Sharkgate: The Lake Superior Bull Shark Conspiracy

I confess to creating and posting the “Lake Superior Bull Shark Encounter” video which has rocked this community, even though, as is widely known, I have no credibility. This essay offers a full accounting of the affair, which caused a four-day firestorm as the video propagated online, through the media, and into the hallowed halls of academia.  I will debunk my own video to demonstrate it is, in fact, a poorly-made fake. In addition, I will carefully document my utter and total lack of credibility. Hopefully this will be enough to assuage an alleged army of enraged Redditors devoted to my destruction, the undead army I accidentally raised when I strapped on a toy shark fin.

My confession begins with my purchase of the toy. On Aug. 8, I posted a picture of myself wearing it on my personal public Facebook page and my public “Lake Superior Aquaman” Instagram account. The text of those posts reads, “It’s unclear where these rumors of sharks in Lake Superior originate. But I will be swimming up and down the beaches until I get to the bottom of it.” It was an open joke, a lark, an entrant to a well-established Duluth tradition of joking about sharks. You see variants on local bumper stickers such as “Shark-Free” on a map of Lake Superior. Keeping Lake Superior shark-free has even become a running joke among the mayoralty.

Duluthians, in my experience, find the thought of sharks in Lake Superior to be absolutely hilarious. Over the years I have bonded with many fellow citizens through this common mirth. So the idea of buying a toy shark fin appealed to me. And it fit seamlessly into my Lake Superior Aquaman persona where, as an artist or whatever, I play with any idea associated with water, documenting it all on Perfect Duluth Day.

And I have a real shark thing. Maybe I just had some shark things to work out.

The First Batch of Photos

That same day, Aug. 8, I posted my first batch of shark fin photos to Perfect Duluth Day, and then cross-posted that to my social media. The text of the post simply read, “Lake Superior Shark Pics.” I consider these pictures to be early experiments, if public ones, showing what was possible to produce with a toy shark fin. The experiment revealed it was going to be tricky keeping my hand out of the shots. I wear webbed swim gloves with an Aquaman-orange trim, and the gloves are visible in many pictures. The camera stick is showing in another one.

I was shooting at the Ledges, which provided adequate backgrounds of rocky beaches topped with condos, or, if I switched the camera to my other side, I could get pics of the fin against the open sea. The Ledges are far enough down the Lakewalk that my camera can’t capture any real Duluth landmarks (the Lift Bridge is sometimes faintly visible). I wanted the pictures to have that sense of place. But condos on the beach are Duluthy, too. I giggled thinking the condo dwellers might be nervously watching me, wringing their hands about property values. At the end of the batch of photos, I included three selfies of me wearing the toy shark fin like a boss.

I knew this was going to consume the rest of my summer. I wasn’t done with this fin. I posted more pictures of myself wearing it to my Instagram account on the 9th and the 10th. Someone suggested calling it a bull shark which I thought was a clever pun, and bull shark even abbreviates to “B.S.” It stuck. Bull sharks are also those who have enough fresh water tolerance to surprise people, swimming up rivers and whatnot. So it would play on that new folk-knowledge of the shark shows, that “some sharks can live in fresh water.” It’s an incomplete knowledge at the level of the meme. But all those connections layered atop the toy shark fin.

I was also telling people I work with about it. A small posse of beach bums there had developed what I called Tanning Club. I knew idle footage of me goofing around with the shark fin would emerge from the ranks of Tanning Club. And that is what happened.

The Video and How I Edited It

Sometime between Aug. 9 and 11, a Tanning Club friend took two five-second clips with a phone and posted them to a social media story. The clips were great. I saw them with no audio. The first clip was too far away to make out much detail, especially on small screens. Perfect! “Not much detail” is the key to much “evidence” of anomalous “sightings.” For instance, there are so many blurry “Bigfoot” photos out there that the term “Blobsquatch” was created.

The second clip was also good — really good. It showed a presence stirring underwater, and then a lunge where the fin breaks the surface. And at the last second, you see a Tanning Club beach-goer in the water, as if in the path of the shark. It was a cheap jump-scare from an obvious fake, and that intrigued me. I asked for the raw footage so I could post it through my own channels. Within a couple days, I was editing it to have the same effect it had on me when I first saw it. That was my benchmark for artistic success: I wanted it to make me jump even though I knew it was fake.

