My Word: Seeing is not believing

Not every prank on YouTube is a social experiment. Nor is it all innocent fun.

Thanks to the Web, we’re living in a giant psychology experiment. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Thanks to the Web, we’re living in a giant psychology experiment.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
So what would you do?
I’m fed up with many of the video clips on my Facebook feed: The ones asking how I would behave in a certain situation.
I’m beginning to feel as if each of us lives in our own Truman Show, that 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a man who discovers his whole life from birth has been a carefully constructed TV reality show broadcast globally around the clock.
One of the strangest discoveries of the latest wave of Palestinian terrorism is the extent of coverage of CCTV cameras. Almost every stabbing or car ramming has been caught on cameras. Thus we have seen the villains and the heroes. The woman who acted nonchalantly before pulling a knife on a security guard; the shoppers who tried to repel terrorists using shopping carts.
The cameras were installed to prevent crime and terrorism, but I suspect that their main function is no longer to act as a deterrent but to help identify and catch the criminals after an incident.
There has been much discussion on the wisdom of broadcasting the footage of terrorist attacks: Those in favor say the public has a right to as much information as possible; those against worry that the footage is voyeuristic and could perversely encourage copycat attacks.
Islamic State has made its infamous name with well-made videos aimed at instilling fear and horror. I admit I wasn’t aware that Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel – along with a Norwegian man and a Filipino woman – were kidnapped from a resort in the southern Philippines months ago by members of the Abu Sayyaf jihadist terrorist organization until this week I happened across the video of their ISIS-inspired captors forcing them to plead for help while a knife is held at their throats.
Altogether, Canada, like its less polite neighbor to the south, seems to be having trouble admitting that there is such a thing as Islamist terrorism – even when two members of Canada’s military were stabbed in a recruitment center in Toronto. Local Police Chief Mark Saunders said: “Certain comments were made by this gentleman while he was held in custody before the police arrived which has caused some concern. This has caused us to look at the motive beyond the attack.”
According to most reports, the comments included the phrase “Allahu akbar.” It certainly wasn’t “Hey, where do I sign up?” Lately I’ve become concerned not with the news footage, but with the fake stories.
“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare in As You Like It. Four hundred years after the Bard’s death, it sometimes seems that all the world is staged. And I don’t like it.
Thanks to the Web, we’re living in a giant psychology experiment with no academic review or checks and balances.
In one recent clip, Australian YouTuber Adrian Gee, who has more than 360,000 subscribers, posed as a blind man asking passersby for change of $5 while holding out a $50 banknote. The camera records the many people who cheat him, although Australia’s Today Tonight show later reported that the much-boasted “social experiment” was itself a hoax, with actors playing at least some of the “bad guys.”
The test case was repeated in Israel, with much better results if we are to believe our eyes: According to the Israeli version, not one person tried to take advantage of the blind man asking for change of NIS 200 or NIS 100 notes.
I don’t think the video proves anything. I don’t need staged incidents to believe that, on the whole, the Israeli sense of community is strong. On March 15, more than 1.3 million Israelis took part in some 14,000 projects throughout the country marking the 10th annual Good Deeds Day, a project encouraging people to volunteer and give back to the community.
Many similar clips have passed in front of my eyes. Among the most memorable: A young American girl approaches strangers seeking their help because she is lost. You can see for yourselves how many people push her away (in some cases physically), ignore her, try to help in some way, or in one incident, seem set to kidnap her.
Does this actually help prevent child abductions or does it just nauseate you? I should note here that when my son was much younger I received invaluable advice from my brother: Teach him that if he gets lost, he should ask a mommy for help; and if not a mommy with kids then a woman without kids. The idea worked well until he got lost in the crowd in the men’s section of the Western Wall, where women, with or without children, were nowhere to be found.
Similar social experiments purport to show parents just how easy it is to tempt their children to go with strangers.
Last month, in what was meant to be a social experiment aimed at raising awareness about child marriages, YouTube star Coby Persin had a 12-year-old “bride” pose with a 65-year-old “groom” in Times Square and caught the reactions.
One woman asks: “Where is your mom?” and when told that the child’s parents “gave permission to marry her” replies: “You’ve got to be kidding me!” And here lies the crux of the problem: He is kidding her.
Does this raise public consciousness of the real plight of child brides, or does it mean that fewer people will want to get involved, assuming it is some kind of staged prank? This week it was the abused puppy in a garbage bag who popped up on my Facebook feed: A young man can be seen kicking and swearing at a bag from where the whining sound of a distressed pup could be heard. The man pretended to want to sell the dog. You can guess the rest. The bag contained a phone with a wounded puppy sound recording.
I’m not the only one to have noticed, of course. In an article titled, “Pranks, Social Experiments, or Crimes?” posted last month on, Yoan Hartono writes: “There are currently more than 2.5 million prank videos on YouTube created by 1.3 million accounts, and things are getting out of hand.”
Hartono notes that the practical jokes of old have changed. They’re not simple fun any more. In many cases, the video pranksters break the law or the boundaries of moral decency in the search for likes and shares.
Using the label of “social experiment” does not make a trick less dirty.
Pretending TV reality shows such as Big Brother and Survivor are in fact grand social experiments, rather than manufactured for ratings, is problematic in itself, but on You- Tube, even the minimal oversight of a broadcasting company does not exist.
Homemade “social experiments” can go dangerously wrong.
Sam Pepper, a British former Big Brother star, has more than 2.3 million followers on YouTube, but he has drawn flak for his “bum-pinching prank” and seems to have crossed a redline last year with the video in which he staged the kidnapping and murder of his friend. (Et YouTube Brute?) Another “social experiment” that sparked a backlash (in both the traditional and social media) is one in which a man yells at his pregnant girlfriend before punching her in the stomach on a busy London street.
Around the world, YouTubers have set up incidents purporting to test for racism and sexual harassment.
The fact that a successful video is described as “going viral” should tell you a lot about sick some of them are.
I don’t want to be a killjoy ahead of Purim, a time when traditionally pranks are played, but I long for the innocent fun.
On kibbutz in my first year in the country, my Nahal pre-army group managed to bring the entire community to a halt by hiding members’ bikes on the flat roofs of their homes.
My nephew tells of a school prank one year when some pupils let loose three pigs – labeled “1,” “2” and “4” – and enjoyed watching the search for the nonexistent No. 3. (The kosher version involves three freed chickens.) “Jest” remember this: A good joke makes you laugh, but a bad gag makes you sick.
And if you know the right thing to do, do it – without looking for the cameras.
Let’s cut the “Ready, set you up, go!” culture.
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