Maybe you saw it on Facebook.
Maybe you saw it on the news.
But did you see that it wasn’t true?
In a long essay by at Buzzfeed (a site better known for lists and kitten videos), Chris Stokel-Walker tells the story of the “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” clip.
The YouTube video, published three months ago, shows a large bird swooping from a blue sky into a park, latching on to a toddler and plucking him away like prey.
The boy is released seconds later, falling to the ground.
The clip was a triumph for its creators, students in a video-effect class at Centre NAD, a technology university in Montreal, where the assignment is “to make a viral hoax video. If it got more than 100,000 views, then congratulations, you got an A”.
Within a day it had been viewed 17 million times. Three months later, the figure is more than 42 million.
The students got a lot right.
The content was cleverly chosen. They’d toyed with depicting a plane landing on a bus, but that was too far-fetched.
The eagle dramatics plugged into a tradition of stories, mostly apocryphal, of similar events.
And it was very well made.
But, helpfully, it wasn’t perfect, meaning that within hours, another, ahem, eagle-eyed YouTube user had released a clip declaring it a hoax, triggering a raucous online debate.
“If there’s anything we like more than watching outrageous footage of the impossible,” Kevin Allocca, the “trends manager” at YouTube (yes that is his title) tells Buzzfeed, “it’s discussing and reacting to outrageous footage of the impossible.”
The video lingered, even after its debunking, because it gave people, he continues, “a topic for us to engage on and debate with each other about. We know that videos depicting the seemingly implausible — especially in nature — can become very popular. Add in the fact that there’s just a lot to react to and that tons of blogs and news sites were embedding the video, and you’ve got a recipe for viral success.”
While there was widespread admiration, some were less than pleased. As one commenter wrote beneath the Centre NAD statement acknowledging the artifice (and cheerfully promoting the university):
Could i respectfully ask that you think a bit more carefully before posting such a hoax. in many countries there are projects to re-introduce large eagles which have been previously been made locally extinct through persecution. many of the ‘anti-groups’ have made completely false claims that these magnificent creatures would be a threat to people’s children and videos like this have been seized upon as ‘proof’ of their erroneous arguments.
I commend you for owning up so promptly but i just wanted to draw your attention to the potential damage that could have been done to numerous reintroduction programs.
What propels exercises such as Golden Eagle Snatches Kid to circulate at such speed?
Ryan Cordell, a lecturer at Northeastern University specializing in 19th-century periodical literature, analyses how newspapers and other mass media of the time disseminated news, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the criteria for what makes a story spread haven’t changed much. “It needs to be easily shared; have some level of cuteness — or,” he explains, “in this case be something horrifying; and have some kind of challenge, or puzzle, or mystery.” “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” has all three.
It’s not all astonishment and rollicking fun, however. Stokel-Walker concludes with a sinister stroke of the chin:
Truthers, conspiracy theorists, and cranks are no longer out on a limb in distrusting everything they see. Given that undergraduates have the computing power and the tools to distort reality, there’s no telling what more power and higher investment can do. Tricks that were once Stalinist methods of rewriting history are now within the reach of anyone with a copy of Photoshop.