.
The semiotic meaning refers to an unarticulated chain of associated concepts by which members of a culture understand certain topics. It operates non-consciously and intersubjectively. It is associative, not narrative; it is culture-specific, not transcultural or universal; it changes over time, rather than being eternal; and it is unarticulated rather than being textually expressed. Its prime function is to make the cultural natural, and it thus shares with other usages the function of naturalization. In the work of a french philosopher an semiotician Roland Barthes, myth is virtually synonymous with ideology and designates a level of symbolic or cultural connotation, active in a visual image or social narrative. For Barthes myth is a special communicative system: the philosopher defines myth as a set of connotative means forming a latent (hidden) ideological level of discourse. The meaning and direction of the myth is twofold:
On the one hand, it aims to change reality, it aims to create the image of reality, which would coincide with the value expectations of carriers of mythological consciousness; on the other - the myth is concerned with concealing is its own ideology, that is, it aims to be perceived as something natural, self-evident.
Barthes emphasizes that the myth is not a relic of archaic consciousness, but a huge part of modern culture. Myth today realizes itself in advertising, cinema, television, and so on.
Barthes developed this understanding of the term especially in the essays entitled “Mythologies”, a study of the activities and events of contemporary French cultural life such as wrestling, striptease, a new Citroen motor car, films and advertising. This has proved an influential model for the study of popular culture, which, in the first place, plays a crucial role in visual communication, since it is basically responsible for creating and building the bridge between the myth and the audience.
Hoaxes and myths are intertwined in a complex and a sophisticated way. On the one hand, hoaxes seem to be a myth and have a similar nature, but the other, at the same time, they have a completely opposite structure and a function.
Ultimately every hoax aims or at least waits to be exposed, revealing the social narrative that a myth has, but in a way which is completely abusing it, twisting it’s meaning and eventually taking the grotesque fake over natural qualities that a myth aims to have.
It is interesting to take the “Surgeon’s Photograph” as an artefact free of history and see what makes it credible from purely visual point of view. The picture is depicting something that looks like a sea-serpent head, sticking out of the water, in the centre of large circular ripples pattern. The image is black and white and slightly blurred, to the extend that the details are not visible, but the water and silhouette still is. During that time (1934) it was practically fitting the format and standards of amateur photography - low quality and made seemingly accidentally. Apart from the “monster” itself, there was nothing about the picture that would make it look different from any other documental, amateur photographs, - there are no signs of the fact that situation was made up, no forceful effort, so, it’s substantial to point out, - it is not overdone. This brings us to one of the fundamental questions of credibility: when is real so real, that it becomes fake?
When fabricating a hoax and working on its components that play a public visual role, it is important to know the balance, and have a clear vision how it should look like. Something that is done perfectly, when is not supposed to look perfect, results in looking out of place, and may raise suspicions and feelings of uncanniness. The uncanny (German: Das Unheimliche, “the opposite of what is familiar”) is a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar that is experienced as being peculiar. Uncanniness was first explored psychologically by Ernst Jentsch in a 1906 essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny. Jentsch defines the Uncanny as: being a product of “intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one’s way about in. The better oriented in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.” Sadeq Rahimi, an American Professor, has noted a common relationship between the uncanny and direct or metaphorical visual references, which he explains in terms of basic processes of ego development, specifically as developed by Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage. Rahimi presents a wide range of evidence from various contexts to demonstrate how uncanny experiences are typically associated with themes and metaphors of vision, blindness, mirrors and other optical tropes. He also presents historical evidence showing strong presence of ocular and specular themes and associations in the literary and psychological tradition out of which the notion of ‘the uncanny’ emerged. According to Rahimi, instances of the uncanny like doppelgangers, ghosts, Déjà vu, alter egos, self-alienations and split personhoods, phantoms, twins, living dolls, etc. share two important features: that they are closely tied with visual tropes, and that they are variations on the theme of doubling of the ego.
The most widely known theory, related to the concept of uncanniness, is uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics which holds that when features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of beings as subjects move toward a healthy, natural likeness described in a function of a subject’s aesthetic acceptability. In other words, natural-like beings are perceived as normal, and their likeness improves as they look more and more natural, but when, at a certain point, they cross the border in looking too
natural, their likeness radically drops. Since uncanny valley is a concept, invented in robotics, it is mostly explained on an example of a primitive human-like robot (i.e. WALL-E), which is not very similar to humans but has the basic recognisable features as a “face”, capable of communicating the emotions, closely-resembled-to-humans androids, that are often perceived as creepy, and actual humans. The concept of uncanny valley is suitable not only for robotics, but also anything that imitates the reality, including hoaxes, and illustrates very well that gap between real and unreal.
Any hoax is always a simulation of something that exists in a real world, something familiar, whether it’s a person, an object, or a situation. A simulation represents the model of the world, being built on the same structure, but not being this structure or the world itself. It is always a bizarre mix that holds within itself both real and unreal components, thus provoking the arguments if the simulation can be itself considered a real or unreal thing. Accordingly, a french postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote a philosophical treatise called “Simulacra and Simulation”, where he argues that the boundaries between real and unreal have become somewhat blurred. As an illustration to this idea he brings up a fable, written by an Argentinian magical realism novelist Jorge Luis Borges (who himself has executed numerous literary forgeries and hoaxes), - “On Exactitude in Science”, that tells about an Empire that was obsessed with art of cartography, and that eventually created a perfectly detailed, 1:1 scale map of the real world, which eventually covered the whole Empire. According to Baudrillard, the story is a perfect example of a Simulation, although later he argues that nowadays simulations do not represent reality anymore, as a result of people constructing their own reality, basing on messages they get trough media. Baudrillard calls this reality, construct through mediated messages, a simulacrum or hyperreality. A simulacrum is an idea of reality, which is being formed in people’s minds, therefore it is a copy without an original. Baudrillard even states that there is no difference anymore between the real and simulation, real has become simulation and simulation has become real:
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.”
