My Spanish-language article on water dowsing is now out for ‘Pensar’ magazine, thanks to Alejandro Borgo for the translation!
Los tiempos de estrés social, dificultades e incertidumbre estimulan el interés en todo tipo de adivinación y profecía. El público va a ver videntes y adivinos con más frecuencia en tiempos de depresión económica que de prosperidad, tiempos de pérdida en lugar de amor. Son la naturaleza humana y el pensamiento mágico en sus diversas formas, incluidas la superstición y las conspiraciones, las que ayudan a las personas a lidiar con el estrés diario. La gente quiere estar segura de que las cosas buenas están a la vuelta de la esquina, que las fortunas mejorarán y los romances apasionados con proverbiales extraños guapos y altos están en las cartas.
Esto fue cierto durante la pandemia, pero hay otras tensiones —ambientales, como el cambio climático, incendios generalizados y una sequía duradera que ha mantenido reseco gran parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos durante años. No es de extrañar que la gente esté cada vez más desesperada por encontrar agua.
The New York Times informó recientemente sobre un aumento en el interés y la contratación de radiestesistas (o «brujos del agua») —también llamados zahoríes o rabdomantes. Si alguna vez ha escuchado la frase «No lo harían si no funcionara», la radiestesia es una refutación perfecta. A lo largo de los siglos las personas han venerado y perpetuado prácticas a pesar de que simplemente no funcionan. La radiestesia es un ejemplo de libro de texto sobre el tema. Parte de la razón de la longevidad de la radiestesia es su versatilidad en el mundo paranormal. Se dice que la radiestesia encuentra cualquier cosa, incluidas personas desaparecidas, tuberías enterradas, depósitos de petróleo e incluso ruinas arqueológicas (ver Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?—Radiestesia y arqueología: ¿Hay algo debajo?— en Skeptical Inquirer, marzo/abril de 1999).
For those who didn’t see it: in the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we talked to fisheries expert D.G. Webster about the wild, weird world of seafood fraud! Yep: fake fishes and fraudulent food… What’s on your plate? Check it out HERE!
From a library press release: “Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell are considered to be among the top lake monster authorities in the world. They discuss the different types of lake monster sightings, delve into explanations for those sightings, and examine hoaxes, evidence claims, and legends surrounding the monsters. They have also conducted groundbreaking fieldwork and experiments…”
Technically true, but to be fair there are about ten times as many astronauts as “lake monster authorities.” But, hey, I’ll take it!
I was recently a guest on the Squatch Talk show, talking about Bigfoot sightings, evidence, skepticism, and much more. It was a fun conversation, and since the host’s internet went out, we will be doing a Part 2! Check it out HERE!
My new article is about the new Netflix documentary ‘Misha and the Wolves,’ which examines a famous and bizarre literary hoax: A woman claimed to have walked across Europe and been raised by a wolf pack while searching for her parents during the Holocaust. Her book became a worldwide bestseller, until troubling questions were raised about her story. The film is about history, identity, authenticity, betrayal, and why we choose to believe…
The new Netflix documentary film Misha and the Wolvesexamines the life story of a Holliston, Massachusetts, woman named Misha Defonseca who stunned her congregation decades ago on Holocaust Remembrance Day by breaking her silence about her past: She was not only a Holocaust survivor, but as a young girl had fled her home in Belgium and walked to Germany in search of her parents, last seen in concentration camps. That was remarkable and brave enough, but she hadn’t done it alone; “She had trekked nearly 2,000 miles across Europe in the middle of winter to search for her parents, and on this journey had been saved from death by a pack of wolves who had taken her in and raised her as their cub. She recalled how, while she subsisted on a diet of wild meat and scavenged scraps, she sometimes heard terrible sounds coming from deportation trains and once had to kill a German soldier with her bare hands when her life was in danger” (Katsoulis 241).
Misha’s incredible story caught the attention of a friend who ran a small publishing house, Jane Daniel, and was soon turned into a best-selling 1997 book titled Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. It caught the influential (if not particularly discerning) eye of Oprah Winfrey, and would later be published in several languages and optioned for films. Misha became a celebrity, touring the world telling her inspiring story of courage and overcoming adversity.
Eventually, however, some suspected that her story was in fact literally incredible—not credible. Misha and the Wolves expertly describes the rise and fall of Misha’s story. Even though I’d read basic outlines of the events, there were some surprising plot twists that I won’t reveal, as there are enough spoilers already. It’s not just the story of a strange story of a suspected hoax, but perhaps more importantly, it’s the story of people who joined forces to reveal the truth.
The public is of course widely—and rightly—counseled to “believe the victim” in many circumstances. That is the appropriate default position for any plausible claim, and the vast majority of the time the victim is as claimed. Most of the time people, by default, believe what others tell them (see Timothy Levine’s work on Truth Default Theory). This extends to claims of victimization as well; contrary to popular belief, women who come forward with claims of victimization (including by public figures) are generally believed, not doubted.
But in some cases it’s not clear who the victim is (or if there really is a victim at all), and the film explores the continual trepidation of those who questioned Misha’s claims: what if they were wrong? No one wanted to be in a position of casting doubt on the account of a true victim, and especially not of the Holocaust. This reluctance to question victims can of course be seen in many other contexts; see for example the 2012 documentaryThe Woman Who Wasn’t There, about a woman who claimed to have survived the Twin Towers collapse on 9/11/2001, and—like Misha—became a spokeswoman for the cause of remembrance and honor for the tragic events, heading a survivors group.