First, I wiped the audio. I would have kept it if it had not spoiled the illusion, but it’s my friend laughing, saying my butt is ruining the shot, and that I need to work on my technique. Next, I eliminated a frame or two in the first clip where, on bigger screens, you could see my blue flippers kicking up out of the water. I didn’t mind a little turbulence back there because sharks have tail fins. You can still see the blue flippers a little, but I made them less obvious. That edit introduced a slight jump in the footage, which is easy to miss, but repeated viewings will discern it. It becomes unmissable if you click through the footage frame-by-frame. I made no attempt to digitally smooth that over which is probably possible, but not necessary for the one-time jump I was shooting for.

I made a similar edit to the second clip. I needed it to end with the sudden appearance of the bather, but right then my body in a wetsuit becomes visible beneath the emerging shark fin. It is pretty apparent that I’m not a shark. My wetsuit is dark, matching the fin, but there’s purple detailing that may be seen. Some viewers and commenters would later pick up on that and the blue flippers.

The video is ten seconds long. On Aug. 12, I uploaded it to YouTube, and posted it on PDD and my social media. I titled it, “Lake Superior Bull Shark Encounter 8/8/20.” This is it:

In the description I gave a faux “true-life account” wherein I credited the person who took the footage and the person who appeared in it. I used their real names because they were co-creators in the project which was under my real name. Then I wrote, “The sighting has caused a scandal in City Hall since mayors are responsible for shark control.”

I have really enjoyed needling Duluth Mayor Emily Larson over the years with manufactured outrage about fake crises. My brother and I were merciless to the previous mayor, Don Ness. I went on to make many stupid and obviously fake videos blaming Mayor Larson for an alligator-based conspiracy, and at least one of those videos contains shark stuff. This is a matter of public record. So naturally I blamed this shark fin business on her. It’s a local tradition.

The Video Blows Up

Next morning, I woke up and went to work. I checked the video stats on my lunch break. It had around 85 views or something, most of which were probably mine. It had a few likes on Facebook. No big deal. Standard. But by the time I got home, the video had several thousand views, and it had been shared on Facebook nearly 500 times. Apparently another 1700 people shared the PDD post from their phone. I Googled “Lake Superior Shark” and the video was second only to a popular 2013 April Fool’s joke posted by a Marquette outdoor supply company.

Google also showed that someone had posted the fin video to Redditt where its authenticity was being debated.

In addition, Google showed the video had been picked up by Newsbreak.com, which is some kind of — I assume — news-bot headline-aggregator algorithm, which repackages Perfect Duluth Day blog post titles with the headlines of hard news. Newsrooms repost this sort of stuff on their internet outlets to look like they’re doing a little more reporting than they are. It’s space filler, a feed that might break actual news once in a while. But it can also give random internet content the imprimatur of being a legitimate news story. And that’s what happened. A Chicago Fox News affiliate had posted the shark fin video, via the headline aggregator. And that was showing up on Google. It looked exactly like a mainstream news outlet was reporting Duluth had a shark problem. I had a potential viral video on my hands: a fake video that was getting mixed in with news, and it was fooling news outlets.

Of all the Facebook shares I could view, I only knew the person who shared it first, and from there it took off into a wild ecosystem. Many people were simply sharing it without comment, possibly without even watching it. The screaming headline “Lake Superior Shark Encounter 8/8/20” was enough. The date on it of “8/8/20” is inaccurate to when it was shot — but it grounds the alleged encounter with a presumption of reality. It is a pretend precision that sneaks past cognitive defenses.

Many people shared the video and added their own remarks. The remarks fell into broad categories. I saw a lot like, “Thanks 2020.” Many people tagged their friends and said things like, “See Brad I told you this was possible!!!” And a lot of people shared it while expressing skepticism, either picking it apart, or just calling it “fake news” — but still sharing it.

The YouTube comments are relatively tame with a fair percentage of people announcing they think it is fake. There are even a couple people who looked into it one step further, by following the video back to PDD, or to my social media. Or, by clicking through one time and reading the video description, which contained the obvious joke about the mayor.

But I understand all the irony obscured the facts. I confess to a sense of mad glee while watching this misinformation formula working so easily — effortlessly! — despite the correct information being readily available. The contradiction was delicious and I savored it for a long moment.

Sharpening the political angle to it, there even appears to be a bit of politically divisive bot spam nested into the YouTube comments of the fin video. It’s easy to identify, I’ve left it there because it adds irony and meaning to the project.

The Reddit

Then I looked in on the Reddit discussion. It appears to have been deleted here at publication time. But someone had posted the shark-fin video under a title that was basically, “What up with this video released during Shark Week, is it a Discovery Channel hoax?” It was in a subReddit about sharks. There was a persistent idea at Redditt that the video release was related to Shark Week. For the record, I had no idea it was Shark Week. This shows that plain old coincidence has a role to play in the creation of some conspiracy theories. The coincidence made a “Discovery Channel hoax” theory sound plausible. But it wasn’t true.

