How An Artist Got Thousands Of People To Fall For A UFO Sighting
Viral hoaxer Daniel Cook tells me how (and why) he pulled off a UFO stunt that made international news.
A few weeks ago, I published a story about reports that had surfaced about a UFO sighting in Portsmouth, a city on the southern coast of England. The story included several photos of the alleged craft, as well as an enticing quote from Met Office (the U.K.'s meteorological service) spokesperson Laura Young, who had told Portsmouth's News: "After looking at the images, I can say the object is nothing to do with the weather. It is not meteorological and is not a cloud."
Technically, she was right.
A week later, I received an interesting tweet.
Cook, a 31 year-old freelance artist from Portsmouth, had written a Tumblr post called "How We Faked A UFO, Or I Am So Sorry Katie Heaney," in which he explained that the Pompey UFO (as it had come to be known by locals) was fake, and that he was the one responsible. He also apologized, for making me "believe [their] UFO hype."
I had not actually believed the hype, per se, but no matter — I was delighted. As someone who does believe in UFOs generally (if not 99.9% of the ones I see in grainy, blurry iPhone videos on YouTube), I have long considered those who digitally create fake UFO photos to be my low-key enemies. It's like the boy who cried wolf — because of them, nobody will believe it when it really happens. (Haha, "when.")
I wanted to know more about the type of person who would pull a stunt like Daniel's. So I emailed him, and asked if I could interview him about what it feels like to have joined that little-known, sometimes-maligned group — viral hoaxers. Somewhat to my surprise, he was actually really sweet. I don't hate him!
Why did you decide to hoax a UFO sighting?
Daniel Cook: We [Daniel and two friends] had been planning a SciFi and Fantasy Weekend event at work, and we didn't have a budget, to be honest, we didn't have any money, so [my friend] Josh [Hibberd] thought this was a great idea to spin some publicity. We had already started putting posters about, we had a Facebook page and a website, but it wasn't growing too fast, and I think we were sharing it about more than people were noticing, so this, we hoped, would create a little more of an impact.
When you were planning the hoax, what was your goal? What was your vision for the biggest outcome this thing could get?
DC: The goal was simple: create some publicity for our event. That was it. But, it went a little bigger than we expected. We hoped it would reach a local audience, but when it went global, well... I started a fit of giggles. Josh was a bit struck and so was everyone else that was involved. It was both hysterical and quite scary.
How did the hoax work?
DC: The idea was really clever. [Ed. note: Lol.] About eight or nine of us took photos as the same time, about 7:00 pm on that Tuesday evening. I was sent the images to play with, and then I would send them back to Josh. He then would send one to each of our team and they would start tweeting. Matt Harrison started tweeting using the hashtag #pompeyufo. He got the Twitter ball rolling, and then a few of our friends, workmates, and others started tweeting too.
Lewis Rogers posted the first image, which it is now the infamous Associated image.
DC, continued: The images themselves were really easy. I took the photos into After Effects and created a shape that looked like a stereotypical UFO. I duplicated it a few times to layer it up and give it a bit of depth. It's really three shades of grey and a virtual light to give it shadow. I added a bit of blur, and then we had our UFO.
My idea was that if it was too detailed and realistic, people wouldn't buy it. If it looked blurred, a bit easy, then people would automatically associate it with other things they had seen in magazines and on television.
Haha. Fair! Did people not involved in the hoax post "evidence," or were they all just saying they heard a UFO was spotted? From what I saw, it was the latter, with just your two faked photos.
DC: Most people just said they had heard a UFO had been spotted — no one really said they had seen it. Someone said they had seen something similar a few days earlier, and someone tried jumping on the bandwagon a few days later with a picture of jet stream vapour in the sky. They were convinced it was unexplained, even though we live with a Naval base attached to the city and we have aircraft jetting around all the time.
How did it go over when Josh announced that it was a hoax?
The confession wasn't too bad. When Josh announced it, people thought it was funny, Some people were a bit put off. One person called us "Scruffs" which made me giggle.