Misha’s deception would likely have never been revealed but for the tenacity of not only the book’s original publisher, Daniel, who was sued (and, as it turns out, wrongfully awarded millions) by Misha, but also a genealogist, a journalist, and others. The fact that Misha was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote the book but declined was, ironically, one of the early red flags that something wasn’t right. Oprah, it should be noted, has a long history of promoting heart-tugging memoirs that were later revealed to be largely or wholly hoaxed, along with untold numbers of other dubious and discredited topics. For another Oprah-promoted fake Holocaust story presented as tear-jerking memoir see Herman Rosenblat’s book Angel at the Fence.
The film builds suspense as each new piece of information is revealed. Misha and the Wolves is a story of remarkable detective work, deception, and gullibility and unfolds like a series of Russian dolls, spinning into several smaller mysteries: Is Misha’s story mostly true, like anyone’s subjective recollections and allowing for mistakes, memory lapses, and biases?
Within about twenty minutes (or sooner, if you’ve seen any coverage of the case) it’s clear that Misha’s story isn’t true—or at least isn’t entirely true. But is that significant? Authors James Frey and Joe Mortensen, among many others, eventually admitted to fabricating key parts of their bestelling memoirs, A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea, respectively. So did Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu in her book I, Rigoberta Menchu, but all of them insisted that the books were mostly true.
Or is it entirely fabricated, and if so, to what end? Was it akin to the influential 1971 young adult memoir Go Ask Alice, which was completely made up by an evangelical middle-aged Mormon woman trying to teach moral lessons? Or is she delusional, perhaps (understandably) traumatized by the war? If Misha didn’t spend her childhood living with wolves and walking through forests to find her parents, then where was she? Surely there would have to be some record, somewhere…
It is perhaps fitting that the real heroine of the film—the person who does indeed find the smoking gun (though where and of what I won’t reveal)—is herself a Belgian Holocaust survivor named Evelyne Haendel. Holocaust memorial organizations are in fact among the most skeptical of such claims, precisely because a handful of people have falsified their experiences, and accepting claims without due diligence dishonors real victims. Holocaust historian Debórah Dwork also provides insight into the complexities of truth and doubt.
Writer and director Sam Hobkinson does a masterful job of letting the participants speak for themselves, with one notable exception (revealed in a twist reminiscent of the 2019 documentary Wrinkles the Clown), revealing conflicting agendas at virtually every turn. Publishers and journalists want a good story; historians and genealogist want the truth; and documentary filmmakers want a blend of both. Misha had her own reasons for creating the story, and others had their own motivation for turning a blind eye—or not—to potential deception. Jane Daniel, it turns out, was warned by at least one expert prior to publication that Misha’s story was dubious. Nevertheless the promise of notoriety and wealth won out, until the time that it served Daniel’s interest to take a closer look at the remarkable story she’d helped launch into the world.
Misha and the Wolves is curiously reminiscent of another documentary series, also on Netflix, titled The Devil Next Door, out in 2019. That five-part series tells the true story of another elderly, otherwise unremarkable American citizen with murky (and contested) ties to the Holocaust: Ivan Demjanjuk. The retired autoworker settled in Cleveland and was later accused of being a prison guard at a Nazi concentration camp nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” by his victims. But was he? As the series reveals, the answer is yes and no.
The ‘Wild Child’ Myth
Misha’s story was especially compelling because it drew on two popular and powerful narratives. The Holocaust survivor narrative and the wild or feral child stories. Stories and legends from around the world tell of children raised by wild animals including wolves, bears, and apes.
The feral child is common in myth and folklore, dating back at least to Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers of Roman mythology rescued from certain death and raised by a wolf. The feral child image evokes a strong romanticism for many people, and this was especially true at the turn of the last century. Rudyard Kipling made a hero of the feral child Mowgli—an Indian boy raised by wolves—in his classic and wildly popular 1894 collection of stories The Jungle Book. Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is an example of this. Though not a feral child story per se, Misha’s story evokes the purity and innocence of the animal world as metaphor, and contrasts it with the evil that human genocide can bring.
Misha in Context
When questioned, Misha doubled down and dismissed skeptics for years, daring them to debunk her narrative. When the deception was definitively revealed, Defonseca “apologized unreservedly to the readers who had bought her book in good faith, and in the now familiar terms of a hoaxer pleading an alternative truth as a reason for their deception, went on to say, ‘There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in my book is mine. It is not the actual reality—it was my reality, my way of surviving’” (Katsoulis 246).
In a March 9, 2008, New York Times opinion piece, Daniel Mendelsohn notes that Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is “a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. [James] Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements [in A Million Little Pieces]. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. Ms. De Wael [writing as Misha] was a Christian Belgian who was raised by close relatives after her parents, Resistance members, were taken away… a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit—a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too…. Ms. De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: ‘I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.’ (‘Felt Jewish’ is repellent: real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)”
The post-truth defense rang hollow to others as well. Adopting a cultural studies approach, Anne Rothe states that “Defonseca’s fabrication is revealing because it indicates the extent to which readers are willing to suspend their disbelief and to accept in a supposed Holocaust memoir that a young girl could walk across Europe in the midst of the Second World War and even that she was adopted by wolves… It is also illuminating because the ensuing legal battle…constitutes the clearest indication to date of the vast commercial potential of representing the Holocaust as an ahistorical, kitsch-sentimental horror fantasy of trauma and redemption in contemporary Western culture” (142). For more on this fascinating case see Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes, by Melissa Katsoulis, and Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in Mass Media, by Anne Rothe (full disclosure: I’m referenced in the latter book). Also check out Squaring the Strange, episode 112, on literary hoaxes.