For the most part, the Redditt post was people debating the veracity of the video. There were just a few comments. One Redditor, who had demonstrated the video’s falsity with thoughtful observations, added, “Fuck that guy for spreading false information.” I take that on the chin. That’s the spirit! Yes, fuck people who spread false information. Now go vote with that same outrage.

But there was one Redditor who seemed actually outraged, and treated it like a dark conspiracy to unwind. The person claimed to be from the area, and said they heard at the beach people were afraid to go in the water. So this Redditor was going to get to the bottom of it and expose the hoaxer.

The Duluth Autonomous Navy Gets Involved

But it wasn’t technically a hoax. It was a joke. I had no hidden role to conceal. This is what I do. As one facet of my artistic production, I make water-themed videos. Sometimes they are clownish, or satirical. Sometimes the humor is stupid, sometimes edgy, and sometimes people get bent. So even though the fin video’s meta-point was being lost — the point about not believing easily-debunked content — part of me just shrugged.

But what I didn’t want was to ruin the lake for any kids. In those first few hours of the video blowing up, that became a concern because of my whole shark thing. As a child, Jaws ruined the ocean for me. Ruined it. It took me a long time, as an adult, to learn to swim and dive freely in Lake Superior, which everybody knows is shark-free. But I was sure Lake Superior had monsters. I knew those monsters were purely imaginary — but the sea activates archetypes and fears. Still, I did not expect the video to spread quite so credulously.

But I wasn’t going to take the video down. No way. I knew one thing: I did not want it to go viral — not without even more jokes.

What this developing situation needed was a news story that there had been only one shark, and that shark had been heroically killed. This provided a natural tie-in to this other joke/not-joke I had floating around, the Duluth Autonomous Navy.

The Duluth Autonomous Navy is a joke on one level, but on another level, Troy Rogers and I believe it’s 100 percent real. Anyone can join just by saying you’re in it. That’s what autonomous means. It’s a belief-based Navy, so they would be perfect to get rid of an ontologically questionable shark.

At that moment, I was keeping track of the shark fin video developments by Googling “Lake Superior Shark.” And for a minute the fin video hit the #1 spot, dethroning the Marquette April Fool’s story.

So I quickly wrote a story like a news release from the AP, using its byline where it would appear in search results. Based on what had happened with the fin video, I knew the title of this story would flash across the internet, and that people would think it was real. I called it,  “AP: Lake Superior Bull Shark Eradicated by Duluth Autonomous Navy.” The first line of the story is also excerpted in search results and reads: “DULUTH, Minn. (AP) – On August 10, 2020, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson commissioned the Duluth Autonomous Navy to eradicate the bull shark…” I posted it on PDD on Aug. 14. The AP story remains among the top Google search results for “Lake Superior shark,” along with the fin video itself, and the first batch of pictures, and (checks notes) all are among PDD’s most-viewed stories this year.

The AP story contains a line I attributed to a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers: “Sharks are a Lake Michigan problem, not a Lake Superior problem.” Such a sick burn. I thought the story would handle the video problem. The video had been up for one full day, plus a few hours.

Sure enough, the same news-bot algorithm that had scooped up the video, scooped up this sequel. The AP story went into whatever feeds everyone had seen the video in. Now they all got a seemingly legit headline announcing it was over, because Duluth has a Navy that took care of it.

After another day, the shark video was still the top Google return. And the second return was the AP reporting that the Duluth Autonomous Navy had killed it. Within a couple days, the Navy story was the top return. That shark was deader than a doornail.

This not only grew the joke organically, it provided a resolution that even a child could understand. This was something parents could point to and say, “Look honey, it’s all a big joke. Look at these clowns.” And it added a layer of mythology to Duluth itself, where for a second you allow yourself to think people are having adventures out there. And they are.

I feel bad about having fun at sharks’ expense. I am not encouraging violence toward sharks. In writing the AP story, I made the shark’s death cartoonish and silly (I portrayed myself killing it with a trident). I also gave the strong impression that the whole story had been a joke from start to finish, and that I had been seen wearing a toy shark fin. And I had. That part of the fake news story was true.

Afterwards, someone in the YouTube comments lamented something like, “Now I hear they’ve killed it, so typical you can’t be an innocent animal in the human world.” In other words, there are now people who think Duluth has an Autonomous Navy that kills Lake Superior sharks. And if that doesn’t define total artistic success, I don’t know what does. (Takes a bow.)

Return of the Redditt

But then it got weird. By Aug. 16 I had already published the Navy story, but a random person reached out to my Tanning Club friend on Facebook Messenger asking if the shark video was real. I had put real names in the video description thinking I was sharing artistic credit. My friend passed the message to me to answer. I assured the writer  the shark was not real, and that it was part of a running joke. But clearly, I had exposed these friends to potential harassment. When I discussed it with them, neither of them were concerned yet, so I left their names up for the moment. But it was getting weirder, faster.

Around the same time, on Aug. 16, that one angry Redditor sent me a message via Facebook using their real name. They used very similar phrasing to the Reddit comment so I knew it was the same person. They are from the area, but we apparently don’t know any of the same people. Here is what they sent me:

FYI, I hope your shark fin is untraceable or I hope you maybe realize people are digging hard to debunk the shark story. I would put a lot of thought into your next move. If this is a hoax or even play it like a production to a scene you’re filming anything. Think about the pros and cons, ie. any future in the area. I just wanted you to know. And I would, if I was you, make a move sooner than later, or you should maybe read the dirt on the web. I suggest Reddit. Hate to see people’s worlds crumble over a poorly thought out idea. This isn’t a threat by any means, I just came across a ton of things you may want read about what these folks already found out about you and the data they have obtained and shared. Meanwhile, they are all still digging, rightfully so, with a story of a shark, during shark week, and it somehow winding its way into lake superior. Hope you figure out something or get a lawyer, sounds like these people are mass sharing some video of your team or you with a shark fin. Thought you outta know, even though if that is the case, I am from the area, and I as well as the rest of the community really do not appreciate being lied to, nor does the mayor of duluth I’m sure. But irregardless, you are from the area and I just see a pending cyber attack so speak coming your way. Please go read what these folks are sharing. There are a ton of threads if that is what they are called. Again, I only see a lot of chatter and was a bit taken back by the accusations but also feeling those accusations are accurate. Anyway good luck.

I immediately shared this on my personal Facebook page where it was received with great hilarity. I kept their identity a secret because I don’t roll with doxing, although clearly I am being sideways threatened with it. To be exposed as myself.

I went back and checked the Reddit thread — the only thread I ever found about it — and this same angry person was sharing the AP story around as evidence I was laughing at everybody. But they also bragged about “checking sources unlike our media.” I think they thought the AP story was real. But they also specifically mentioned not reading it because they had “no time for that crap.” This person believes they have cracked the shark conspiracy wide open.

I replied to their message this way:

“Hi…I’m not hiding the fact that it’s fake, and that even the slightest effort debunks it as a joke. I publicly posted that I was going to do it, and then turned it into a very obvious joke, tagging the mayor in the process. I posted it as my Aquaman persona, and if you scroll down my public page, and my public instagram, you will see I told the world all about it every step. It is well established that I have also made very obvious jokes, at the Mayor’s expense, that Lake Superior is infested with alligators. This is part of a running series of very public Duluth jokes, from a public figure who documents it all in real time. The shark video is easily debunked and I designed it that way. Look for my essay in a couple weeks on perfectduluthday, “Anatomy of a Joke,” [changed to the much better “Sharkgate: The Lake Superior Bull Shark Conspiracy”] where I will discuss the virality of the shark video, in part, as an example of how people will uncritically share easily-debunked information. It is a timely message with the election so close. It is a point I take very seriously and I aim to make it. I’m not on the Redditt, please share this response widely, although a simple Google search displays all the information anyone needs. Thanks for taking the time to write. If you’re still interested I hope you check out my essay at the end of the month about the whole thing. Cheers.”

They didn’t read my reply.

It’s a good thing I protected my would-be doxer’s identity because my Facebook peeps were reacting like a pool of hungry sharks with blood in the water. They were ready to dox the hell out of my would-be doxer. I got a lot of support in that post and I appreciate it. The best was a buddy who asked, “Isn’t anyone upset at you for creating a navy?”

Another funny bit from the comments was an anecdote, of which I received independent confirmation, that Wisconsin Public Radio asked UMD for comments about the shark video; the email was widely forwarded to faculty before the station realized it was a joke.

I went ahead and took my friends’ names off the video description, and I added disclaimers to all the platforms that it’s not a real shark. As of this writing, the Facebook shares stopped around 550, and the video views have plateaued at around 13,000. I killed my baby.

I haven’t been doxed yet. The shark fin is still a running feature on my social media and PDD. For one thing, it has become a staple of my Lake Superior Aquaman gear. I like swimming with it: a lot. I’m using it to make Duluth memes. My sister said I have conquered my fear of sharks by becoming what I fear most. There is some truth to that.

