Last week a video surfaced on YouTube which showed children being fired upon in a battleground in Syria. It shows a boy rescuing a girl from what looks like certain death. Dubbed the ‘hero boy’ video it was rapidly shared on social media and by the end of the week had been viewed millions of times. The film appeared to be a graphic depiction of a war crime – the deliberate attempt to kill non-combatant children.
As you may have seen from the news coverage, on Friday it was revealed to be a fake, shot in Malta by Norwegian director Lars Klevberg. The film project had been funded a total of US$ 54 000 by the Norwegian Film Institute and the Audio and Visual Fund of the Arts Council Norway. Of course there is nothing remarkable in making a film about war. But deceiving millions of people by pretending that the footage is genuine is an act of, at best, gross stupidity.
The video has been removed by YouTube for violating its policies against “spam, scams, and commercially deceptive content”. But parts of the film and a response by the director can be viewed here.
As Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch notes, video, usually shot on now ubiquitous mobile phones, has been a key source of evidence of war crimes in Syria and other contemporary wars. Klevberg’s film has made the grim task of documenting and drawing attention to heinous crimes more difficult. The fake film has given the perpetrators and their apologists an easy foil to anyone presenting video evidence of atrocities. More importantly, the millions of people who were duped will, quite reasonably, doubt future video evidence.
The excellent investigative site Bellingcat has published an open letter to Lars Klevberg and the film’s funders and it has been signed by many people. I have added my name and if you are as annoyed as I am I urge you to add yours.
As researchers we are often encouraged to provide practitioners and decision-makers with clear recommendations. But should it really be necessary to point out that distributing a fake video of a war crime is a very bad idea?
After this blog post was published the director and producers of the film issued a full apology.
The Norwegian Film Institute, which partly funded the film, has also published a statement of regret.