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paranoid theory of the week :: are islamic state's most infamous videos fake?

i remember when i was younger, people used the expression "the camera doesn't lie". it was usually meant to further whittle away any lingering sense of self-esteem after you saw a terrible photo of yourself, but the underlying message was clear: if it was on film [still or moving], you could be confident in its authenticity.

but even then, i think we all knew that expression was a load of crap. cameras do lie. they lie all the time. they tell us beautiful lies about magical places that never existed, like middle earth, oz and hell. or they show us things that never could have happened. just check how many episodes of mythbusters are devoted to showing just how convincingly cameras can lie to us- both with and without hollywood budgets. the police officers who assaulted rodney king were found not guilty because a legal team managed to convince jurors that the camera was deceiving them.

so it's hardly surprising that islamic state [or isis, or isil...], truly the first terrorist organisation of the social media era, have had their horrifying videos subject to some skepticism. let's look at the evidence, shall we?

the theory ::

many of the islamic state videos are fake in whole or in part, including the shocking recordings of the beheading of coptic christians in ethiopia, the murder of james foley, the burning alive of a jordanian pilot and several videos of isis soldiers destroying priceless historical artifacts in iraq.

the origin ::

the internet. seriously, you can't post a photo or video of anything on the internet without someone on a subreddit calling its authenticity into question. people still don't believe venus the two-faced cat exists.

the claim that the james foley execution was faked seems to stem from a russian site, cyber-berkut.ru. [note: my russian is restricted to "yes", "no" and "vodka", so i'm not able to interpret what's on that page. if anyone from the world's largest country wants to share an idea of what it says, please feel free to jump in.]

theories surrounding other videos- if not all the videos- have grown up organically as they've spread through the internet and been viewed over and over again.

the believers ::

conspiracy diehards like alex jones might want to decry the media for hiding the "truth" about i.s. videos, but there's actually been a lot of skepticism within the media on this subject. britain's the daily mail may not be known as a bastion of solid journalism, but it's still a pretty mainstream publication that seemed unconvinced by the video of 21 coptic prisoners being executed on a beach. the telegraph is absolutely a mainstream newspaper that questioned the authenticity of the james foley execution video. the christian science monitor- which is not a fundamentalist religious publication by any stretch- and sky news were both willing to entertain the idea that the videos of japanese hostages released earlier this year were faked. even fox news, who continued to defend george w. bush's reasons for going to war against iraq long after they'd been debunked, raised an eyebrow. and even the almighty washington post gave coverage to twitter users in japan who mocked the videos, ultimately seeming to give their criticisms tacit approval.

the bad guys ::

well... isis, i guess, as weird as that sounds. after all, they're the ones faking the videos... also the central intelligence agency, in some versions of the theory, which links to a whole other conspiracy theory that the cia created isis.

the evidence ::

i may have blown my evidentiary wad by posting the links above, since they summarise the evidence against many of the isis videos.

the questionable video that showed the two japanese hostages being held in the desert hinges largely on the question of shadows and whether or not they're believable. [this is one argument that was used to question the veracity of the moon landing as well.] does the way that they fall betray multiple light sources? or do they point to the use of green screen technology?

the pariahs of paranoia, infowars, did a segment on this, which serves as a "make your own jihadist video at home", but illustrates some of the questions they [and others] have about the video:




i hate myself a little for posting something from info wars, but you have to admit, their work is not bad for something they're throwing together more or less in real time.

they're wrong, however, on the cost and level of expertise required to do this. there are some costs involved, and certainly some technical knowledge, but these methods aren't closely guarded secrets. many film students and people who've worked in advertising agencies have the know-how and would quite possibly know where to get deals on the necessary equipment.

and according to this post from megabunk, that's not all they're wrong about. they are able to illustrate pretty compellingly that the shadow placement isn't suspect and that the movement of the shadows corresponds to the movement of the clothing in the wind. 

megabunk also discredited the russian site's video that claimed to show the faking of james foley's death. however, in this case, while they clearly show that the video purporting to expose a fake was itself fake, that's not the same as proving that the original foley video wasn't to some extent fake. the expert review of that video raised one serious question about its veracity: why isn't there blood? given the extent and location of the cuts, there should be blood everywhere.

the answer that some have proposed is that foley was murdered off screen and that what we see is the terrorist beheading a corpse. no heart pumping = no blood flow from a wound.

the video of jordanian pilot maaz al-kassasbeh is possibly the most harrowing video the terrorist group has released and while it hasn't received the scrutiny of some others, there have been those who have claimed that the fire defies the laws of physics or that it appears to be a digital effect. [full disclosure :: i have an opinion on this one. i do think it's fake and people i've shown it to have worked on films agree with me. it's simply too good. it's cinematic. the shots are framed too perfectly, lit too perfectly, always in perfect focus. the setup shown would have required multiple cameras and a lot of films- even big ones- aren't shot with multiple cameras because it's too complicated. you have to make sure the lighting is right for both, which is a nightmare. if they're moving- which they seem to be in the video- you have to be pinpoint accurate to avoid getting the other camera, its shadow or the lights in your shot. while it's true that the final version of the video is edited and might have removed these flaws, the editing itself looks professional quality. but to me, the most unbelievable thing is that this was all supposedly accomplished in a single take.]

the video that's come in for the most ridicule is the beach executions of the coptic prisoners. several reports referred to the fact that isis appear to have an army of giants working for them. while not technically impossible, it's highly unlikely in an area of the world where the average man is only a little over 5'5".  in addition, there is that suspect shot of the ocean running red with blood. physics dictates that it would take a lot of blood- more blood than you could get from twenty-one victims, to turn ocean waters that red.

even videos that showed the destruction of ancient statues and other artifacts have been questioned, with some experts claiming that what's being destroyed appear to be plaster replicas

there are other arguments about the islamic state videos, but i think the ones that i've summarized here make the points effectively enough. and it's important to note that no one is saying that people aren't actually being killed. the allegations relate solely to whether or not they died in the way that is being depicted, or if the videos are being made in order to horrify, to terrorize and to fuel hatred.

the likelihood :: 8/10

while i'm willing to accept that some of the claims about the videos are without merit, there are enough peculiarities with many of the videos that it's difficult to believe there isn't some trickery. whether you believe that islamic state are trying to be as outrageously vile as possible in the service of a secret agenda, or simply because they want to be seen as the most dangerous and ferocious group ever to have walked the planet, i think it's telling that they feel the deaths of these people wouldn't be enough to accomplish their aims. by making everything so over the top, it's as if they're saying that we wouldn't respond to just regular death, that we wouldn't find it frightening enough. and to me, that's more disturbing than anything on the videos. 

p.s. :: i decided to use a bunch of fake photos because i just didn't think it was necessary to post more images of severed heads, burnt corpses and lifeless bodies. all the videos i've mentioned here are easily accessed on the internet, so if you want to see them, go for it. it is in no way intended to be disrespectful for any of the very real victims of terrorism.

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