WARNING - CONFRONTING CONTENT: A man featured in a TikTok rescuing a dog from the path of an oncoming train has been showered in praise, but global experts have raised doubts about the authenticity of the footage.
Watched more than four million times, before it was taken down by moderators overnight, the slickly made video shows what appears to be a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel tied to railway tracks.
As a man runs towards the stranded dog, Australian voices from behind the camera call for him to “get off the track”.
"Leave it there," they yell as the train gets closer.
Described in many of the 15,000 comments as a “legend” and a “hero”, the rescuer quickly unties the dog and hauls it to safety with less than a second to spare.
In the days since the video was posted on Sunday, other viewers began to question whether the act was faked.
"Either photoshopped or scripted," wrote one person.
"Anyone else think it was edited?" said someone else.
Behavioural and image analysis experts who spoke to Yahoo News Australia last night also raised concerns about its legitimacy.
Do you think it could be real?
Shadows key to concluding dog rescue video likely ‘fake’
University of California, Berkeley Associate Dean, Professor Hany Farid specialises in digital imagery analysis, and is one of the six founding members of TikTok’s Content Advisory Council.
A senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project, he has developed forensic software for tech companies to combat child exploitation and terrorism.
Using a custom built program which analyses light and shade, Professor Farid turned his attention to the dog rescue video last night.
“I am fairly certain this video is fake,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
Matching 3-D lighting and shadows, he said can be “very difficult” as our own visual senses can be “quite blind” to errors.
While determining that the video was “fairly well done in terms of manipulation”, Professor Farid’s examination of a single video frame found inconsistencies between the shadows cast by the man and other objects in the scene.
“The first panel shows the shadow/object pairing for three points on the train and one point on the small sign on the side of the tracks,” he said.
“The next panel shows a zoomed-out version where you can see that the shadows are consistent with a single light source — the sun — as seen by the fact that the four constraints have a common intersection denoted by the larger green square.
“The next panel shows that the shadow of the man purportedly on the tracks is inconsistent with the lighting in the rest of the scene.”
Dog’s behaviour another clue in ’suspicious’ video
Fake animal rescue videos have proliferated on content sharing sites including TikTok and YouTube despite guidelines prohibiting cruelty.
Successful videos can be big business, attracting thousands of dollars in advertising revenue and drive comments and attract followers.
Sarah Ross from animal welfare charity Four Paws International has identified a number of indictors which suggest a rescue video is likely fake.
Filmed like a movie where the camera cuts between victim animals, the danger and the hero.
Two people involved. One filming and the other on camera.
Shot in an isolated place like a forest.
The rescuer is already talking to the camera when they notice the animal needing to be saved.
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia from Germany, Ms Ross concluded that the TikTok rescue video “looks like a fake” because of the dog's behaviour.
“The way the dog reacts like he knows the guy, and that (the man) knows how to untie the leash, all as if it was planned,” she said.
“It looks suspicious.”
Why the ‘fake’ video was removed by TikTok
Despite experts believing the video to be fake, TikTok does not allow content that depicts or encourages users to partaking in dangerous activities.
A review of the video concluded that it violated community guidelines, and this led to its removal.
“The safety and wellbeing of our community is our top priority,” a spokesperson said.
“Our community guidelines make it clear that we do not allow content depicting dangerous behaviour that might lead to injury.”
The account that posted the video has been contacted for comment, but they did not respond overnight.
How faked videos take spotlight off real heroes
Even when staged animal rescue videos do not risk harm to their subjects, Ben Pearson from World Animal Protection believes there are still moral issues to consider.
The dog rescue video was inundated with comments celebrating the rescuer’s bravery, and if the video was in fact faked, as Mr Pearson suspects, it is taking the spotlight off real heroes.
Comments like “what an absolute legend” and “this guy is a god”, he argues should be saved for people like the rescuers who saved koalas during the 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires.
“They're the people we should be celebrating,” he said.
“These guys staging these kind of videos, it’s just a distraction, and it takes attention away from the real heroes.”
More about the use of animals on social media
The author, Michael Dahlstrom, has volunteered as a native bird carer.
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