Body Language Pseudoscience Is Flourishing on YouTube
“On the internet, it’s so easy right now to just claim that you know things, and there’s nobody to really counteract it … It is something that concerns me for sure,” he says. Portenier’s knowledge of body language is largely self-taught, though he also took some psychology classes at university. He says he has been studying the topic for a decade, consuming the work of former FBI agent Joe Navarro (who has also made multiple videos with WIRED). Portenier also studies psychologist Paul Ekman’s work on microexpressions, which are facial expressions that last for a fraction of a second and are difficult to conceal. (By Ekman’s own admission, microexpressions that reveal concealed emotions aren’t all that common, and academics note he has not published data empirically proving that microexpressions can be used to detect lies.)
Bruce Durham, a 41-year-old from Newcastle, England, who made a video showing the “Exact Moment” Meghan Markle “Lies” to Oprah, is also self-taught. Durham says he has been working in performance coaching for more than 20 years. “I’ve had thousands of hours just sitting in front of people and letting them speak,” Durham says. “When you’ve spent that much time looking at people and you practice your observation skills, you can quickly develop trends and analysis, you sort of join the dots.” His channel, Believing Bruce, has just under 200,000 subscribers.
Both Portenier and Durham stress that they’re not leading experts in their field, and both say they try to communicate the limitations of what they do to the audience. “A lot of people look for who’s lying and who’s not, but you can’t ever really tell that. What you can do is, they fall into two categories of looking comfortable and looking uncomfortable,” Durham claims (his analysis of Markle is interspersed with clips of Pinocchio’s nose growing in Disney’s 1940 film). Durham says that identifying when someone looks uncomfortable provides a jumping-off point to ask further questions and is not a conclusion in itself, but he confesses that he makes his video thumbnails and titles more “evocative” in order to gain clicks. Still, he argues: “I always start or end my videos with, ‘You need to be fair and balanced.’ And I always say that multiple times as well.”
At the start of his Heard video, Portenier issues a disclaimer: “There’s a few things I want to be able to say, and I’ll say at the beginning of all of my videos that are on nonverbal communication. It is at best 70 percent accurate; there is definitely a talent to reading it; it is not a complete science as something like psychology is; it is not quite a pseudoscience; it is a mixture in-between.” In general, he comes across as more cautious than many body language analysts on YouTube. (It was he who argued that Markle could simply have had an itchy nose on the day of the Oprah interview.) But by his own admission, “audiences can and will 100 percent just blow right by any disclaimer that you give.”
This is likely because body language analysis on YouTube feeds confirmation bias: If you hate a celebrity, what could be better than having “scientific proof” that they are lying and conniving? Numerous videos analyze apologies from influencers such as James Charles, Shane Dawson, and Jeffree Star; after talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was accused of treating staff poorly in 2020, Portenier gained over a million views on a video promising to show her “INSINCERE apology faces.” Portenier says he was “surprised” that his video on Heard’s “CRINGE” deposition became his most popular ever, but there is a large appetite for content that discredits the actress; the same is true of Markle. Portenier, who has 1,684 regular donors on Patreon, takes suggestions from his audience on who he should analyze next.
Published at Sun, 21 Nov 2021 12:00:00 +0000