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The Operational Role of the Online Video Hoax

by Ethan Tussey

by Dustin Zemel for IN MEDIA RES

From the onset, the veracity of "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid" was challenged. Accusations that CGI or trick photography were in play emerged from comment threads and blog responses almost immediately. However, the questionable origins of the video did not stop online news sites from quickly embedding and reporting on it. Lacking definitive proof on the matter, the available story became about ambiguity itself. In addition to addressing the online skepticism, the Huffington Post writeup adds feasibility to the video's authenticity by providing factoids on the size of golden eagles and their ability to fly off with small mammals. In other words, writers were simultaneously approaching the video as both possible and not. 

Controversy and uncertainty have been directly credited for its viral success. YouTube's Trends Manager Kevin Allocca stated, “If there’s anything we like more than watching outrageous footage of the impossible, it’s discussing and reacting to outrageous footage of the impossible.” This idea calls to Neil Harris's concept of the 'operational aesthetic' where audiences find "delight in observing process and examining for literal truth" (79). Harris develops the idea to describe 19th century America's fascination with known swindler P.T. Barnum. Audiences would enthusiastically embrace hoax environments because of their epistemological draw. We enjoy the negotiation process of separating fact from fiction—witnessing and evaluating the nature of the art object for ourselves. 

Further, the hoax dynamic reduces a "threatening environment to a human scale by manipulating its elements and so demonstrating control over them" (72). The "command" the Canadian students who built the video demonstrate extends far beyond computer graphic skills into a more broad-spanning cultural knowledge of how successful viral videos operate once unleashed into the world. If there is an operational aesthetic at play here, then perhaps online hoax videos like "Eagle" mark new epistemological battlegrounds where savvy media-makers and audiences alike attempt to exert control over emerging media forms and the participatory cultures they produce. If so, can we read the controversies they incite as productive literacy efforts towards new, more complex understandings of online media's function and potential?


Harris, N. (1981). Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (p. 352). University Of Chicago Press.  

Viral Videos and Hoaxes

Golden Eagle "snatching" up a bystander

from Golden Eagle Snatches Kid (2012)
Creator: Student film
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey