This photojournalist falsified an entire book to highlight how hard it is to spot misinformation

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When photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen published a book on the fake news industry, he received messages from people thanking him for covering such an important topic.

But he says no one noticed one thing about the book: Everything in it was also wrong.

“The intention was for people to find out… the problem is it didn’t happen,” Bendiksen said. The stream Matt Galloway.

His work, The book of Veles, is based in a city of the same name in North Macedonia. Veles become international headlines in 2016, as the hotbed of a fake news industry which disseminated disinformation on websites aimed at American voters considering a presidential election.

An image from The Book of Veles, depicting an office used to manage fake news websites. (Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos)

Bendiksen wanted to explore how disinformation and disinformation developed in the years that followed, from articles riddled with lies and half-truths, to manipulated images and deepfake videos.

So he went to Veles in 2019 and 2020, and photographed empty spaces, both outside and inside. Back home in Norway, he populated these real images with fully digital characters, posed and lit to fit into their previously empty surroundings.

“While the story of what happened at Veles is true, all of the characters in my photo documentary are basically computer game characters,” he said.

He wanted to know if “an average geek photographer” could spend time on YouTube learning the techniques, then “generate fake characters, a fake story, a fake documentary that has no basis in fact.”

“I had a feeling that if I could actually do this it would say something scary about the information landscape we’re heading into,” he said.

“Something fishy” in each photo

Bendiksen didn’t reveal all the details of what he did in each frame. But he added that he had added “Ariadne’s sons” that he said might arouse the viewer’s suspicion – things like a bear wandering the city. The book’s introductory text is also created using artificial intelligence, generated from media reports of fake news. Bendiksen didn’t write a word about it.

“There are also objects, animals, other things that I put in there, so basically every image in the project has something fishy about it,” he told Galloway.

An image from the Book of Veles, depicting a water park on the outskirts of town. (Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos)

A few pages from the Book of Veles. The text was generated using artificial intelligence. (GOST Books)

An image from the Book of Veles, depicting the hills above the city. (Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos)

“I thought all of this would make people say, ‘You know, there’s something fishy going on in this job, what is it? “And I kind of wanted to participate in that discussion,” he said.

But in the weeks following the book’s publication in May, no one raised their concerns with Bendiksen.

He decided it was time for another “stress test,” so he submitted it to Visa pour l’Image, a prestigious photojournalism festival that took place in Perpignan, France, in September.

Bendiksen wanted to see if the experts noticed, “Could this mock documentary really be accepted as a real story by seasoned editors?”

It turns out it could. “They immediately accepted it,” he said.

Bendiksen’s images have been viewed by photographers, publishers and industry insiders on a big screen.

When no one spotted the deception, he decided to reveal the truth.

In a interview with WiredFestival director Jean-François Leroy said his organization has known and trusted Bendiksen for years.

“I think Jonas should have told me it was a fake,” he said, adding that if he was in the secret they could have revealed it and set up a discussion as part of the festival program. .

Bendiksen said he was not the type of “person who particularly likes to walk around and rip people off.”

But he thinks what he did was “an important storytelling experience for us in the journalism and photography communities.”

Mass-produced misinformation

While identifying disinformation and misinformation online is already a problem around the world, Bendiksen believes things will only get worse as the technology behind it develops.

“Give it a few years, we’ll have this whole synthetic layer on top of it, where you’ll have disinformation not even produced by people, but by machines, and quite a bit of it,” he said.

An image from the Book of Veles, depicting the city at dusk. (Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos)

He thinks there needs to be better education on how to spot manipulated content, perhaps even as part of school curricula.

“How can we help our young people, the next generations, to better navigate this very difficult mix of information, to find credible information in this mess?” he said.

He thinks the project has changed his own vision.

Bendiksen says the project changed his own perspective and from now on he will see photography, as well as other types of stories, with a more critical eye than in the past.

“I now see how easy it is to reproduce fake versions of this,” he told Galloway.

The Book of Veles is available at Gost’s Books.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann.


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