Misha and the Wolves is rife with lessons on critical thinking, skepticism, and confirmation bias. The film also highlights the dictum about how it takes exponentially more effort to debunk falsehoods than it does to create them—and how the burden of proof is often tacitly shifted from claimant to investigator. This is excellent documentary filmmaking, and about much more than one woman’s audacious hoax or delusion; it’s about history, identity, authenticity, betrayal, and why we choose to believe.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! We discuss the recent Snopes plagiarism revelations and put it into context, and then look at sound therapy and vibrational healing. If you’re not quite sure what “Vibrational Medicine” is, join the club! You can listen HERE!
I’m a guest on the “Something to Sasquatch About” show! We talked about the evidence for Bigfoot, the nature of skepticism, why the 1967 Patterson/Gimlin film hasn’t been replicated, the lack of quality control in Bigfoot research, the “Bigfoot Butt Print” cast, and the time a crazy Norwegian hulk confronted me with blurry Bigfoot photos at a conference.
Did you hear our recent episode of Squaring the Strange? We talk a bit on the resurgence of dowsing and announce some upcoming appearances… then we sit down with guest Prof. Brian Regal, who takes us on a tour of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Learn how confirmation bias leads to weaponizing fringe theories in order to rewrite history (and change the color of major players). Check it out HERE!
Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.
This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.
The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).
I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real?TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.
The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.
According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).
However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.
How Dowsing ‘Works’
If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”
I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.
Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.
The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).
And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.
Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.
In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?
There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.
The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange had as our guest historian Jay Smith, who joins us to talk about the murderous 18th century French monster known as the Beast of Gévaudan, thought by some to be a werewolf, a hyena, or perhaps even some Frankenstein-inspired hybrid! Dozens of peasants were left dead, while Paris and the rest of the world were enthralled by the story–but what was really behind it all? Check it out HERE!
It seems I am mentioned in ‘The Irish Times’ talking about some shady demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose legacy of exploitation is whitewashed in the Conjuring horror films… Check it out HERE!
Want to know more? Check out our Squaring the Strange episodes HERE!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Pascual leads us on a fun discussion of MYSTERY MUSICIANS! Celestia starts with the OG mystery musician, a dude who was rumored to live under the Paris opera house, and we look at some folklore and urban legends that arise for artists who put on disguises. Check it out HERE!
Twenty years ago last month the capital of India was gripped in a panic. Early reports claimed that some mysterious monkey-like creature attacked many residents in New Delhi, leaving fear, scars, and ultimately even dead bodies in its wake. The Monkey Man, as it came to be known, made international news as police and news media struggled to make sense of the mysterious menace.
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and I wrote briefly about this episode in our bookHoaxes Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, but overall there has been relatively little written about it from scholarly and skeptical perspectives. On this twentieth anniversary of the panic, it seemed like a good time to revisit this case in more depth.
Descriptions of the Monkey Man varied widely, and details were often ambiguous because most of the sightings occurred at night outside in the night sky, with the creature leaping away into the darkness before anyone could get a good look at it—much less a photograph. Some people described an ape-like figure with a dark hairy body and glowing red eyes. Others described the figure as between three and six feet tall, with arms ending in sharp claws or even metal gloves, like Freddy Krueger. Some said instead that it wore a motorcycle helmet, leather jacket, and dark glasses. Most people, however, just reported seeing a shadow of something; overall, there were few first-hand sightings; instead many people described what they heard other people saying they saw.
Police and the Press
Indian news media picked up on the story and ran with it, sensationalizing reports in the process. The most lurid and dramatic descriptions, of course, got the most attention—which in turn triggered demands from the public to be protected. Local law enforcement officials, understandably, were not sure how to handle the bizarre situation. They were used to dealing with accidents, homicides, and neighborhood disputes—not mysterious and menacing half-monkeys armed with steel claws. Inundated with panicked calls but no suspects or leads, the police soon set up special hotlines and offered a large 50,000 rupee ($1,000) reward for information leading to the capture of this monster. Though meant to generate useful leads, this financial incentive had the effect of increasing the number of crank calls and false alarms. Indeed, as news of the Monkey Man spread, there was a snowball effect; more coverage spurred more sightings, but also more attention-seeking pranks and hoaxes. Many people got in on the action, offering ever-wilder (and evidence-free) stories to an eager news media.
As days turned into a week and the panic increased with no arrests being made, citizens took the law into their own hands. Vigilante mobs took to patrolling the streets at night, armed with clubs, poles, and machetes. The rolling blackouts which often plague the city only added to the sense of fear and foreboding. As in other monster panics I’ve investigated including the chupacabra (in Puerto Rico) and the popobawa (in Zanzibar); there were overnight vigils and stakeouts, where armed men took turns at sentry while the others slept. Predictably and tragically, in some cases mob justice ensued and several people were attacked. The Washington Post reported that “a van driver was chased by a mob that believed him to be the Monkey Man, dragged out of his vehicle, and severely beaten. He was hospitalized with multiple fractures.”
Injuries and Deaths
One of the most puzzling things about the case was that there was no real evidence of this phantom attacker. With no photographs or footprints the main forensic evidence offered in support of the attacker(s)—and implicitly refuting growing skepticism that it was all a hoax or hallucination—were injuries said to have been caused by encounters with the Monkey Man.
