As though the saga of the internet's weirdest hoax wasn't weird enough already: A journalist nows claims she found out the art-pranksters behind YouTube series Pronunciation Book and the fake Twitter spambot Horse_ebooks—only to be lied to, manipulated, and "gaslit" for months by the two men and a circle of mutual friends.
On Tuesday, Pronunciation Book, a YouTube channel that sometime over the summer turned from a simple pronunciation guide into a vaguely creepy countdown to an unspecified event, was revealed by Susan Orlean at The New Yorker to be the work of Jacob Bakkila (pictured above, center) and Tom Bender (above, left), artists and creative professionals. Bakkila had also, Orlean wrote, spent two years tweeting as the minorly famous spambot @Horse_ebooks; both projects culminated in an exhibition called BearStearnsBravo at FitzRoy Gallery in New York. (That's it in the photo—Orlean is on the right.)
But as it turns out, Orlean wasn't the first writer to know about Bakkila and Bender's relationship to Pronunciation Book. Gaby Dunn, a staff writer at the Daily Dot, had spent much of the last few months writing about the video series. Working on her own and with theories and speculation from 4chan and elsewhere, she managed to identify Bakkila as the source of the video—only to have Bakkila and others engage in a bizarre, highly detailed, multi-week campaign designed to delay her story, complete with tearful phone calls and elaborately staged email.
Yesterday, in a Tumblr post called "Do not support Bear Stearns Bravospam," she wrote:
Jacob Bakkila cried to me on the phone for months. When I found him out in July and texted him saying I knew he was behind Pronunciation Book, he called me almost immediately and begged me not to disclose that he and his partner Tom Bender were behind the channel.
Two weeks ago, we scheduled a meeting for him to reveal the company behind Pronunciation Book but he kept pushing it back. Finally, he called and seemed distraught. He told me the company behind Pro Book had pulled out just that morning because they weren’t seeing high enough view counts on the PB videos.
He told me he was out 40,000 dollars. He was incredibly dramatic, and seemed to be going through the emotions of loss in front of a reporter. I found that suspicious. Especially when he told me he hadn’t even phoned Bender yet to tell him they were screwed. I told him I didn’t understand why he’d call me, a reporter he doesn’t know, before his business partner, but he said he felt I’d been so kind to him.
Dunn writes that she was suspicious of Bakkila's story, but after a long email he wrote earlier in the week—republished on her Tumblr here—she told her editor she believed him, and they chose not to run the story. They didn't run the story, and Bakkila promised her an exclusive on the reveal. The next day, Orlean broke the story of @Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book.
Later, in a podcast for On The Media, Dunn told PJ Vogt that over the course of the summer she was misled by several of her friends who were involved in the project in bits and pieces—many as actors who appeared in videos for the art exhibition. (It's unclear if any of Dunn's friends were aware of the full scope of the project, or of Dunn and Bakkila's long back-and-forth.) "It was more than just a source lying," she says. "It was a source lying that then had all of your friends lying to you."
But she reserves most of the blame for Bakkila and Bender and the project's other creators:
Then, Susan Orlean in the New Yorker broke the story behind Pronunciation Book. Bakkila never called me. His phone went straight to voicemail. When I called Seena Jon, another person involved in Pro Book, and asked him to tell me what was going on he said simply, “I can tell you it’s not Battlestar Galactica.” Then, he laughed and hung up on me.
The best part is they cried to me about hurting their careers and appealed to me not to get them sued or laughed at by the Internet, telling me to have empathy for them, and then coldly did exactly what I protected them from, to me. I took pity on them after ruthless emotional manipulation involving friends of mine that I’ve known for years, who were in on it.
I know Bakkila somewhat; we've exchanged emails a few times and once with some mutual friends met at a bar, where he struck me as an intelligent, friendly guy. In July, he emailed me asking if I "wanted to see some weird video art that my friend is making and I helped in a small way with," and, swearing me to secrecy, linked me to Pronunciation Book. A few weeks later, he emailed back, saying Dunn had found him out, and asking if I wanted to run a story "with new/nondiscovered details." I passed, saying that I'd be interested closer to when the countdown was finishing. He didn't email me about it again.
Today, on Tumblr, Dunn wrote that she "[w]oke up to an apology email from Bakkila IF THAT’S EVEN HIS REAL NAME. Anyway, weather’s been nice. I’m going outside." I emailed her to ask more about the apology, and she wrote back:
In his apology, Bakkila says he should have given me the story and provides no good reason for his and Seena Jon's bizarre and gleefully cruel behavior which, frankly, doesn't even fit the tone of their "fun" ARG. He complains of sleepless nights running Horse_ebooks and how it altered his perception of reality and right and wrong and blames that. He says he had to protect his "art" from me by any means necessary, but I was never threatening to expose him and he knew that. He's being so dramatic that it's comical. There was, by his own admission, no reason to not hold up his end of the deal in part, or at least show me some respect back. I also was never out to hurt them. This isn't exactly Middle Eastern politics. It's a stupid ARG. Why turn it into a thing where you're fucking with a real person you kinda know's friends, job and life? It's so weird. In the end, it was all to promote themselves, which is lame.
Anyway, this is all stupid and one of those things no one will care about in five days unless Sandra Bullock wants to play me in the movie.
Dunn wanted to make it clear that she had no intention of—as some have accused her—"'ruin[ing]' their project [...] I was kind and respectful to them and their work, and they used it (and my friends) against me, making me think I was crazy/unreliable for doubting them, accusing me of lying to them/trying to hurt them, telling me I was a heartless monster for 'toying with' them!"
Dunn's editor Austin Powell also emailed me to let me know that The Daily Dot was declining to share any more of Dunn's correspondence with Bakkila. He also explained why the site hadn't simply published Bakkila's name once it was aware of his identity: "We decided not to go public with the creators' names because we're not in the business of doxing. That's not our mission, and at the time, it didn't seem to add much to the overall narrative."