‘Do eagles eat babies? Almost certainly not, especially in North American suburbs where sightings of such majestic winged creatures are rarer than rocking horse faeces.
So; why all the fuss yesterday about this video supposedly of a golden eagle attempting to snatch an unsuspecting toddler and carry it away for some human jerky meat for lunch?
Without putting too fine a point on it - people are idiots. Or rather, too many people wanted to believe that such an astounding clip could be anything but real.
The ‘golden eagle snatches kid’ video went viral, as bloggers and media organisations picked up that eagle shaped ball and ran with it. The video reached critical mass and became a digital self-fulfiling prophecy; “if the Mail Online, Guardian, and HuffPost are running it, surely it must be true?” viewers cried whilst warily watching the skies above for marauding birds of prey. Readers had faith in the basic fact-checking skills of their favourite media outlets, watched the video and clicked share.
Sadly, readers were let down by their beloved websites, at least in the initial rush to be first to cover the scary eagle baby-snatcher. Basic fact-checks and verification were left by the wayside apparently because the visual evidence was so striking. All were duped or wilfully suspended disbelief in the pursuit of pageviews.
But, no matter how online reporters, bloggers and the general public want to believe it, the video was an obvious fake, a hoax by group of university students who annually host a ‘hoax the internet’ competition. If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.
It’s easy to spot these things if you know how, and one doesn’t even need much in the way of video editing or CGI knowledge to filter the wheat from the chaff. Here are a few helpful bullet-points that will enable you to call ‘bullshit’ (or not..) on the next viral video phenomenon.
Weather, time, location.
First an easy one; what was the weather like in the video and does it match up with reports from the area? Montreal has been under snow for a week or so now, so the video immediately should ring alarm bells. Can you see obvious landmarks in the video? Compare them to a Google map or your knowledge of the area – do they match up? If they don’t, the clip probably won’t stand up.
The most obvious clue in the eagle video is that NO-ONE in the video bar the camera-guy seems that arsed about the extremely unusual sight of a giant fucking bird of prey in a city park. A quick search of the internet shows that golden eagles are seldom seen in the skies of Montreal, so this particular example should provoke more of a response from witnesses. A lack of interaction indicates computer generated imagery in this case - Alex Hearn from the New Statesmen has more here.
The YouTube account used to post the video appears to have been set up solely for this clip. In the world of Twitter hoaxes this an obvious tell. It can be in video too. As mentioned, eagles are rare in cities, so this bird -if real- should show up elsewhere, if not on local news. It didn’t.
There’s a whole heap of other ways to check video for authenticity –ranging from simply picking up the phone and calling someone, to digital triangulation and IP address witchcraft- read more about Twitter and video verification here and here.
As an online journalist, video verification is a vital part of the job. The most obvious examples of this come from discovering raw, user-generated videos from places like Tahrir Square in Egypt or a bombed-out hospital in Aleppo, Syria. It is important to get facts right in journalism, and making sure a video is what the title or author say is part of this.
Many would say that a fake eagle video isn’t quite as important to get right as say, videos of revolution, massacre or even natural disaster – but this couldn’t be more wrong. By-and-large, Journalists (and I include bloggers in this) have a responsibility to the facts, and not to verify a simple clip like this one reveals corners have been cut. Corners are cut for many reasons, but in this case it seems apparent that every, Tom, Dick and Arianna Huffington was happy to take a short cut knowing that the video would serve them well with ‘hits.’
This kind of behaviour breeds lazy reporters. Lazy reporters are the kind of people who, when the pressure is on, give in to despicable acts like celebrity phone-hacking or bung cash-filled envelopes to police officers for stories.
Trust is undermined too. A story that initially was reported as true, is now an elaborate hoax. Readers begin to wonder what else their news provider has got wrong over the years. The old Sky News maxim, “never wrong for long” has taken it’s toll. There’s no shame in getting a story wrong, though, providing all involved learn from the error (and publish a correction) and I appreciate that the ‘sharing game’ has to be played to attract revenue, but allowing ourselves as journalists to be tricked by videos like this, we are applying another slash to an industry already dying of a thousand cuts.
A caveat: My own employer, MSN, fell victim to this video. I called shenanigans early on, smug fucker that I am.
But it wasn’t enough to stop the homepage team casting out juicy linkbait like that. We weren’t the only ones, of course. Google News has over 130 separate articles for the video.