Indeed, evidence was offered of encounters, much of it ambiguous. Monkey Man victims showed off a variety of minor injuries and wounds—most of which were indistinguishable from bites from rats or dogs—along with rashes, scratches, and the like. To many people who saw photos and video of the injuries (widely shared in news media) it was compelling. Though it was surely true that not every Monkey Man sighting or report was accurate, for many people these disparate reports offered evidence corroboration: Unless the dozens of ostensible strangers offering (superficially) similar stories and injuries had all somehow conspired together to fake the incidents, surely there must be something to it, many people thought.
However a closer look at the injuries revealed a different story. Some people had faked injuries for medical and media attention; others reframed existing, unrelated injuries as having been due to encounters with the Monkey Man. There is not much in the published literature about this incident, though I did find one journal article in the August 2003 Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. S.K. Verma and D.K. Srivastava examined sociodemographic patterns and injuries among alleged Monkey Man victims. They found that between May 10 and 25, 397 people made calls to the police claiming to have been attacked. Of those, fifty-one cases were detailed enough for medical examination.
Two-thirds of the victims were male, and most were between twenty and thirty years old. The vast majority (94%) were from the poorest sections of the city, East Delhi and nearby, and 89% were of low socioeconomic status. Two-thirds of the victims reported that incident occurred between midnight and 6 AM. As to the nature of the wounds, about 95% of the individuals showed abrasions they attributed to the Monkey Man. As the researchers noted, “One of the most striking features observed in the injuries among these individuals was they were possible either by a blunt or a pointed object only.” About 88% had multiple linear abrasions and 11% displayed lacerations.
In addition to the mob attacks mentioned earlier, there were also dozens of serious accidental injuries caused by mobs of people trying to escape from the monster. There were fatalities as well; one man died falling off a rooftop fleeing from what he thought was the Monkey Man, and a pregnant woman fell down stairs and died panicking as well. A third man also fell off a rooftop, running in fear when he heard another man nearby panicking, shrieking in the darkness that something had pulled on his sheets as he tried to sleep. Eventually the local power company agreed to temporarily suspend rolling blackouts in some of the poorer parts of New Delhi, allowing people to sleep inside in the safety of their apartments under electric fans.
In the end the injuries offered merely the illusion of corroboration. It’s a common theme among paranormal believers, who use the (often presumed) similarities of different, disparate eyewitnesses and experiencers to argue that there must be something to it.
Social, Cultural, and Environmental Factors
Social panics do not occur in a vacuum. In the climate of fear that swept New Delhi, people interpreted anything as a threat: Any sound in darkness or cry in the night could be interpreted as an imminent attack. It’s also important to remember the physical environment: crowded, poorly-lit sweltering rooftops during rolling blackouts. In a city of 14 million people during a heat wave of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation was ripe for misperceptions.
There was also the socioeconomic factors of illiteracy and poor education. In a situation reminiscent of the panic and fears surrounding the chupacabra in 1996-1998 Puerto Rico, most of the rumors spread among poor. New Delhi’s wealthiest residents were not sweating and exposed on dark, crowded rooftops but were at home under air conditioning—using portable generators during the blackouts. The religious aspect may also be relevant; the fact that the creature was said to be half (or more) monkey—and not some other wild animal—may be significant. Many people noted that the Monkey Man was reminiscent of Hanuman, a Hindu warrior god depicted as a monkey (or half-monkey) that leads an army…of monkeys. There are also many monkeys in and around the city, so the creature would be a familiar one to New Delhi residents.
Some took the descriptions at face value and thought it was some sort of actual half-human creature, though other explanations included an evil spirit, a robot, “a computerized creature who someone is operating with remote control”; and a terrorist who was using the panic, confusion, and police reaction as a cover for some assassination—possibly by the Pakistani intelligence services, India’s neighbor and arch-enemy.
Monkey Man and Mass Sociogenic Illness
In the final analysis the Monkey Man panic has all the hallmarks of mass sociogenic illness (MSI), or mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is often misunderstood as being an illness that sufferers are making up. In fact the symptoms are verifiable and not imaginary. The issue is instead what is causing the symptoms—whether some external environmental contaminant or instead a form of suggestion-driven social contagion.
Social contagion can easily spread from person to person in tight quarters, and especially during times of high stress and anxiety. Cases of MSI can vary widely in context and manifestation, but typically include the sudden onset of dramatic (yet clinically minor) symptoms. There are underlying psychological and/or environmental stressors, ranging from workplace discipline to boredom (in this case a heat wave). There is usually some trigger, such as an ambiguous smell, sight, or sound. A hallmark is that the phenomenon is socially contagious—that is, it is spread from person to person like a virus, usually people with whom the victim has come in close contact, such as a friend, family member, co-worker, or classmate. Mass hysterias often affect people who have a real or perceived lack of social support, such as those in poverty or subjected to regimented routine and authority (such as in schools, factories, and so on). Many cases of MSI are recognized only after the fact (and sometimes not even then), with victims often vigorously rejecting the diagnosis, assuming incorrectly that it implied that they were mentally ill or making it all up.