Human beings in today’s society succumb to countless forms of hyperreality, and consequently we basically live in it. A good example by Baudrillard is the Gulf war in 1990 - 1991, elaborated in a series of essays called “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Many people have images and associations with this war, but haven’t experienced the war in real life, - they only know the war from the media, which shows and explains the war in its own way. The people then construct the idea of a Gulf War based on all the information they get through the media, which could be very different than the truth , since they see only a part of it . Baudrillard argues that there is less and less truth, because we base our reality on what we see in the media. People feel themselves a deeper connection to simulations as movies, televisions shows, celebrity representations in news than to instances in reality that they reference.
“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real”
says Baudrillard. He calls it “the perfect crime”, that can be dangerous, since by the selectivity of media this simulation of reality could be altered . Because the line between real and unreal is being blurred, there seems to be no difference between the truth and a lie. This leads to people adapting their behaviour, culture, taste, ethical considerations, political affiliations and scientific assumptions, to the conditions that the simulacrum offers, and becomes almost impossible for these people to question this, since they live in this simulacrum, which defines their , rational emotional, spiritual and philosophical presumptions. In this way, a hoax becomes a realer thing than anything else, since in it’s goal to be eventually revealed, it pretends to be something that it’s not but in a reversed way, ultimately shaking and questioning the simulacrum, and using this simulacrum as weapon against itself.
The power of visual narrative of a hoax derives from a deeper knowledge of the reality/simulacrum around and of course weak spots in it. Also, such sayings as “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “Pics or didn’t happen” were not invented just out of the blue - it is proven that a message is more convincing when accompanied with an image. More often then not, the aesthetics are not about the attractively, although it helps, but about fitting in the context they’re placed in. As we have examined before, a photograph of Loch Ness monster fits in the field of somewhat low quality quick amateur snapshots.
There are many other examples, for instance, The Onion, - an American digital media company and news satire organization, is often confused with the real news, since the media it communicates through is the same - newspaper (1988 - 2013), and an online portal, featuring video and audio news, and written articles followed by photographic illustrations.
Another American satire news company is Daily Show, which has never claimed to be real and makes itself obvious through a non-subtle use of humour and irony, is nevertheless using same and well crafted visual attributes of more traditional news shows, - broadcast elements and interface animations, and apart from canned laughter on the background it looks entirely credible. Besides, throught the use of satire it offers a more objective and critical point of view on current events and phenomenas than a majority of the “real“ news channels.
Although might not be perceived as done visually, a publishing hoax called “Sokal Affair”, perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London, follows the same principles as the others. Sokal affair is a fake scientific article submitted and published in Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, written by professor out of frustration with scientific journals publishing gibberish which back then was a trend considered to be a postmodern science writing. The aim of Sokal was to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”. On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense ... structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.” In this case the writing language played the role of a visual facade, or a decoration, mimicking the tone of articles published previously in the magazine, so it worked .
In the age of mass publicity and the Internet, fake images and videos became the easiest and most accessible medium of executing a hoax, and Photoshop and video editing software became powerful tools in helping in it, although the principle of uncanniness should be considered as carefully as ever, since a video or an image without a context is the only thing given away to public, except the times when it’s a part of a big campaign. Every smallest detail is exposed to the eye of the viewer and should be so thought-out that it will be able to withstand any attempt of analysis: the video cuts, ways of shooting, the quality, the aesthetics, the correspondence to the laws of physics, the effects, the behavior of people involved and etc.
A good example of analysis and what makes particular viral video hoaxes convincing but also not completely is presented by a YouTube talk show duo Good Mythical Morning in their video “4 Biggest Viral Hoaxes“ , examining “Crazy Guy Runs Into Outback Tornado To Take Selfie“, “Pig rescues baby goat“ , “Walk on water (Liquid Mountaineering)” and “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid“ . The duo is arguing about whether these viral videos are believable or not, and that some are more believable than others, pointing out that 1st one, although later proven to be a a part of guerilla marketing campaign of a movie called “Into the storm“ is quite credible due to well-done computer effects, acting and facial expressions of the actor (“Look st that face! It’s completely believable!“) and the fact that the scene depicted in the video doesn’t look like something completely impossible to happen; in second one they’re pointing out that the video looks a little fake because the pig which is claimed to save the goat didn’t actually do anything - it just swam to the goat and then they together swam to the shore; the third one is the most obvious for two reasons: the poor acting and the impossibility of doing such a thing (denial of laws of physics); and the 4th one that turns out to be the most believable, since it’s not going against the logic, - the detail of an eagle not carrying the kid away completely but dropping him because of heaviness, - the way of editing the video (first the actual footage is shown, where you mostly see the grass and running feet of the man behind the camera, and afterwards you see the repetition of the fragment in slow motion, where then you see more clearly how eagle is picking up and dropping the baby), and extremely well executed video effects - it was revealed that the whole thing was a 3d animated models of eagle and the baby mixed with real footage.
Another channel called YouTube Nation in one of their videos is providing an insight on some special video editing trick, often used by many viral hoax videos - a hidden cut . A hidden cut allows you to stitch together two separate shots, while maintaining the illusion that it was all shot at once. The easiest way to produce such a cut is through camera shake - the blurriness and fast movenet of an image provides a smooth transition that doesn’t let you recognize that something in the surroundings has changed. This effect was, for instance, used in “Crazy Guy Runs Into Outback Tornado To Take Selfie “, mentioned above.
These were just a few among many examples, proving the point that the visual execution of a hoax is an inherent attribute of credibility, which is no less important than any others.