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'Syrian Hero Boy' Is a Fake, and It Matters

Kirsten Salyer writes about consumer culture for Bloomberg View and is the site's engagement editor. She has also written for Condé Nast Traveler, Texas Monthly and Houston Community Newspapers. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and international studies from Northwestern University.
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What happens when people manipulate truth to advance a good cause?

The BBC reported today that a viral video of a "Syrian hero boy" rescuing a little girl while bullets rain around them is a fake. The video was created in May by a group of Norwegian filmmakers who apparently hoped to generate awareness of children in conflict zones. 

The video has been viewed more than 3.4 million times on YouTube and covered by news sites including the Daily Mail, the Independent, the Telegraph and the New York Daily News. It was filmed in Malta on the same set used by the makers of "Gladiator."

"If I could make a film and pretend it was real, people would share it and react with hope," Lars Klevberg, the film's director, told the BBC. He said he created the script for the film while watching news coverage of the Syrian conflict.

Another viral video -- "Drunk Girl in Public" -- this week showed men seemingly taking advantage of a drunk young woman on the street. It, too, was apparently a hoax.

Propaganda is a popular tool of  causes around the world, often to support totalitarianism: Islamic State, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the government of North Korea. What sets this week's videos apart was that they were in the service of causes that are pretty unambiguously good: protecting children and women from violence. It doesn't matter. Any media deliberately created in this way to manipulate the thoughts and actions of others is propaganda.

Revealed as such, a video's message loses its credibility and even creates a backlash. Here, for example, is the understandable reaction from Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert with George Washington University and the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog:

Souce: Twitter

Becoming the center of a debate about journalistic ethics is the last thing Syria's children need: More than 11,000 had been killed in the civil war as of the end of 2013. In these misguided campaigns, truth was the first casualty. And the good guys killed it. 

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To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at