For as bizarre as the Monkey Man incident is, he (or it) is not alone; indeed the phenomenon is best understood as part of a larger social phenomenon known as phantom attackers. These are mysterious figures, usually male and dressed in some distinctive way, and who are seen and reported as menacing ordinary citizens in public. Examples include Spring-Heeled Jack, the mysterious dark-cloaked figure reported threatening and scaring people (mostly women and children) in London from the 1830s through the 1870s; the Phantom Slasher of Taiwan, who was reported stalking the streets of Taipei in 1956 trying to slash people (again, mostly women and children) with a razor; and the phantom clowns, reported to lurk near schools trying—thankfully in vain—to abduct children (for more see chapter 12 in my book Bad Clowns).
Though the details and descriptions vary in these cases, they have much in common, including that they all had sincere eyewitnesses who reported their encounters to police and other public safety officials; the cases were reported in the local news and residents took action to protect the public from further attempted “attacks”; the reports appeared in a given community suddenly but soon faded away with no arrest or resolution. In the end all these phantom attackers—like the Monkey Man—were thoroughly investigated and eventually determined not to have existed.
The Decline and Fall of the Monkey Man
Throughout the panic police reacted as best they could, increasing patrols and thinking that enough arrests would stop it—not because they assumed they were going to actually arrest the Monkey Man (who would likely demand a simian public defender)—but because hoaxers would finally be deterred. It was semi-successful. Police were getting hundreds of hoaxed calls, and when people were threatened with jail and fines for spreading false rumors, it did indeed curb the appeal of pranksters and copycats. Even those who were sincere in their reports had second thoughts about contacting the police without real proof or evidence. This, coupled with a strong media-influence copycat effect, became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the news media started to lose interest and reported that fewer people were seeing it—which in turn led to fewer people seeing it. A few things led to the Monkey Man being less reported and by about May 20 the reports had slowed to a trickle; the whole incident lasted about two weeks, from May 10 to May 25 or so. The pattern was entirely expected to psychologists and sociologists who recognized the cause. Most cases of mass hysterias tend to be self-limiting; there’s a clear and predictable bell-shaped rise and fall in reports, usually a steep increase and an equally quick fall.
Skeptics on the Scene
Amid the chaos and panic, skeptical investigators from the Indian Rationalists Association, led by Sanal Edamaruku, tried to explain the situation and calm public fears. Though the news media were more interested sensationalism than skepticism, the organization was quoted, however briefly, in The New York Times and The Washington Post press coverage.
In the Rationalist International Bulletin Edamaruku wrote a first-hand contemporaneous account of his organization’s efforts to investigate the mystery and calm public fears: “India’s capital is looking back on two weeks of mass delusion and panic, sometimes dangerously turning into mass hysteria. The shadow of the ‘monkey man’ is still looming large over suburbs and urban villages.” Edamaruku’s actions serve as a model for on-the-ground skeptical investigation and activism: “We started to collect all information so far available and went to the affected areas to talk to people. I personally questioned at least forty persons who claimed to have seen something and hundreds who were terrified by what they had heard. We evaluated all recorded material and got some important clues.” With no photos of the creature, nor footprints, or anything else tangible, Edamaruku also assessed what little physical evidence there appeared to be: wounds allegedly made by the creature: “We went out to have a close look at the victims’ injuries, which had become something like the last bastion of the spook. We succeeded in tracing most of the known causes and were ‘disappointed’: There was not a single serious wound, only little scratches, cuts, and rubbings [rashes] which under normal circumstances would not get any attention…Interestingly there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to come from the same source… With every new case we were more convinced that all these injuries were self-inflicted, either deliberately or unknowingly.”
In the end Edamaruku notes that “Our lonely initiative and intervention to deflate the giant balloon of the monkey man mania has opened many eyes and minds. They have reminded the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and encouraged many scientists to play their part in educating the public. This is in my opinion one of the classical roles rationalist organizations can play, and have to play, in society.”
This is a crucial point because skeptical and rationalist organizations, investigators, and activists (and, I might add, folklorists and psychologists) fill this important—and often overlooked—niche. Many of these panics are not recognized as such at the time, and journalists play a key role in disseminating information, both good and bad, to the public. It’s vital that skeptics and their organizations such as the Indian Rationalists and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and their many counterparts) make informed skeptical commentary and analysis available to journalists and the public.
Two decades after the Monkey Man appeared, and then disappeared just as quickly, the case remains one of the strangest examples of mass hysteria panics in modern times. With sober analysis we can hopefully learn from it and be better prepared for the next mass sociogenic panic.
A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry website; you can read it HERE!
Four years ago this week, ‘Wonder Woman‘ was released and became a blockbuster hit. As part of a publicity stunt, the Alamo theater chain announced that it would hold “Women-only Wonder Woman screenings,” as it did with “Clowns-only ‘It’ screenings.” It was a hoax and neither happened, but the publicity was huge–until Alamo ran afoul of the law and had to apologize. Here’s the fascinating inside story of what happened.
Mass shootings are, sadly, in the news again. Across the country violence is up overall in recent months, and gun-related homicides are on the rise. From Boston to Chicago to New Orleans, as covid restrictions relax shootings increase.
The natural question is: Who is doing all the shooting, and why?
There is a popular misconception that White males, specifically, are by far the most common mass shooters. In fact, mass shooters come from across the spectrum, from White men to teenage schoolgirls to Black men and even transgendered teens. Evidence of the diversity in mass shooters is abundant; it’s a problem that has plagued America for decades and has not escaped analysis from criminologists and sociologists.
