'Alex From Target' Goes to Syria

A viral video of a young Syrian boy risking his life to save a girl turned out to be a hoax made by Norwegian filmmakers seeking to raise awareness about the war.

Last week, the Alex From Target fervor finally drew down. In case you missed it, the saga featured a faintly Bieberesque 16-year-old cashier named Alex whose photo was secretly taken while he was bagging items at a Target store in Texas.

Alex's image went viral after he was deemed cute by a legion of youths on Twitter. A hashtag was born. He and his family received death threats. Alex eventually appeared on Ellen. Rumors that he was either fired or had come out abounded. He gained nearly 750,000 Twitter followers.

Just as Alex From Target was tapering off, the video of Syrian Hero Boy was taking off. This was a different viral sensation altogether. In it, a young boy in an urban war zone manages the otherworldly rescue of a young girl after feigning death by sniper fire. The scene, as we understood it, is from the ongoing carnage in Syria.

Millions of views later, it's been revealed that the footage was fake, shot in Malta by a Norwegian director and underwritten by the Norwegian Film Institute (NFI) and the Arts Council Norway.

Why would someone shoot such a film? As the director, Lars Klevberg, explained to the BBC, "If I could make a film and pretend it was real, people would share it and react with hope." He added:

By publishing a clip that could appear to be authentic we hoped to take advantage of a tool that's often used in war; make a video that claims to be real. We wanted to see if the film would get attention and spur debate, first and foremost about children and war. We also wanted to see how the media would respond to such a video.

Well, the media aren't happy about it. An open letter signed by some heavy-hitting journalists excoriated the film's makers and funders. Here is part of their screed:

The way in which this film was presented to the public was intentionally misleading. In such a conflict, deciphering the real from the fake is a difficult task and many activists, journalists and analysts spend countless hours sifting through videos in order to provide accurate information to the public. The intentionally misleading nature in which it was disseminated added to rather than detracted from the misinformation in Syria.

The letter also assailed the project for endangering the lives of children in Syria, a sentiment that was echoed by Fred Abrahams at Humans Right Watch: "By releasing a fake video, Klevberg has made it easier for war criminals to dismiss credible images of abuse."

What links Alex From Target to Syrian Hero Boy, in part, is artifice. In the former, digital hordes gush fake feelings about a real person; in the latter, viewers experience real heartbreak over a manufactured scenario.

Of course, what separates them is that one is much worse. Not every heroic boy who falls to his knees in a hail of gunfire gets to star in a passion play in reverse (especially before a rapt internet audience of millions). Part of Alex's appeal has to do with the unremarkable nature of his being "from Target." That banality is a luxury that many Syrians would actually die for.