Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Of mermaids and manipulation

I watched the Animal Planet show Mermaids: The Body Found last night. I didn’t have any background on it and assumed it was a documentary for the first few minutes (yes, despite the title), however it didn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t an actual documentary, but a pretty well-done faux documentary peppered here and there with genuine scientific facts.

It originally aired on Animal Planet in 2012 and was then re-aired by the Discovery Channel. According to press reports, on both occasions it caused a huge stir on social media sites with pro and con mermaid camps battling it out. What has piqued my interest is not the subject matter as much as the concept of the piece itself. It was originally shown not on the Comedy Channel or Sci Fi, but on Animal Planet, which generally airs content based in fact. I don’t know how much effort either Animal Planet or Discovery put into letting people know that this was a work of fiction, but there is none in the piece itself, and it was not enough to keep thousands of viewers from assuming it was genuine.

The technical quality of Mermaids: The Body Found was actually quite good. The biggest giveaway for me was that the “scientists” were all attractive and articulate, which is, of course, totally unrealistic. But it’s made me contemplate the potential misuse of this technology. Think Wag the Dog. Perhaps we’ve already been victims of it, but with sophisticated CGI and more realistic actors, this type of faux documentary could be a very powerful propaganda tool. Mermaids fooled a lot of people, as have a lot of CGI UFO vids.

As CGI technology becomes more and more seamless with real action, it is going to be tougher to identify fraudulent video from the real thing. Hopefully the ability to detect CGI in videos will keep up. For now, my advice is this: Stay skeptical, my friend.

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