A more interesting question, from sociological and media literacy points of view, is why the misunderstanding is so common. Part of the answer likely lies in the gulf between what experts and academics know and what the public perceives. This is nothing new; laypeople often believe things that are completely the opposite of the truth. Many laypeople believe, for example, that no one would falsely confess to a crime they didn’t commit, whereas psychologists and police detectives are well aware that people can and do admit to crimes they’re innocent of (often leading to miscarriages of justice, as in the famous Central Park Five case). The public often assumes that eyewitnesses and memories are rarely mistaken, despite decades of research by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and many others. The public (wrongly) believes that overall crime rates trend high, despite being historically low; that homicides are more common than suicides (the opposite is true), and so on. So there’s nothing unique or special about this particular erroneous assumption; it’s just one of many.
Another part of the answer is that popular fallacies tend to be perpetuated and self-replicating, especially when stereotypical assumptions are made and not questioned. For example children’s book author (and niece of Kamala Harris) Meena Harris wrongly assumed that mass shooter Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa was Caucasian in a tweet that got 6,500 Likes and 35,000 Retweets. In later correcting her error she perpetuated another, that “the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. are carried out by white men.” It’s of course common for people to comment ahead of the facts, but it was a revealing mistake that demonstrates how ingrained the assumption is. Many commenters on social media suggest that 90% to 95% of mass shooters are White, but as we will see the true number is less than half that.
How News and Social Media Mislead
Much of the answer lies in media literacy, and the perception that what the news media covers is representative of what happens. I discuss this fallacy at length in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, but the key thing to recognize is that some events are more newsworthy than others, and how a news event is framed plays an important role in how it’s understood.
As I discussed in a previous series on mass shootings, the public’s (and journalists’) understanding is clouded by the fact that the topic of mass shootings is fraught, not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based evidence and analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues. The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media.
The public is understandably confused about how common mass shootings are because they get their information about such events from the media, which distorts the true nature and frequency of these attacks. Most of us, thankfully, have no direct experience with mass shootings or school shootings; they happen occasionally and result in dead bodies, trials, news coverage, and often convictions—but there are also 325 million people in America. The chance of some person, or a few dozen people, being a victim of a mass shooting somewhere in the country in any given week is nearly 100 percent, but the chance of any given specific person—say you or me—being a victim is remote.
Why do shootings seem so common? Much of the answer lies in the news media and psychology. John Ruscio, a social psychologist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, describes “the media paradox”: The more we rely on the popular media to inform us, the more apt we are to misplace our fears. The paradox is the combined result of two biases, one inherent in the news-gathering process, the other inherent in the way our minds organize and recall information. As Ruscio explains: “For a variety of reasons—including fierce competition for our patronage within and across the various popular media outlets—potential news items are rigorously screened for their ability to captivate an audience. … The stories that do make it through this painstaking selection process are then often crafted into accounts emphasizing their concrete, personal, and emotional content. In turn, the more emotional and vivid the account is, the more likely we are to remember the information. This is the first element, the vividness bias: our minds easily remember vivid events. The second bias lies in what psychologists term the availability heuristic: our judgments of frequency and probability are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of an event. So the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings, or train wrecks, the more often we think they occur. But the bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are.”
Imagine, for example, that a consumer group dedicated to travel safety established a network of correspondents in every country that reported every train and bus wreck, no matter how minor, and broadcast daily pictures. Anyone watching that broadcast would see dozens of wrecks and crashes every day, complete with mangled metal and dead bodies, and would likely grow to fear such transportation. No matter that in general trains and buses are very safe; if you screen the news to emphasize certain vivid events, accidents will seem more dangerous and common than they actually are.
A Closer Look at Mass Shooters
Because White mass shooters tend to attract more news media coverage than do non-White shooters, it creates a misperception about mass shooter demographics, a subject I previously wrote about.
An analysis of recent mass shootings bears this out. Of the 46 mass shooters in the Gun Violence Archive database for March 2021, 2% (1) was committed by a White male; 8% (4) were committed by Hispanics; 45% (21) were committed by African Americans; and in 43%, or 20 cases, the attacker’s race is unknown.
In January 2019 I conducted an identical analysis, finding total of 25 American mass shootings. Of the 25 mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive database, 16% (4) of them were committed by white males; 4% (1) was committed by a Hispanic man; 64% (16) were committed by African Americans; and in 16%, or 4 cases, the attacker’s race is unknown.
A year later in January 2020 I conducted an identical analysis, finding total of 25 American mass shootings. Of the 25 mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive database for January 2020, 4% (1) of them was committed by a white male; 4% (1) was committed by a Hispanic man; 68% (17) were committed by African Americans; and in 24%, or 6 cases, the attacker’s race is unknown. All the data are publicly available for anyone who would like to review the source material or examine other months.
It’s clear from even a cursory glance at the Gun Violence Archive demographic data that White shooters are, if anything, under-represented in mass shootings. Obviously it varies by month, but in the three months sampled above, the percentage of mass shooters that were White ranged from 2% to 16% with an average of 7.3%—despite comprising about 60% of the American population.
We can compare these numbers with data in peer-reviewed publications, including a recent analysis in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, by Emma E. Fridel. Using a different dataset Fridel found that about 40% of all mass shooters (across three categories, as I described in a previous article) were White, compared with 37% Black and 23% Other/Mixed race.
