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The stunning hoax of The Shed at Dulwich, deceived millions and showed how willing we are to consume an appetizing story. (Courtesy VICE /Theo McInnes)

Believe nothing: The hoax of the Shed at Dulwich

The Shed at Dulwich recently reached TripAdvisor’s No. 1 rated spot for restaurants in London before it was revealed to be a hoax. The stunt showed how easily we are fooled, and blurred the increasingly narrow line between fake news and satire.

Deception detection researchers (yes, such a field exists) observe that “in general, humans are fairly ineffective at recognizing deception.” Victoria Rubin and her colleagues at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University are studying how to design an algorithm to spot fake news using the cues of satire.

The most disturbing example is the failed satire of Paul Horner, a Bernie Sanders fan whose satirical fake news was taken at face value and may have helped Donald Trump win the election. He thought even the dumbest readers would see his stories as satire. They didn’t.

Now the president of the United States blatantly lies and the media often reports it. Are we becoming increasingly blasé about the difference between fact and fiction? Are we ready to embrace false reality? We have come to trust satire because it at least reflects the absurdity of our daily world. At the same time, we are finding satire more difficult to discern.

The stunning hoax of The Shed at Dulwich deceived millions and showed how willing we are to consume an appetizing story. Deception used to be the moral dividing line between satire and fake news. If satire dupes its audience, then it misses its target by a mile.

Fake news, on the other hand, is intended to deceive, swapping the high-minded morals of satire for ideological manipulations, lies, propaganda and profit. What happens when deception and satire go hand in hand?

The lesson may be that we should believe in nothing, not even satire.

Trust no one/believe nothing

The Shed at Dulwich was revealed as a hoax by Vice writer Oobah Butler, who punked TripAdvisor and its foodies by creating a fake restaurant in a brilliant display of satire and parody of fakery. But his satire took an uncomfortable turn when it turned out to be a little too real. Butler called it “false reality.”

Butler, who had previously written fake TripAdvisor reviews as a source of income at 10 pounds a pop, had an epiphany about the vulnerability of the site and users’ trust. In a “climate of misinformation,” and counting on “society’s willingness to believe absolute bullshit,” Butler set himself a challenge: To turn a non-existent restaurant into the No. 1-rated dining establishment in London by having his friends and family write fake reviews.

This wasn’t Butler’s first public mischief. He’s a longtime prankster who can fool anyone and isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself. Having taught satire for 20 years, I know that most satirists are both sadists and masochists at heart, with a strong streak of nihilism.

How he did it

Butler bought a burner phone, created a website and registered the restaurant on TripAdvisor. The Shed at Dulwich offered a menu of “moods,” well-styled photographs of meals made of inedible ingredients. In the most delicious and disgusting deceit, the cropped heel of his foot masqueraded as a ham hock. Tables were by appointment only and the location was secret.

A buzz began and The Shed’s ratings climbed. The phone began to ring and Butler refused all comers, claiming capacity. Over the coming months, The Shed’s phone rang incessantly.

“I realise what it is,” he later wrote. “The appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense. They’re looking at photos of the sole of my foot, drooling.”

The cropped heel of his foot masquerades as a ham hock. (Chris Bethell/Vice)

After beginning at No. 18,149 in the TripAdvisor rankings of London restaurants, The Shed had reached the top spot within seven months based on nothing but fake reviews, a website and a refusal to admit anyone. Butler, recording himself in his ratty shed, was near-hysterical with glee and disbelief when he saw the rating.

Once it reached No. 1, Butler revealed the prank to TripAdvisor. The company was miffed, but underplayed the significance of Butler’s prank by arguing the finer points of deception: The “distinction between attempted fraud by a real business, as opposed to attempted fraud for a non-existent business, is important.” But is it?

TripAdvisor has its own deception detection algorithms that evaluate the truthfulness of reviews, which, apparently, work no better nor worse than human discretion.

Butler opens the Shed for one night. (Courtesy VICE /Theo McInnes)

Butler decided to open The Shed for one night, serving instant soup and frozen dinners to a few unwitting guests (without charging them). It’s hard not to cringe watching the scene unfold. Even then, guests said they would come back.

Butler had proven his point: We live in a climate of misinformation and people are suckers.

A good thing or a bad thing?

When Butler broke the story publicly on Vice, there was a small media frenzy. Public response was a combination of laughter, embarrassment and concern. Butler’s stunt revealed our naive trust of online information, summed up by an article in the The Washington Post: The Shed “served as another reminder of the ease with which pranksters and other dishonest actors are able to manipulate online platforms to sometimes unthinkable results.”

Asked about about the implications for our trust, Butler laughed and said that he thought truth online was “overrated.” If the ruse has a higher purpose, it show us our gullibility through one of the most bland online forms of collective trust —customer reviews.

Some satirists would dispute Butler’s cavalier attitude towards deception, insisting that satire has to be transparent.

Scott Dikkers, the founding editor of The Onion, said in a lecture on media ethics that the key to distinguishing fake news from satire is deception. The Onion, he said, … produces fake news but it’s for laughs – not to intentionally deceive readers…

Butler is cynical and optimistic at the same time. His own analysis of his stunningly successful fraud ends with a cheerful conclusion: "You could look at this cynically – argue that the odor of the internet is so strong nowadays that people can no longer use their senses properly. But I like to be positive. If I can transform my garden into London’s best restaurant, literally anything is possible.”

There is no truth to the internet

The story might have ended there, but on Jan. 22, 2018 Butler posted a video documenting The Shed at Dulwich hoax on Facebook, racking up 33 million views. I’m not sure if we can fact-check that number. Does it matter? The comments are deeply appreciative, at many levels. Lots of readers like the business model, and people love the joke. Nobody really talks about the discomfort of seeing themselves as targets.

So are we to thank Butler? Are we less prone to deception having been deceived? Maybe not — deception detection researchers are hard at work creating truth algorithms to fight deception algorithms, leaving humans out of it altogether.

Howard W. Campbell, Kurt Vonnegut’s fake Nazi propagandist in his 1961 novel, Mother Night offers this assessment of trust: “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider the capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”

Guests said they would come back.

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