I just watched a cable TV show, Caught on Camera, Viral Videos – Is That Possible, about the making of videos that have gone viral with some fake and some real situations. One was a “phony” video of a man flying like Icarus with wings flapping through the man’s arm movements. The show debunks the stories that are phony and shows some that are real in contrast.
I was both fascinated and disturbed by the story of four digital design students at the National Animation and Design Centre in Montreal. The young men devoted 400 hours to creation of a 59-second 3-D animation clip of a golden eagle snatching a child from the ground and flying off for a short distance before dropping it unharmed. Seems like a harmless stunt to them. They needed 100,000 people to watch their very realistic video to get an A+ for their CGI (computer-generated images). They have had more than 40 million views to date. Some viewers believed it to be real and were interviewed by the show debunking contrived videos.
ABC News blogs posted an article about the faked “eagle snatches kid.” No mention was made of the ethical questions involved. It was all straightforward reporting on the ingenuity of these digital entrepreneurs. They got the A+. Buzzfeed.com contributor, Chris Stokel-Walker wrote a very detailed posting about Robin Tremblay, the lecturer who gave the class assignment. Stokel-Walker wrote, And unlike 2009’s Balloon Boy debacle, which smacked of opportunism and exploitation, this was the rare public hoax that remains victimless and good-natured and unmotivated by malice or greed — one that could actually be a teachable moment, not just for the perpetrators, but for all of us who participated by clicking, or by telling others to.
For those of us who have spent decades teaching people about eagles and their benefits to ecosystems and the planet in general, these sorts of hoaxes do not seem “victimless.” Eagles will not sue for slander and likely no malicious intent was involved, but what does it take to undo the harm done by such a video? Few people will see the stories or videos that debunked the phony animation of the eagle and child compared to 40 million who saw it and now use it as proof that their child may be in danger from eagles flying overhead.
Never mind that a 10-pound eagle cannot pick up more than a pound or two, certainly not a 20 pound child. Eagles simply will not attack humans of any size. We do not look or act like prey. But the common sense knowledge that most folks lack about eagles, wolves and other wildlife is overshadowed by the “truth” of a video, a seemingly real experience.
Hollywood has been producing ridiculous movies for decades that encourage fear of valuable animals, especially predators. Jaws, Snakes on a Plane, and other movies feed the fears of viewers. As computer-generated images and animations become more and more convincing with little or no ethical scrutiny, the public will likely be influenced to be even less comfortable with nature and natural dangers. I have no simple answer for what we do to counteract these sorts of misimpressions, but recognize that it is another challenge to our ability to interpret the planet and increase understanding of the species with whom we share our world.
– Tim Merriman