Taking a closer look, of the 45 shootings in March 2021 (the above number, 46, reflects that one mass shooting, on March 18 in Oregon, had two mass shooters), only three of them got widespread news coverage. The first involved Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, who killed ten people in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket on March 22. The second was Robert Aaron Long, who two days later killed eight people in Atlanta Georgia; and the third was Aminadab Gaxiola Gonzalez, who on March 31 killed four in Orange, California. Of these three cases, all were taken alive. This is of course not a representative sample, but we can note a few patterns. They are all male; ethnically diverse (one White, one Hispanic, and one Middle Eastern); two of the shooters were 21; one of the three had a known history of mental illness; and two of the three had criminal records. And, of course, all three used semiautomatic weapons.
A few weeks later a sixth-grade girl in Idaho shot and wounded two students and a custodian at her middle school. The name and race of the shooter has not been released, and it’s just as well because it doesn’t matter. Knowing her demographics is unhelpful; we already know that females are much less likely than males to engage in gun violence. Most of the social media memes and comments singling out this race or that race as representing mass shooters is not only factually wrong but misses the point. It’s false that most mass shooters are White men. But even if it was true, it wouldn’t matter.
In a previous article (titled “The Futility of Race-Naming Mass Shooters”) I explained that as simplistic and satisfying as it would be, no single demographic emerges from the data as “the typical mass shooter.” It depends entirely on what type of mass shooting you’re looking at, and varies by season and region. In the end, focusing on the race of mass shooters is unhelpful; it is not predictive of who is likely to engage in gun violence.
Singling out any specific race as being dangerous or more violence-prone than others is likely to do more harm than good (and in some cases racist). Unless you’re a criminologist or social scientist it doesn’t really tell you anything useful. It doesn’t help the average person decide who to watch out for, or who to avoid. It doesn’t help police or FBI profilers predict who is a threat. The percentage of mass shooters in any demographic is vanishingly small, and the chances of being killed in a mass shooting is also small.
While race is not a useful or predictive prism through which to understand or identify mass shooters, mental illness is no better and is in many ways a distraction from the deeper issues. As with other mass shooter demographics, there is little insight to be gained by focusing on the mental health history of mass shooters. There are several reasons for this, perhaps most prominently that most mass shooters across all categories do not have a prior history of mental health treatment.
The fact is that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Social justice advocates may feel like they’re doing good by shining a light on the presumed disparate social diagnoses of the roots of violence, but focusing on the role mental illness (whether alone or in contrast to terrorism) plays in mass shootings only further stigmatizes a vulnerable and marginalized group.
America is diverse, and growing more diverse by the day. Predictably, mass shooters reflect that very same diversity. The first step in solving a social problem, especially one as harmful as mass shootings, is understanding its nature and separating fact from fiction. If anything, the public’s focus on the race and mental state of mass shooters distracts from a more obvious commonality: access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Anyone—regardless of race, gender, or mental health status—is a potential threat when they’re armed with assault weapons.
I’m interviewed in a ‘Superstitious Times’ piece on the inability (or unwillingness) of investigators to call out fraud and hoaxing in their own fields: “What’s happened, Radford added, was the democratization of paranormal investigators, in particular those who pursue ghosts. “My genuine concern, whether they recognize it or not, is that the enormous amount of time and effort that is being wasted on not doing good work. My point has always been, just do good research; just improve the quality of work.”
In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange we have everything: Lil Nas X’s Satanic Shoes, a sketchy alkaline water CEO, and geologist Sharon Hill educating us about spooky geology like bottomless pits, the mysterious “Mel’s Hole,” quicksand, and hollow earth theories! Check it out HERE!
My new blog examines some myths about, and ways to address, covid vaccine hesitancy. From concerns about efficacy to the “Dirty Dozen” social media anti-vaxxers, the first step is understanding the problem; the second step is knowing your audience.
As the second April opens under the pall of the pandemic, there are about 129 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly three million deaths. The good news is that vaccines are becoming more available, and nearly three million doses are being distributed each day. So far about 97 million Americans have been vaccinated (including me). Nevertheless, vaccine hesitancy remains. Reasons for this have been explored on this site and elsewhere, but it seemed a good time to take a closer look at what’s driving it.
Some people have been deterred by the varied levels of efficacy across the COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer, for example, is 95 percent effective; Moderna is 94 percent; Oxford/AstraZeneca is 70 percent; J&J is 66 percent, and so on (keep in mind that the data are still being collected, so the rates may change over time). This has led to some thinking that one shot is “better” than another. While it’s obviously true that higher efficacy is better than lower efficacy, that doesn’t tell the full picture. Some vaccines require a second shot, while others need just one dose. If there’s some concern about the availability for the booster shot (the person needs to return three to four weeks later), then the one-shot vaccine may be better. Some vaccines need to be kept in very cold storage and for practical reasons may not be able to be administered in tropical regions, for example.
Fully vaccinated people are going to get infected. That’s what anything less than 100% effective means. The ‘best’ of these are about 95% effective. Which means that, give or take, 1 in 20 may get a mild case if exposed. Note, 95% effective is on par with our most effective vaccines. The measles vaccine is 97% effective. The no-longer available Lyme disease vaccine was 80% effective (and don’t you wish that was still available?). Two doses of the chickenpox vaccine is 90% effective. A full course of the polio vaccine is about 99% effective. The pertussis vaccine is 98% effective after a full course of five doses, but only 73% effective after the first dose, and immunity can wane without boosters. So why don’t we see news stories all the time about fully vaccinated people getting those diseases? Is it because there’s something “better” or more trustworthy about those older vaccines? Is there something “they’re not telling us” about the covid vaccine? No.
