The mother of the 22-year-old San Francisco man who appeared to have been beheaded in a video on a website said on Saturday the video was a hoax.
“It’s a hoax,” Theresa Vanderford said from her San Francisco area home. Referring to her son, she said: “He’s very computer savvy and stuff.”
The US citizen shown in the video was also quoted as saying it was a hoax.
Benjamin Vanderford of San Francisco, California, admitted he had faked the video at a friend’s house.
The video allegedly appeared in the same web format used by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and was introduced by a headline that said it showed al-Zarqawi killing an American.
The American identified himself as Benjamin Vanderford and urged US forces to leave Iraq.
“If we don’t, everyone is gonna be killed in this way … I have been offered in exchange for prisoners here in Iraq,” the terrified-looking man said, rocking back and forth in his chair, his hands tied behind his back.
The video then showed a hand with a large knife apparently slicing through the neck of a limp body.
He said the killing had to be realistic so they used different camera angles, bad lighting and digital effects from a computer programme to make it seem as realistic as possible.
Vanderford’s website identifies him as a 22-year-old independent candidate for district supervisor in San Francisco. He is also a musician and video game programmer.
He and a friend “went home to get some fake blood, we had to make fake blood with dye, we knew we had to film it in a way so it would look like we were cutting a throat but you don’t see the actual thing happening, that’s what happened in the promo video”.
“So we bought that and we came back home and we went to the garage, we got a blank wall set up, and we got basically a chair, the same set-up that the other Iraqi video was set up as, and we got the camera set up and just filmed the thing a couple times to get the right look.
“I did a lot of things like where I was saying statements, you’ll see on the video, and then we did the other shot where the guy is like cutting into my throat from an angle where you can’t tell if it’s actually cutting, so it looks pretty good.”
The rest was with the use of a computer programme manipulating audio visual material from other websites.
When asked about the sensitivity of what he did and whether it was disrespectful, he was unrepentant, saying “it was an experiment”.
The video game programmer said
“Well I guess this could be considered disrespectful, but I think people, if they look at it, will understand two other big issues it highlights.
“One, how easy it is for these types of videos to be faked, especially the way the videos are looking right now, the ones that are out.
“Two, how easily the press can be tricked into thinking
the videos are real, which would just be another way the hostages, like even a small group of like disgruntled people in Iraq or Saudi Arabia could get more attention just by easily releasing it just like I did on the internet.
“And if they presume it’s real, without doing any research then it’s sort of a big open hole for them to manipulate the whole society with … so it proves that it can be done pretty easily.
“It wasn’t intended purely as a hoax. It was intended as an experiment,” he added.
No charges yet
Vanderford said he distributed the staged video on Kazaa and other internet peer-to-peer networks which are popular swapping forums for films, music and software. He said if his staged death appeared on any terror-related websites it was the work of others who found the video on the peer-to-peer networks.
“Even if they condemn me I don’t mind as long as they mention the context,” he said. “It would be unfair to condemn me just for that reason alone.”
He said another motivation for his action was to see how the world media would react and to see if they would be fooled. “It really illustrates the potential that this kind of thing would happen,” he said.
Local police and FBI officials had no immediate comment as to whether he would face criminal charges. A police official said it was a matter for the city’s special investigations unit.
“One, how easy it is for these types of videos to be faked… Two, how easily the press can be tricked into thinking the videos are real”
Analysts have consistently highlighted how the internet, both as a medium and a source of information is open for misuse or abuse. In this case more specifically, people were deliberately misled by a 22-year-old US citizen, thousands of miles away from the Middle East.
This places additional pressure on news agencies to verify information and not report on stories without concrete evidence, said another analyst.
Aljazeera has recently emphasised a code of ethics which stresses the importance of accuracy and credibility of information.