Thomas Wictor

How to recognize fake videos and liars

How to recognize fake videos and liars

I knew the Worst Twerk Fail EVER - Girl Catches Fire! video was fake even before Jimmy Kimmel announced that it was his brainchild. It wasn’t the fact that you can’t catch on fire by falling on candles, or the fact that the top of your leg won’t catch on fire when the underside of your leg is exposed to flame, or the fact that the woman didn’t try to slap out the flames, or the fact that the video cut out when it did.

The way I knew it was one of the many fake videos out there was by turning the volume all the way down. Doing so revealed that she and the other woman were actresses.

For some reason it’s impossible for your body to convincingly portray you as something you’re not. I discovered this phenomenon by accident. I was writing my book German Flamethrower Pioneers of World War I, and I had the TV on with the sound off. I did this so that I could take breaks and look across the room, which relieves eye strain.

During one break I saw news footage of American troops in Iraq having a violent altercation with civilians inside a house. It immediately struck me as phony. All the soldiers’ actions were exaggerated, and the Iraqis seemed extra-histrionic. Then the scene changed, and I realized it was a newscast about the Brian De Palma film Redacted. My initial impression was right. It was fake.

I’ve always been interested in performance art. As a music journalist, I was a performance artist myself. I acted the part of a music journalist during my interviews, primarily because I had no training in the field and had to pretend I knew what I was doing, but also because I discovered that the more intelligent and perceptive of my interview subjects would instantly pick up on my intent: Let’s have fun and put on a show. It wouldn’t be fake, but it also wouldn’t be a heavy, “important,” ego-boosting exemplar of “JOURNALISM!”

From what I can tell, the human body simply can’t help giving away the fact that the person is engaged in a performance. As hard as people try, they can’t suppress the millions of little clues that what they’re doing is contrived. Gestures are just slightly over the top. Earnestness is just a tad too sincere. Fear is just a little too intense. It’s a form of hyper-reality or meta-reality.

It could be that our ability to discern insincerity goes back to our days in the cave, when living or dying depended on knowing the intentions of strangers. Remember Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy? Well, other people killed him. So we may have had to develop the survival skill of detecting fraudulence through observing body language. Maybe part of our brain is devoted to warning us against phoniness that can’t be fully hidden.

The way polygraphs work is they monitor involuntary somatic responses. When we lie, we sweat, our pulse rate goes up, and we breathe faster. It makes sense to me that when a person puts on a performance, he or she can’t quite pull it off in terms of what their body is doing, since it’s essentially a lie. The person involuntarily exposes the fraudulence of the performance through their body language. When you turn off the sound, the voice won’t distract you.

Voice is the most powerful form of human communication. Babies in the womb hear their mother’s voice before they see her. When we listen to a radio talk-show host or talk to a prospective blind date on the phone prior to meeting the person, we form a picture in our minds of what the speaker looks like. From the earliest days of civilization, people addressed gatherings by speaking, not acting.

As social animals, we evolved in such a way that voice overrode the visual, I think. Once we started settling in large groups, it no longer became as vital to tell an individual’s intent by studying body language. We began taking our cues from leaders addressing us in fora, amphitheaters, from mountaintops, and finally on the radio.

It’s been said that during the 1960 presidential campaign, those who listened to the September 26 debate on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won. It was the first televised presidential debate. Even some who question the validity of the radio-versus-television thesis acknowledge that Nixon’s deeper, more resonant voice sounded better.

Our ability to detect fraud from body language remains with us. To determine if a video is fake or a politician, pundit, or CEO is lying, simply turn off the sound and watch carefully. Usually you’ll be able to tell almost immediately. I’ve been using this approach since 2007, and so far I haven’t been wrong. Sometimes it takes a couple of viewings, but I’m always able to weed out the frauds from the genuine.

It’s a vital skill to have, as it was thousands of years ago.

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