Dec. 19, 2012 at 2:01 PM ET
Canadian whiz kids pulled the wool, or the feathers, over the eyes of millions of Internet users with a fake video showing a golden eagle trying to snatch a child in a Montreal park.
For a while, "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid" spiked on YouTube's viral-video meter, chalking up 5 million views in just one day. One reason why the video leaped up the charts was because it was widely distributed via sites such as The Guardian and Gawker with a minimum of fact-checking. It didn't take long, however, for Montreal police to note that there were no reports of avian kid-snatching attempts. Besides, birders said, golden eagles don't frequent that part of the world — and the bird in the video didn't look like a real golden eagle anyway.
"With all the ignorance about nature that's out there already," the last thing we need is this kind of stupid garbage," the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio said in a Facebook posting.
"Shame on you, Guardian!" wrote an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist whose nom de plume is Grrlscientist.
Others took note of the jerky frame rate and soft focus, which are typical red flags for video fakery. Some noted telltale anomalies in how the video showed the bird's shadow and one of its wings.
To their credit, the media outlets that linked to the video quickly linked to the skepticism as well. Grrlscientist, for example, lodged her objections on the Guardian website itself, where she is a regular commentator.
Within hours, the jig was up. Montreal's Centre NAD, a school that specializes in 3-D animation design, acknowledged that the video was made up in a production simulation workshop class by three of its students: Normand Archambault, Loic Mireault and Felix Marquis-Poulin. "Both the eagle and the kid were created in 3-D animation and integrated into the film afterwards," the school said in a statement.
Centre NAD's student projects are often aimed at creating hoaxes good enough to fool outsiders. Last year at this time, students put together a video that seemed to show a penguin escaping from a Montreal zoo.
The "Eagle Snatching Kid" episode is just the latest example of instant foolery facilitated by image processing. Such pranks can be harmless fun — but they can also create serious problems. For example, after last week's horrific school shootings in Connecticut, some hoaxes purported to show that the perpetrator gave advance warning of what he was planning to do. That has the potential to send investigators down a dead end, which is why police issued a warning about that kind of mischief.
The bottom line? Be skeptical about the videos or screenshots you see on the Web, on YouTube or in the Twitterverse. Here are a few pro tips that Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, emailed us while the video was being scrutinized:
"I've seen the video, and analyzed similar ones in the past. It is difficult to come to hard conclusions about it. The problem, of course, is that YouTube is full of hoaxed videos of everything from Bigfoot to UFOs. My first reaction was that it's most likely fake. A few red flags include the fact that the bird in the video is not a golden eagle (as claimed in the video) and is not found in Canada; and that the baby would likely be far too heavy for a bird to pick up. It is true that large birds of prey can and do swoop down and snatch things off the ground — but they are usually small animals like mice, fish, rabbits, squirrels and gophers. Furthermore, there are no known incidents in history where a bird has actually abducted a baby and carried it off. ... It turns out that it was indeed a hoax."
Update for 3:40 p.m. ET: The YouTube view count has shot up beyond 5 million, and I've updated the figure cited here accordingly. (When I first published this item, it was 2.7 million.)
More adventures in image processing:
NBC News' Suzanne Choney contributed to this report.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.