The Operational Role of the Online Video Hoax

Curator's Note

From the onset, the veracity of "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid" was challenged. Accusations that CGI or trick photography were in play emerged from comment threads and blog responses almost immediately. However, the questionable origins of the video did not stop online news sites from quickly embedding and reporting on it. Lacking definitive proof on the matter, the available story became about ambiguity itself. In addition to addressing the online skepticism, the Huffington Post writeup adds feasibility to the video's authenticity by providing factoids on the size of golden eagles and their ability to fly off with small mammals. In other words, writers were simultaneously approaching the video as both possible and not. 

Controversy and uncertainty have been directly credited for its viral success. YouTube's Trends Manager Kevin Allocca stated, “If there’s anything we like more than watching outrageous footage of the impossible, it’s discussing and reacting to outrageous footage of the impossible.” This idea calls to Neil Harris's concept of the 'operational aesthetic' where audiences find "delight in observing process and examining for literal truth" (79). Harris develops the idea to describe 19th century America's fascination with known swindler P.T. Barnum. Audiences would enthusiastically embrace hoax environments because of their epistemological draw. We enjoy the negotiation process of separating fact from fiction—witnessing and evaluating the nature of the art object for ourselves. 

Further, the hoax dynamic reduces a "threatening environment to a human scale by manipulating its elements and so demonstrating control over them" (72). The "command" the Canadian students who built the video demonstrate extends far beyond computer graphic skills into a more broad-spanning cultural knowledge of how successful viral videos operate once unleashed into the world. If there is an operational aesthetic at play here, then perhaps online hoax videos like "Eagle" mark new epistemological battlegrounds where savvy media-makers and audiences alike attempt to exert control over emerging media forms and the participatory cultures they produce. If so, can we read the controversies they incite as productive literacy efforts towards new, more complex understandings of online media's function and potential?


Harris, N. (1981). Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (p. 352). University Of Chicago Press.  


Thanks for this great post, Dustin. In particular, I love the idea that these types of hoaxes might incite (and even demand) new literacies on the part of both media-makers and audiences. Indeed, the CBC article you link to points at exactly how the students chose their video's subject based on their understanding of how often animals and babies "go viral"--clearly a literate choice demonstrating their understanding of both production norms and audience desires. But I guess I get tripped up at how this literacy necessarily extends to audiences. You suggest that the speed with which commenters doubted the video's veracity demonstrates their own attempt to interpret and own the content. But what about the silent audience members (who clearly number in the thousands) or those (including media outlets) who shared or re-posted the video with or without comment? Must we see such action as an endorsement or tacit acceptance of the literacy espoused by the media-makers, or is something more complicated going on?

I wonder if it is productive here to separate out news outlets like Huff Po, Gawker, and TMZ from sources like CNN, ABC, etc.? Although we can certainly talk about the way in which all news outlets are competing for business in the current climate and how the news cycle has given rise to speculation as news, do outlets that trade in sensationalism benefit disproportionately from playing both sides of the true/false game? As a takeaway, it seems that there's something to be said for the appeal of contained or controlled ambiguity? Building on your mention of the operational aesthetic, I wonder if part of that equation is a sense of efficacy (i.e., that there is a truth to be found and that we can comprehend such truth). In conjunction with your last paragraph I am somewhat hesitant (although I would love to be proven wrong) that the majority of non-media savvy viewers meaningfully engaged with the video in a way that had a lasting impact on their understanding of media's role in their lives and therefore wonder if there is pro-/anti-social dimension that must be weighed when thinking about the hoax as a tool for media literacy. I definitely agree that the online hoax can most definitely raise productive questions but something about the nature of the hoax seems likely to shut out those who could most likely benefit from engaging in such a discussion. Wrapping up, I would love to hear your thoughts on how the processes involved in virality and media literacy that you touch upon might extend to Invisible Children and their campaigns (most notably Kony 2012). I have been part of a group here at USC that has been studying them for years and I find that much of their success tends to lie in their ability to effectively deploy media in a way that speaks to the desires of their (youth) audience.

