I caught an incredibly bad two-hour “documentary” on the Discovery Channel last night that, in a nut shell, encapsulates many of our societal foibles. That program was “Mermaids: The Body Found.” Listed as “docu-fiction,” which means “made up at will,” the special was presented as entirely real, and purported to prove the existence of mermaids among us, as evidenced by man’s ancient mythologies concerning fish people and the modern-day cover-up of the phenomena by governments around the world.

I really believe that shows like this can be damaging to an overall public perception of reality, imbuing those with no desire to question the “evidence” they are given with a false sense of being “in the know,” which is of course one of the major appeals of any conspiracy. It doesn’t even matter that immediately after airing, all the claims of the show are debunked, because many of the people who watch these programs will spend the next decade of their life walking around, telling other people they meet that mermaids are “totally real, it was on the Discovery Channel, man.” Don’t believe that people are that foolish? There are still people debating an 11-year-old moon landing hoax special that aired on FOX, even though it was complete malarkey. There are human beings walking the face of the Earth right now who believe that this planet is flat. That’s the nature of rumors about secret knowledge—we really want to believe them, because they confirm our biases and make us feel informed.

Even the program itself can admit that its content is fraudulent, if it does it covertly enough. In the case of “Mermaids: The Body Found,” that admission can be found two hours in, during the closing credits. A segment is shown that reads “Though certain events in this film are fictional, Navy sonar tests have been directly implicated in whale beachings. ‘The Bloop’ is a real phenomenon. There is still debate about what it may be. None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated or associated with it in any way, nor have they approved its contents. Any similarities in the film to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.”

Aside from “certain events in this film are fictional,” (which means “as much of it as we want”) that sounds like standard legal boilerplate. But in this case, the line about “actual persons” is even more significant, because get this—the two main characters appearing on screen to give “their story” throughout the entire program? They don’t exist. As in, they’re not real human beings. The person presented as “Dr. Paul Robertson” is an actor named Andre Weideman, and at no point does the program make any admission of this. He says he was a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? Lies. He says his team’s data was confiscated by the government? Lies. And how do they get away with saying all of this? By small-print, tacit admissions to anyone in actual authority that “Look, we’re just making something for entertainment, nobody is going to take it seriously.”

The problem is of course that the general public can’t be bothered to verify any of this information, and plenty simply take it at face value. They do take it seriously. If you go on Google and go searching around for discussion of the program, the stuff you find will blow your mind, as people find reasons to believe a two-hour television special on the secret existence of mermaids. Look a little longer and you’ll run across all sorts of cryptozoological believers. My favorites are the ones who shoot down each other’s theories as ridiculous and then offer even crazier opinions. “You’re a fool for believing the aquatic ape theory! Anyone with half a brain knows that mermaids are the direct descendents of ‘nephilim,’ the gigantic early ancestors of man that existed before the flood of Noah!” The statement to the left is an actual opinion that I read last night. I am not making this up—unlike the filmmakers.

One of the best touches is the website for “Dr. Paul Robertson,” which bears a realistic-looking message saying that it was “seized by Homeland Security.” Good evidence of a cover-up, right? The government doesn’t want you to know the truth! Or at least this would be good evidence, if it hadn’t been put together by the film’s creators themselves to make their case look legitimate. You need look no further than the vagueness claiming that a warrant was issued by “a United States District Court.” In an actual web seizure like this one at a sports streaming website, the specific court is always listed. See the additional detail? Unfortunately, this simply distraction is all a conspiracy theorist needs to leap into action. It’s classic confirmation bias.

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This is a disgusting amount of effort for a group of filmmakers to go to, just in order to make a quick buck by sensationalizing their film and trying to cause a stir by portraying it as “banned” or suppressed by the government. A web-savvy community in 2012 shouldn’t be able to be taken in by something so stupid. We’re supposed to be smarter than this. And shame on a network like The Discovery Channel for airing “documentaries” that are entirely fictional accounts of nonexistent creatures. Shows like “A Haunting,” “Ghost Lab” and their faked reality series “The Colony” are bad enough. But mermaids? Mermaids.

What do you think, sirs? Were you taken in by this fish tale?