The best reaction I got was a phone call from a friend of mine. Joel rang in hysterics to tell me congratulations and that he thought it was brilliant. If there was anyone that I wanted to make proud of our actions, he is one of them.
That is...weirdly cute! Do you believe in UFOs? Does Josh?
Me personally, I do. I mean, if you take the idea that it is just an object you can't identify, then yes. If you take the stance that it is of extraterrestrial origin, then... also yes. People seem to forget that in the grand scheme of the universe, we are a blink of an eye. We, as the human race, have been around for a glimpse compared to the rest of the universe. With all the stars and galaxies, it's arrogant to think we are the only life in the big old black ocean.
Does Josh? Well, I can't speak for him, but he's on the same wavelength as me, so I would think so. I would probably gather that all of us involved think of life outside of our solar system.
(Ed note: Daniel later wrote me back after checking with Josh. He wrote: "P.S. Josh has decided to tell me he doesn't believe in UFOS. lol")
One of the Portsmouth photos, before Cook digitally added the UFO, and after.
What do you think about people who do believe in UFOs who get angry about hoaxes like yours, and say that they undercut the public's capacity to treat UFOs seriously?
DC: I think they need to lighten up a bit. Some people do it to prove a point, that they can cheat. We did it for publicity, but of all things, it has encouraged people to look up and look around. If we have managed to spark some imagination, and get the conversation going, even though it wasn't our original intention, then good. At the end of the day, people will or won't believe, and I can't change their opinion.
Some accused us of mocking ufologists and making a mockery of their research. The best parts are people, who, after the announcement, have gone out of their way to write articles on how they knew it was a hoax, and make bullets points to their statement.
Even after this hoax, if people have started looking up at the sky and asking questions, then, brilliant. Hey, if people have just started looking up and seeing how amazing the sky is, that's just as amazing.
Something I found interesting about your Tumblr post was that you wrote that I "believed [your] UFO hype." I have a confession: I actually did not believe your UFO photos were real. (Now you probably think I'm one of those other people! But I swear!) I cover UFO sightings for work, though, so it's true that I wrote about the people who were talking about your photos in Portsmouth. Is reporting on a sighting equivalent with belief in that sighting, in your mind?
DC: I have a habit [of thinking] that unless someone states they think something is tosh, then my automatic reaction is to think they believe it.
If people didn't have some set of beliefs, it wouldn't really be in anyone's interest to spend time reporting on it. There must be somewhere, hidden behind the filling cabinets, children's toys, and other such stuff people keep in their heads that gives them that sense of wonder and belief in the tiny little strange rarities of this world.
You describe your hoax as a success — you said "We did it," and that it went "not only viral, but global." But the media reports on UFO sightings all the time. It seems to me that there's a difference between getting your thing covered and getting your thing believed. Is the former sufficient?
DC: We wanted to get coverage, and we certainly did, we got a lot of coverage. But coverage wasn't enough for us; we needed people to believe it. If people didn't believe it, then people wouldn't react to it. We needed the reaction to make the stunt work.
When it went global, that was amazing. All of a sudden news sites in India, Canada, Australia, and others were talking about the UFO in Portsmouth. Major press over here started talking about it. It was insane; I never thought we would get this much attention, and I don't think any of us even expected it.
So — knowing that this will be the last mass hoax you ever commit — because nobody will believe you ever again, haha — does it feel worth it? Did it meet your expectations?
DC: I feel both sad, and happy really. We did something amazing, and it will go down in the city's social history. We not only managed to published our event, but we lit up the sky. People still talk about it. I got congratulated in the pub the other day. It's weird and quite gratifying. I like to think that no one will ever be able to do this again; we made our little mark and we did it well. Our event exploded, we made money for the Parkinson's charity we were supporting, and we felt proud that we made it work.
It is sad to think that this is the only time we will create such a mass hoax. It's sad to think that I will never create another UFO event over Portsmouth. But, I don't really need to. We went out to publicise our event and it worked. People came, they enjoyed themselves, kids and adults had fun, it was great.
All in all, it was brilliant, it makes me smile thinking about it.