Thanks for the response and your questions Elizabeth. I believe you're right. The short answer is no, I don't think we can tie the more casual viewers directly to any claims about literacy I was making in my post. I was intently focused on the critical conversations taking place around the video... perhaps too much so. However, I think it is important to note that the influx of "views" came at the peak of the controversy, around the time the students who made it were 'outed.' People at this time wanted to go back and watch the video over, and over in attempt to discern for themselves whether the video was real or not or to just see what all the fuss was about. So while a video like "Eagle" can be experienced and enjoyed as is, we should keep in mind that the video would not have achieved the level of success it found if the vocalized skepticism had not entered so quickly and so prominently. You're also correct in assuming there's probably something more complicated going on... Isn't there always? Here are some quick thoughts: The skepticism elicited and vocalized by early doubters certainly demonstrates a critical distance amongst a particular section of the audience. But what about the majority of us who didn't express hard convictions one way or another? I don't think it's because we had strong feelings regarding the video's origin and chose not to express them. More likely it has to do with a conditioned ambivalence we have regarding the ontological integrity of our media at large. This is why the articles like HuffPost are so facinating to me. I believe they operate as a fitting metaphor for our own conditioned ambivalence towards the truth claims posited in the media. I'm not saying that this ambivalence prevents our ability to experience feelings, emotions or opinions when watching video. What I'm saying is that we now readily accept the idea that we can be fooled by videos like "Eagle" and are ok with that. The ease of this resignation probably has a lot to do with our increased faith in the internet's collective detective force, and influx of media hoaxes large and small. However, in regards to my claims about literacy, I do think that this ambivalence is present in most of us who spend time on the internet, and an important signifier of a conditioned and informed audience. What does this informed ambivalence look like from the outside? How does it articulate itself? The answer is that it probably doesn't. At least not initially. We see videos like Eagle and share them because they're interesting. We tend not to give a second thought to any extra-mediating conditions. I think the state of literacy probably more easily shows its face during the fallout, when the commentary begins. In the case of "Eagle," I think its significant that people were't infuriated by the fact that they were tricked by the Canadian students. Consider other recent media deceptions that provoked widespread outrage. The go-to example might be the James Frey incident. The fallout after "A Million Little Pieces" was debunked wasn't so much that Frey lied (even though that seemed to be the main site of the contention). I believe it was over the fact that our trust in the higher media powers that be (the editors, the publishers, and the media outlets that promoted the book) failed to expose the lies before the book became a best seller. This prompts the larger question, and our real fear: "What other lies have we passively accepted as truths?" At the same time, there is an advancement in literacy that comes out of an event like this—can we trust a memoir in the same way after seeing James Frey on Oprah? Fool me once... right? Film and televisual works have always contained an illusory "hoax" element in their attempts to mask certain means and manners of production. Media education functioned as a direct and explicit counterforce, attempting to empower the audience with knowledge and critical skill-sets to better understand the motivations and methods beyond what they're simply "supposed to see." However, literacy need not always be a conscious processes. Ideally, our most essential critical skill-sets become conditioned to be always firing in background, and I believe videos like "Eagle" are active contributors in building the type of conditioned ambivalence that allows audiences to build fluid interpretations as convincing arguments (on both sides) present themselves.

By Anonymous

You mention the role of the media, particularly more credible news sources such as the Huffington Post, in spreading this story. In examining the question of who do we hold accountable for the hoax, is it the hoaxer for deceiving, ourselves for our lack of skepticism, or is it possibly the news? From my interpretation, news publishers claim to be credible sources of fact, but with many of these online hoaxes (as well as other stories beyond this category), news anchors have turned into more of speculators who are no less entitled to their opinion or credible on the subject than any viewer. I think it should be the responsibility of credible news sources to be more professional and true to their cause. They ought to use more discretion as well as their investigating (and, well, journalist) skills to evaluate whether or not to report on something like a viral video. They should leave stories like this for less credible news sources that maybe specialize more in these illegitimate, less serious pieces. Obviously, I’m oversimplifying and ignoring the role viewership/popularity has in these decisions, I guess I just have more faith in the news and their standards than I maybe should. For me, it just really takes away from their credibility on more serious topics that I really want to read/watch/know about.

Chris, I think I address, at least partially, your question about the literacy effects of the hoax video in my response to Elizabeth. Let me know if you'd like me to expand on any of those thoughts. Chris and Kara, I think you both bring up important points about the different "news" outlets we have available to us, and their relative stakes in presenting vetted, factual material. Chris, regarding your question about who benefits from the more sensationalist material, short term it would seem to be sites like HuffPost and BuzzFeed who build factories to churn out "stories" like "Eagle" as quickly as possible. However, they would most likely argue that this material plays a separate and supplementary allowing for more serious, long-form journalism to take place. Check out BuzzFeed's awesome analysis of the eagle video two-months after it had come and gone. I think there's a different type of ambiguity going on here. Do we interpret HuffPost and Buzzfeed content the same way we would if it was from a respected and proven journalistic institution like the NY Times or NPR? Or do we read them as extensions of spastic social network feeds like Facebook and Twitter?

Dustin et al: My students have had troubles with the interface recognizing/accepting their registration requests, so I’m posting this comment (and I may have more), on their behalf. I’m sure they’d love to hear back from you, even though they weren’t able to post themselves: Rimsha writes: Your post has really made me start thinking about 'media hoaxing' turning into a new era of entertainment. It seems as if media hoaxing has become a type of art form in itself, which can be an entirely new way of looking at the situation. Instead of referring to them as hoaxes, we might soon be recognizing them for a new media format. These videos, stories, and pictures can all be considered a new type of entertainment, and instead of acknowledging the phenomena of what is happening directly, we can be looking at the effort that it took to make the 'hoaxes.' We always look at these sort of things with a negative outlook, but maybe we should start admiring how well the people were able to put the eagle video together.

Rimsha - I'm happy to hear that the conversations this week have encouraged you to think deeply about the present implications of video hoaxes and also how the form might evolve in the future. You and your fellow classmates are very lucky to be in a class that's encouraging you to ask tough questions about how we should interpret and engage with these videos. I think you're right that we should admire the production processes that go into making a believable hoax video like "Eagle" but appreciating the quality of the video's constructed nature becomes a relatively straightforward task once the hoax has been exposed. If, as you suggest, we might eventually think of the hoax as its own genre, then how are we to understand the video when it's actually performing its function as a hoax. Another way to ask this might be: Is it possible to understand a video as a hoax if it is never exposed as such? Or is 'hoax' a reparative concept that can only be applied retroactively to designate something that was formerly ambiguous or misunderstood? Thank you again for participating in the conversation. I would love to hear your, or your classmates thoughts on these matters.

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