I should add that I never actually “swam up and down the beach” with the fin as I initially said I would. I’ve taken photos at the Ledges, and in the water in front of Fitger’s mall, but swimming up and down the beach was wishful thinking. I was a little worried taking pictures at Fitger’s. The Lakewalk was busy that first day, including children around. I didn’t want to cause a panic — or a riot. I was literally worried about starting a riot. But the shark fin, while real enough in cherry-picked images, is not super impressive in person. For one, I’m not staying under long, and most of the time, you can see my butt, or my man-bun, or my snorkel. I wasn’t fooling anybody. I got a disapproving look from an old man. But I also got an enthusiastic thumbs-up from a couple little kids, which made me feel great about the project. Kids understand about the imagination, and playing dress-up. A woman also looked me up-and-down, approvingly, as I exited the water. I attribute that to my wetsuit’s slimming effect. But maybe she likes guys with dorsal fins. (Call me.)

I Have No Credibility

One easy way to debunk the shark fin video is: look into my video history. It’s over-represented with stupid joke videos. They sort of read like hoaxes, but they’re too stupid to be hoaxes. They are jokes. (Most of my videos are on the Richardson Brothers’ YouTube channel, Gonzonomicron. But new stuff I’m posting at Lake Superior Aquaman Productions.) My record includes upsetting people.

One notable example is the video below, from 2014, which is just me grabbing a friend’s ankle underwater, but I titled it “Lake Superior Shark Attacks Continue.” That’s funny because there are zero shark attacks to begin with, see? But in the comments, people are upset because there are no real Lake Superior sharks in the video. That’s why there are twice as many “dislikes” as “likes” on this. So now, I have people upset about the presence of, and the absence of, Lake Superior sharks in my videos. This video is also one of the top Google returns for “Lake Superior Shark,” a search result that Duluth now dominates:

In addition to my fake shark fin, I’ve also gotten a lot of mileage out of my fake alligator head. The real classic is this one from 2011, which I don’t think upset anyone even though I take the Lord’s name in vain.

Later I used it to poke fun at the Larson administration, accusing her of profiting from the “alligator problem” and starting the hashtag #crookedemily. This video didn’t upset anyone, even though in it I pretend to sneak into the mayor’s house where she murders me:

This one I remember getting a cross comment about on some platform or another, but I can’t find it. Suffice it to say, I’m not making fun of those who are missing limbs, it’s just a cheap sight gag, and I apologize for any offense. It’s basically an alligator joke. I’m not particularly proud of this one, but it shows the level of credibility we’re dealing with. People are out there believing a shark video posted by this man:

And this next one I believe was cross-posted to PDD’s Facebook page where it got a disapproving comment. This was from July 2016, two months after a child had been killed by an alligator at a Disney resort in Florida. The commenter felt it was too soon. I felt this had no connection in space or in time. This was purely a local alligator issue:

I hope I don’t regret saying this later, but do not believe any video I post of anything anomalous in Lake Superior. My credibility is as dead as that pretend shark. And that is the true story of Sharkgate, your Honor. (Drops microphone.)

Related: AP: Lake Superior Bull Shark Eradicated by Duluth Autonomous Navy. Nautical Milestone for the Duluth Autonomous Navy. Other.

2 Comments

Bill Nash

about 1 year ago

Good essay, Jim, and even better joke. I can understand slightly why some people are incensed. I have been personally embarrassed when I have fallen for something that should have been obvious, but in recent years, at least, don't lash out at whoever duped me, because I understand that the person I am upset with is me, not them. But that requires a level of humility that I, for one, did not have when I was younger, so I'm not trying to condescend here, just to offer a possible explanation.

And I have only met the mayor once, briefly. But my encounter with her was pleasant, and she struck me as a very relatable person with a good sense of humor. I have no doubt that she both appreciates the joke, and can separate fact from fiction.

That's two of your essays I have been motivated to comment on. So as of now, you officially are in the top spot, though you may share it with Anna Tennis, though if I kept accurate track of everything I do. It would probably be a much different world. (And possibly Paul, but he's the "PDD guy," so of course we have to keep him happy. And I've heard he has a collection of sharks and alligators with which to dispatch his enemies, so there's that.)

Matthijs

about 1 year ago

Thank you for that thorough and entertaining account. It gave a definite resolution to a question that I had related to your video. Not whether or not the shark sighting was real. The top images of your posts have a recognizable aesthetic so I was expecting a joke before I even read the title or saw your name. Rather, it explained why my dad sent me a text two weeks ago with a link to your shark post and the question, “Does PDD do satire?”

As a longtime admirer of your work, I was able to provide an answer in the form of a link to a far less convincing alligator encounter, but your post here should resolve any remaining questions that he might have.

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