Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

False Memories

The Book of Veles: Disinformation From North Macedonia

A photojournalist asks us to question what we read and what we see.

Key points

  • As technology continues to advance, people need to be more skeptical of both images and text.
  • Research suggests that images, in particular, are powerfully persuasive.
  • Those who should be most trusted might be abusing that trust, instead increasing the spread of disinformation.
Antti T. Nissinen/Wikimedia Commons
Are these people real or computer-generated? And is this even North Macedonia? How skeptical should we be when we view images?
Source: Antti T. Nissinen/Wikimedia Commons

Award-winning Norwegian photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen is known for his “sharply evocative images [that] explore themes of community, faith, and identity with unsparing honesty.” His most recent photojournalistic work, The Book of Veles, explores two intertwining stories. The first is the story of the North Macedonian town of Veles where economically disenfranchised teens created fake news articles that were viewed by millions of Americans during the 2016 presidential election, the spiraling influence of these stories fueled by social media algorithms. The second is the story of The Book of Veles, a supposed ancient text about a pre-Christian Slavic god named Veles, the god of “mischief, chaos and deception,” for whom this town was named.

Acutely aware of the irony of the town’s namesake, its role as past and present purveyor of deception, Bendiksen’s book includes essays that intersperse excerpts from the ancient text and photos of its current inhabitants. Adding irony to irony, it turns out that the ancient Book of Veles has itself been outed as a forgery, likely written in the mid-20th century. The scam was uncovered largely because the text includes an altered form of modern Slavic languages that would not have been used in a truly ancient text.

Our Review of The Book of Veles

The Book of Veles by photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen is a highly conceptual photography book project that openly investigates the depressed communities and peoples of Veles, Macedonia, which became a hothouse of fake news in the mid-teens of the 21st century. The at-once vibrant and grainy picture images display bleak realities that provide an implied context for these haunted peoples, a camera lens peeking into the unemployed lives that found money and purpose in creating worldwide misinformation without understanding the international implications. Bendiksen reveals himself to be a sort of Norwegian Edward Hopper, capturing light and people at revealing angles with digital images rather than oil paints. These contemporary snapshots seem simultaneously real and surreal as if they are still shots from a documentary film about a place and peoples that never existed. As Bendiksen recreates this travelogue of an uncanny place in North Macedonia, which has never before been captured in this resolution, the archival-seeming images present scenes both intimate and desolate, exhibiting the lives of people who created false realities in a language that was not their own. What the viewer sees within Bendiksen’s pages and photos is true reality in a way that cannot be forgotten once it has been seen.

And Now, the Plot Twist

Does that book review seem awkward in places (or entirely)? Would you believe that our book review above was written by a bot? Perhaps you should. Turns out that Bendiksen’s book is entirely fake—the essays and the photos.

The scandal of the teenagers faking news and influencing the 2016 election is real, as is the forged Book of Veles. Bendiksen did travel to Veles and he took many photographs without people in them. But he never did meet any of the teenaged news fabricators. Instead, he bought 3D avatars of people and played with light to insert them into his dreamy photos that were awash in faded colors. Bendiksen was taking advantage of the persuasive powers of images, as evidenced by psychology research (and as described in one of our previous posts).

He also found a “free trainable system for creating text, called GPT-2, that is trained on millions of real websites,” and used this program to create the essays for his book, as well as supposed excerpts from the already-forged Book of Veles. Layers upon layers of deception. As Bendiksen puts it, “In sum, it became a fake news story about fake news producers”—both the teenagers and the creators of the ancient text.

When he didn’t get caught quickly, as he had expected, he started dropping hints about his subterfuge. He created fake online personas that criticized him, accusing him of paying the (fake) people in his photos. Eventually, these hints uncovered his actual ruse, as he had originally hoped. He came completely clean in a fascinating interview.

An Enlightening Prank

Why did he do it? On his profile, Bendiksen describes himself as “a fairly simple photographer. There is very little hocus-pocus about what I do.” And yet, we now know that he intentionally set out to trick his audience, or at least his colleagues. “I felt it was ok to prank my own photographic community, but not the wider world,” he told an interviewer, explaining that he hoped that photographers, journalists, and news organizations would no longer unquestioningly accept images and stories. He also explained, “I don’t like scamming people, and like many criminals, I have also looked forward to when my cover is blown, so that I don’t have to play the game anymore, and I can be honest again.”

Bendiksen hopes that his foray into intentional disinformation might illuminate the actual hocus-pocus that has infiltrated photography and film, news, and social media, and help us to all be a bit more skeptical.

You’re probably now asking, appropriately, if we tricked you, too. No, this story is real and we did not use a bot to generate any of the text in this post, although our fake review is indeed fake, written without even seeing the book (although, as people obsessed with disinformation, we can’t wait to read it!). We wanted to include computer-generated text, but it turned out that it was too much work, so we wrote the fake book review ourselves, a fun attempt to imitate the AI-generated text. The photo is real, too—actual people who were actually photographed in North Macedonia. But the day is coming when it will be all too easy for any of us to manufacture AI-generated news, essays, novels, videos, and photographs. Veles himself would be proud. We, on the other hand, should be scared.


Seo, B. K. (2020). Meta-Analysis on Visual Persuasion–Does Adding Images to Texts Influence Persuasion? Athens Journal of Mass Media and Communications, 6(3), 177-190.

More from Susan A. Nolan, Ph.D., and Michael Kimball
More from Psychology Today