For a period of 15 days at the end of every summer, Perpignan, France hosts one of the world’s most prestigious photojournalism festivals. Photographers from around the globe come to Visa pour l’Image to exhibit their work and immerse themselves in the work of their peers. Galleries spring up across the city, displaying photographs that lay bare the world’s most pressing problems: climate change, human rights, COVID-19, immigration, etc. And so it’s not surprising that this year’s selection committee welcomed an entry by acclaimed Norwegian photojournalist, Jonas Bendiksen. Titled The Book of Veles, Bendiksen’s compilation of images sought to expose the perils of Fake News. Little did festival organizers know, however, that Bendiksen’s entire project—the writing, the backdrops, the people in the photos—was fake.
The Growing Threat of Fake News
As a photojournalist, Jonas Bendiksen had a personal interest in understanding the origins and accelerating growth of the Fake News industry. After all, such enterprises directly undercut the livelihood of reporters around the world. He’d heard that hundreds of Fake News organizations had sprung up in the tiny Balkan country of Macedonia and initially, he simply wanted to understand how and why this was happening.
Bendiksen knew that many in the misinformation market had little or no political agenda. They were independent entrepreneurs, looking to make money in the new online economy. Such had been the case in the city of Veles, Macedonia, during the United States presidential campaign of 2016. With soaring unemployment, especially among young people, a group of teenage hackers had generated hundreds of sensational, pro-Trump news stories, in order to earn some extra cash.
According to an article from Cambridge University Press, during the final three months of the 2016 US national presidential election, the 20 top-performing false election stories generated more engagement (i.e., shares, reactions, and comments) on Facebook than the 20 top-performing stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NBC News.
The Book of Veles
Bendiksen began his research on Google, trying to find what he could about the city of Veles, population 45,000. He quickly learned that the town was named after the ancient Slavic god, Veles, a mischievous trickster who would sometimes assume the form of a bear. Then he stumbled upon a piece of Veles charlatanry that pre-dated the pro-Trump falsehoods by one hundred years.
Near the turn of the 20th century, a Russian army officer named Fyodor Izenbek claimed to have found an archaic manuscript, inscribed on wooden tablets. Russian scientist, Yuri Mirolyubov, alleged having spent years decrypting the proto-Cyrillic writing. The result was an ancient holy text called The Book of Veles, which described the lives of early Slavic people and that of the god Veles.
Historians and linguists have since concluded that the Book of Veles is at best an impressive attempt at hoodwinking. The original manuscript and translation were fakes. Despite the debunking, however, the book is still revered as holy in some Slavic Nationalist circles.
This checkered history of trickery and deception got Bendiksen thinking about a new twist on his proposed project. Rather than documenting the actual Fake News engine, originating in Veles, Bendiksen decided to create a new Book of Veles. The resulting photo journal purported to chronicle the rise of the Fake News business in Veles yet, was itself entirely fake.
A Fake Account of Fake News
Also fueling Bendiksen’s decision to engage in fake reporting, were his fears about the growing sophistication of (and ready-access to) software programs that auto-generate fake content: text, personas, realistic avatars, photographs, even videos. Having only moderate technical abilities, he wondered if he’d be able to master such applications to the extent that he was able to produce an entire book that withstood scrutiny from the loftiest offices of his profession.
The Book of Veles project became my own little visual Turing test.Jonas Bendiksen
Bendiksen started by visiting Veles and taking scores of legitimate interior and exterior shots of the city. Absent from his photos, however, were people. Bendiksen made two trips to Veles and while he encountered many residents, he never spoke to anyone connected to the renowned Fake News business. Then the pandemic hit, giving Bendiksen the time and isolation needed to buckle down and focus on mocking up the images and vocabulary needed to produce his fake report.
Bendiksen learned how to create fake people with 3D avatar software used by game developers and filmmakers. Without ever leaving home, he figured out how to position his realistic-looking avatars inside the frames he had captured in Veles, matching the lighting and mood of the original landscape to his models.
Perhaps even more remarkable, is the text-generating software, called GPT-2, that Bendiksen trained to spew the 5,000-word narrative that is sprinkled across his book. Bendiksen primed the AI system with every news story he could find about the production of Fake News in Veles. Bendiksen says that he didn’t write a single word of the text himself, although he did cut and paste some of the generated content. The result—at least the introductory paragraphs—is astoundingly authentic sounding.
A Trail of Breadcrumbs Ignored
Bendiksen published The Book of Veles last April and shared it privately with colleagues of Magnum Photos, a prestigious consortium of world-famous photographers of which Bendiksen is a member. The book received rave reviews but Bendiksen resisted distributing the story and images too widely. When magazines and photography journals contacted him about featuring the work, he turned them away. Wanting to keep his book of lies under wraps, he was waiting for the trained eye of a savvy colleague to discover the fraud before the book fell into the hands of the general public.
In order to improve the likelihood of being found out, Bendiksen had sprinkled clues across the photos—fradulent details that he felt could easily be spotted by a keen observer. For example, he introduced the unlikely figure of a bear in several of the shots. It was a subtle reference to the god Veles playing on the not-so-subtle false narrative that Eastern European countries remain untamed and backward territories. He thought that surely this photoshopped breadcrumb alone would blow his cover.
What’s more, the auto-generated annotations for some of the photos made little or no sense. Yet, weeks, then months passed without a soul calling his work into question.
