More Options

Skepticism via YouTube

Article

Tim Farley

Volume 33.6, November / December 2009

In the summer of 2008, Georgians Matthew Whitton and Rick Dyer claimed to have found a Bigfoot carcass. These claims were initially made via a number of YouTube videos that garnered significant attention in the cryptid community. In August 2008, they partnered with well-known cryptozoology personality Tom Biscardi for a national press conference. Almost immediately the carcass was revealed as a hoax involving a Halloween costume.

But a month earlier, rival Bigfoot enthusiasts and skeptics had carefully pored over one of Whitton and Dyer’s promotional videos on YouTube (“Bigfoot Tracker Video 8”) in which they met an alleged Texas scientist named Paul Van Buren who said he would authenticate the carcass (Bigfootpolice 2008). Sharp-eyed viewers quickly determined that “Van Buren” was actually Whitton’s brother, a wedding photographer from Texas, and even found pictures online of the two together at one of their weddings (Coleman 2008).

The video was pulled off the Web and acknowledged by the hoaxers as a fake days later in another video. Whitton and Dyer said the video was an attempt to distract people who were harassing them. (They did not explain how a hoaxed video would accomplish such a thing.) This all happened weeks before the national press conference. Those who followed the whole fiasco from the beginning via YouTube were not surprised when the hoax was finally revealed nationally weeks later.

YouTube might seem an unlikely venue for skeptical investigations. The online video site originated as a way for individuals to easily share videos online without having to deal with technical issues like file formats and software compatibility. YouTube gained fame through a series of “viral” videos of various ephemera such as laughing babies, stunts gone wrong, adorable kittens, and so on. It hardly seemed a good venue for skepticism in those early days.

But like most new tools, uses far beyond those initially anticipated were soon discovered. The availability of low-cost video cameras and editing software means that video production is now something that many hobbyists can attempt at home. Purchased by Google in 2006, YouTube is now home to hundreds of millions of videos and serves over a hundred million individual video views per day. Google claims that over thirteen hours of new content is uploaded on YouTube every minute (Google 2008).

Many skeptical organizations now use YouTube to distribute video content to the public. Videos of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s July 2009 test of dowser Connie Sonne for their Million Dollar Challenge, among other videos, can be found on JREF’s own channel (JREF 2008). The Skeptical Inquirer’s parent organization, the Center for Inquiry, also has its own YouTube channel (see figure 1) with hundreds of lectures, debates, and other videos. It is often rated in the top ten most viewed nonprofit channels on the site (Center for Inquiry 2006). These are fantastic educational resources for both skeptics and the general public.

The site has always been friendly toward individuals as well as organizations, and individual skeptics have fittingly stepped forward to create content. Richard Wiseman used YouTube videos to promote and support his book Quirkology by demonstrating optical illusions and other psychological effects (Wiseman 2009). His video “Amazing Colour Changing Card Trick” has been viewed over three million times and has even been redone by several other YouTube users (Wiseman 2007; see related story). Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait has a channel as well, where he posts his own special mix of skepticism and astronomy (Plait 2009).

Some of the most interesting aspects of skepticism on YouTube do not come from organizations or professional skeptics but are occurring at the grassroots level between individual users. Simple, short videos debunking paranormal or pseudoscientific concepts, when created with cleverness and good visuals, can be very effective. One example, “Bigfoot Myths: Where are the Bones?” addresses the simple question: Why have we never found Bigfoot bones? (Doctor Atlantis 2007). Resources like this can easily be hyperlinked from discussions of the topic online or even embedded directly into posts on other Web sites. They help to explain key scientific concepts using visuals instead of words alone (in this case, photos of actual bear bones and interview footage with a cryptozoologist).

Aside from the general availability of the service and the fact that it is free, there are two other key elements that help maintain the grassroots skepticism phenomenon on YouTube: the fair use clause in U.S. copyright law and the explorative nature of the YouTube user interface.

Figure 2: Captain Disillusion

Figure 2: Captain Disillusion

Fair use is vital to the very existence of YouTube. The law holds that it is legal to reuse small portions of copyrighted material, even without the owner’s permission, for comment, criticism, or parody (Stanford 2007). This allows skeptics to freely post online videos that include portions of the pseudoscientific or religious videos they are debunking.

The Uri Geller videos posted by YouTube user The Friendly Skeptic are a good example. By implicitly invoking fair use, The Friendly Skeptic can post small broadcast clips from programs in which Geller’s conjuring and trickery is plainly visible. In one he shows quite clearly where Geller puts on a false thumb tip just prior to making a magnetic compass move ostensibly by paranormal means (The Friendly Skeptic 2007). When, in another video from an older talk show, Geller bends a spoon using a decidedly nonpsychic technique (i.e., his hand), the exact moment is highlighted (The Friendly Skeptic 2008).

Another creative use of this method is employed by putative superhero Captain Disillusion (portrayed by actor and filmmaker Alan Melikdjanian; see figure 2). As Captain Disillusion, Melikdjanian humorously deconstructs the very viral videos that make YouTube so successful by explaining the digital editing techniques used in their creation (Captain Disillusion 2007). Many of these are simply viral advertising but others cover skeptical topics. Captain Disillusion debunked the November 2007 “Blue Ghost” incident at a Parma, Ohio, gas station, re-editing the news coverage to clearly show the actual cause: a bug on the camera lens (Captain Disillusion 2008). There were other, more scientific YouTube debunks of this incident as well; an excellent example included hypotheses, predictions, and conclusions (Answers in Skepticism 2007).

The skeptical movement online has flourished in part because of YouTube’s site design. It is in Google’s own interest to keep users on the site as long as possible since their revenue comes from advertising. The site is designed to encourage exploration with features that link videos together via “responses,” add hyperlinks between videos, and mark a video with a world location so it can be found within mapping services (see figure 3). These features allow skeptics to make their content more discoverable from within the site and elsewhere. Debunking videos, for instance, can be posted as responses that are directly linked to (and therefore discoverable from) the original pseudoscientific content. This technique has been used in responses to the Georgia Bigfoot hoaxers, in Captain Disillusion’s videos, and elsewhere.

This explorability of YouTube helps address a key question often asked among online skeptics: Where should we focus our efforts? Many skeptics post almost exclusively on skeptic-run Web sites, forums, or blogs. The obvious disadvantage is that one often ends up “preaching to the choir.” The alternative posting on Web sites run by believers in pseudoscience or paranormal has its own hazards. Often these sites are not interested in debate and will delete skeptical posts or even ban skeptics from posting entirely.

By posting material on YouTube and making the content as discoverable as possible, skeptics avoid both issues. The content can still be embedded or hyperlinked from skeptic sites as desired, but it can also be found by many more people via the YouTube site directly. This helps get the skeptical message out to those who most need it.

Figure 3: Example of a skeptical YouTube video being discovered via a mapping application.

Figure 3: Example of a skeptical YouTube video being discovered via a mapping application.

One of the most visible uses of the YouTube discoverability and response format are the creationism-related videos posted by users VenomFangX and ThunderF00t (VenomFangX 2006; Thunderf00t 2006). VenomFangX is the online handle of Shawn, a Christian teenager who posted a series of videos in which he claims to debunk evolution. YouTube user Thunderf00t (an adult academic) responds to each of the teen’s videos and answers them point by point in the series “Why do people laugh at creationists?” The entire exchange lasted for almost two years. Thunderf00t also addressed the claims of other evolution deniers in the series, such as Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute and evangelist Ray Comfort. Each video (over thirty in all) received at least 100,000 views, and some have been seen nearly half a million times (Thunderf00t 2009).

The Thunderf00t versus VenomFangX exchange also highlights one of the current pitfalls of U.S. Copyright law: the application of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) Takedown Notices. This is a clause in the DMCA under which copyright owners who believe their work is being infringed upon (beyond fair use) via the Internet can merely notify the carrier to remove the material. On December 9, 2008, someone claiming to be a third party acting on behalf of VenomFangX contacted YouTube claiming that Thunderf00t’s videos violated copyright. Two videos were restricted as a result. Thunderf00t issued a counterclaim, and a very public war of words ensued between the two parties (Thunderf00t 2008). The issue was resolved when VenomFangX’s parents became aware of his activities. He withdrew the DMCA claims, apologized, and temporarily stopped posting.

False DMCA claims and other digital shenanigans continue to be a problem for skeptics on YouTube. According to Thunderf00t, creationists hurt his videos’ rankings in the YouTube rating system by using automated scripts to send thousands of negative votes to each of his videos. The comments system provided by YouTube is also somewhat hit or miss. Occasionally some videos will attract reasonable commentators, but most of the time the comments aren’t much better than digital graffiti. (The problem is so rampant on YouTube that a number of third-party software tools have been designed solely to “clean out” undesirable comments from YouTube pages.)

Overall, however, YouTube is an excellent avenue for skeptical outreach on the Internet. Its ease of use and lack of fees lower the barrier of entry so almost any skeptic can participate. Fair use ensures a steady stream of source material to debunk. The high traffic of the site and its explorability make the skeptical message accessible to people who may not even be aware of organized skepticism. Any skeptic with minimal audiovisual editing skills should consider YouTube an outlet for their efforts. l

References

  1. Answers In Skepticism. 2007. Blue gas station ghost explained. November 23. Available online.
  2. Bigfootpolice. 2008. Bigfoot tracker video 8. July 20. Available online.
  3. Captain Disillusion. 2007. Captain Disillusion’s YouTube Channel. Available online.
  4. —. 2008. Gas station ghost recut. Available online.
  5. Center for Inquiry. 2006. Center for Inquiry’s YouTube Channel. Available online.
  6. Coleman, Loren. 2008. Bigfoot body brouhaha. July 23. Available online.
  7. Doctor Atlantis. 2008. Bigfoot myths: Where are the bones? Available online.
  8. The Friendly Skeptic. 2008. Uri Geller bends a spoon with his hand! May 22. Available online.
  9. —. 2007. The moment Uri Geller cheats . . . watch the thumb. April 2. Available online.
  10. Google. 2008. The future of online video. September 16. Available online.
  11. The James Randi Educational Foundation. 2008. James Randi Foundation’s YouTube Channel. Available online.
  12. Plait, Phil. 2006. The Bad Astronomer’s YouTube Channel. Available online.
  13. Stanford University Library. 2007. What is fair use? Available online.
  14. Thunderf00t. 2006. Thunderf00t’s YouTube Channel. Available online.
  15. —. 2008. False DMCA consequences. Available online.
  16. —. 2009. Why do people laugh at creationists? Thunderf00t’s YouTube Channel. Available online.
  17. VenomFangX. 2006. VenomFangX’s YouTube Channel. Available online.
  18. Wiseman, Richard. 2007. Quirkology YouTube Channel. Available online.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Tim Farley is a software engineer and technical instructor in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the creator of the Web Site What's The Harm, which explores why believing in pseudoscience and the paranormal is harmful. He blogs at skeptools.com.