Enter Visa pour l’Image
Bendiksen admits to having mixed feelings about his version of The Book of Veles. On one hand, it was gratifying to have fooled his colleagues at Magnum. On the other hand, Bendiksen was uncomfortable maintaining the charade for too long. He wanted to bring the project to a close before his fake story became widely accepted.
As a final test, he submitted the work to the celebrated French festival, Visa pour l’Image. Perhaps, a member of the selection committee would detect the hoax. If that happened, Bendiksen was hoping that his work would serve as a warning shot. Technology for generating fake news was advancing rapidly and the success of The Book of Veles would show that even the most prestigious journalistic organizations could fall victim to computer-generated news items that were only increasing in sophistication.
Once again, however, Bendiksen’s work was welcomed with open arms. The festival was so impressed that they proposed an evening screening of portions of The Book of Veles, a lauded opportunity awarded only to the cream of the festival’s photojournalism crop.
Fake Tweets to Overturn the Fake Apple Cart
In the weeks leading up to Visa pour l’Image, Bendiksen decided to take matters into his own hands. He created the fake Facebook persona of Chloe Miskin, a freelance reporter from Macedonia. If no one was skilled enough to detect his deceit or bold enough to call him on it, the fictitious Chloe would have to lead the attack. She was soon friends with more than 600 editors, photographers, and other members of the photojournalism industry.
Within 24 hours of the evening screening in Perpignan, Chloe launched her first accusation, claiming that Bendiksen had paid his subjects to appear in the photos. Rather than coming out with a precise list of faked elements, Bendiksen was simply trying to draw in his peers for a closer look. His plan backfired. After all, Chloe was a newcomer and Bendiksen had an impressive portfolio going back decades. Rather than considering Chloe’s allegation, her newfound friends jumped to Bendiksen’s defense.
For reasons that escape me, Bendiksen decided that a Twitter Chloe would have more influence than a Facebook Chloe. So, he established a fake Twitter account and went through the same steps of networking Chloe with members of the photojournalism community.
This time, a British filmmaker named Benjamin Chesterton took the bait. He initially, retweeted Chloe’s accusation about Bendiksen paying people to pose in his photos. Scrolling through the rest of Chloe’s feed, however, Chesterton noticed that one of Chloe’s followers was wearing the same pink sweater worn by a woman from The Book of Veles. Surprisingly, Chesterton immediately inferred that Chloe Miskin, as well as The Book of Veles, were well-orchestrated fakes.
Excited by his discovery, Chesterton tweeted “I imagine any minute now Jonas will reveal that the people in the images are computer generated as a ‘clever’ ‘take’ on fake news.” The cat was out of the bag. Bendiksen breathed a sigh of relief. But, now he had to wait for the reaction of the powerful people at Magnum Photos, Visa pour l’Image, and elsewhere that he had succeeded in duping.
All’s Well that Ends Veles
As he had feared, officials in Perpignan and certain members of Magnum were not thrilled to learn that they’d been hoodwinked. They’ve chosen, however, to take the high road. François Leroy, director of Visa pour l’Image, issued a statement on Facebook that gently admonishes Bendiksen while acknowledging the importance of his underlying mission to expose Fake News. The CEO of Magnum Photos, Caitlin Hughes, was perhaps more forgiving, saying, “I did know he was working on something secretive, but I wasn’t expecting this. It really shakes the firmament of documentary photography.”
As for The Book of Veles, overnight it lost its standing as an important piece of reporting. It seems to me, however, that those that buy the book are getting more than a sophisticated form of Where’s Waldo where you try to spot what’s real and fake in each photo. While nothing in Bendiksen’s book is true, he has succeeded in further exposing the insidious nature and growing ubiquity of fake news.
My hypothesis all along was that if one averagely nerdy freelance photographer can put this together in his basement office, then we’re all in for a heck of a ride.Jonas Bendicksen
As far as the book serving as a warning shot before we are attacked by an army of auto-generating misinformation robots, this may well be the case. Whether Bendiksen’s warning affords us any protection, however, is doubtful. It feels a bit like the preparatory drills we used to do in elementary school, where the teacher instructed us to sit under our desks in the case of nuclear war.
- Le Monde, Le photographe Jonas Bendiksen joue avec le feu des « fake news »
- France Culture, Comment le photoreporter Jonas Bendiksen a dupé le monde de la photo avec un faux reportage
- FranceInfo, “Les photojournalistes sont nos yeux” selon le directeur du festival Visa pour l’image
- Jonas Bendiksen, Projects
- Magnum Photos, The Book of Veles: How Jonas Bendiksen Hoodwinked the Photography Industry
- Visa pour l’Image, International Festival of Photojournalism
- XinuaNet, 29th Int’l Festival of Photojournalism “Visa pour l’Image” held in France
- BuzzFeedNews, How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News
- NBC News, Fake News: How a Partying Macedonian Teen Earns Thousands Publishing Lies
- Cambridge University Press, The Macedonian Fake News Industry and the 2016 US Election
- Wired, A True Story About Bogus Photos of People Making Fake News
- Facebook, Reaction of Jean François Leroy, Director of Visa Pour l’Image
- New in 24, the 33rd edition of Visa pour l’image reflects all the turmoil in the world until September 26 in Perpignan