Plus, of course, vaccine effectiveness rates are averages, and the real-world protection varies by individual. A person with an otherwise healthy immune system may only need a 75 percent effective vaccine, while someone who is immunocompromised may need a 95 percent effective vaccine. Complicating matters, you don’t know which variants you will be exposed to, and each vaccine conveys different protection against different strains. While there are some differences between the vaccines, the fine distinctions are moot. In the end, the consensus among experts is that anyone should get the first available vaccine. Trying to second-guess your exposure (or holding out for a more effective vaccine) just increases the risk of getting COVID-19—and potentially infecting others.
It’s tempting to respond to vaccine hesitancy with snide and snark, but for those hoping to change hearts and minds a more diplomatic approach is best. Sure, there are some people who are actively and knowingly sharing misinformation about vaccines (including, notably, Russian intelligence–led troll farms and the book-promoting viral video Plandemic, whose claims I and others have debunked). However, many people have genuine concerns, for whatever reason, and the issue is complicated by a plethora of COVID-19 pseudoauthorities.
The problem is not helped by a news and social media context that exaggerates dangers of vaccination. Memes and social media posts constantly highlight the rare, minor, and expected side effects of getting vaccinated, and false (and true-but-misleading) news stories about people who suffered because of the vaccines are shared. Any medical treatment or drug—from a tooth extraction to aspirin—can have potential side effects; that’s not a reason to fear or avoid it. As a National Public Radio report noted:
The odds of dying after getting a COVID-19 vaccine are virtually nonexistent. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re three times more likely to get struck by lightning. But you might not know that from looking at your social media feed. A new NPR analysis finds that articles connecting vaccines and death have been among the most highly engaged with content online this year, going viral in a way that could hinder people’s ability to judge the true risk in getting a shot. … To date, the CDC’s reporting system has not received evidence linking any deaths directly to vaccines. And yet, on almost half of all the days so far in 2021, a story about someone dying after receiving a vaccine shot has been among the most popular vaccine-related articles on social media.
With over half a billion vaccine doses given worldwide, by random chance alone some people will have had reactions, and some of those reactions will be severe (though expected in some small percentage of patients). Highlighting the real-but-rare problems with an otherwise overwhelmingly safe and effective treatment runs a real risk of doing more harm than good. The line between raising awareness and alarmism becomes blurred, especially when activists are involved.
People who are sincerely misinformed need to be provided accurate information to battle the rampant misinformation. Shaming people into getting vaccinated is less effective than promoting the personal, social, and economic benefits of widespread vaccinations. The carrot-and-stick approach has its uses but may backfire when people feel they are being forced into it (whether they in fact are or not). Nobody likes to be told what to do, and that’s especially true for people with an underlying distrust of authority, the government, and Big Pharma.
Another effective approach is to recognize the various demographics of vaccine hesitancy and identify the specific ones. For example, polls show that Republicans and Trump supporters are less likely to be vaccinated than others. By pointing out to them that 1) the vaccines were developed during the Trump administration; 2) Trump personally vouched for their safety and efficacy; and 3) Trump himself received a COVID-19 vaccine, that will lay bare some obvious contradictions and perhaps induce some cognitive dissonance. They may still refuse the vaccine, of course, but they will likely be forced (in their own minds and on social media as well) to recognize the disparity between their professed support for Trump and rejection of “his” vaccines.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit NGO, recently released a report titled The Disinformation Dozen: Why Platforms Must Act on Twelve Leading Online Anti-Vaxxers. As the report notes:
The Disinformation Dozen are twelve anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about Covid vaccines. They were selected because they have large numbers of followers, produce high volumes of anti-vaccine content or have seen rapid growth of their social media accounts in the last two months.
In previous articles for the CFI Coronavirus Resource Center, I have written in some depth about at least two of the “Disinformation Dozen,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Kelly Brogan. The others are Joseph Mercola, Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper, and Kevin Jenkins.
The CCDH analysis found that about three-quarters (up to 73 percent) of the anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook originates with members of the Disinformation Dozen, and they were responsible for 65 percent of the anti-vaccination material on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021. The report urges that social media companies take action:
Social media companies must now follow their repeated promises with concrete action. Updated policies and statements hold little value unless they are strongly and consistently enforced. With the vast majority of harmful content being spread by a select number of accounts, removing those few most dangerous individuals and groups can significantly reduce the amount of disinformation being spread across platforms. The public cannot make informed decisions about their health when they are constantly inundated by disinformation and false content. By removing the source of disinformation, social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can enable individuals to make a truly informed choice about vaccines.
Polls reveal that there’s little difference in levels of vaccine hesitancy between Blacks and Whites. A recent PBS Newshour/Marist Poll found that “73% of Black people and 70% of White people said that they either planned to get a coronavirus vaccine or had done so already; 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get a shot.”
Addressing concerns about vaccine hesitancy among African Americans in a New York Timesopinion piece, pediatrician and public health advocateDr. Rhea Boyd noted that despite the large impact on Black populations and low vaccination rates,
Many are quick to blame “vaccine hesitancy” as the reason, putting the onus on Black Americans to develop better attitudes around vaccination. But this hyper-focus on hesitancy implicitly blames Black communities for their undervaccination, and it obscures opportunities to address the primary barrier to Covid-19 vaccination: access. A closer look at the data reveals that when Black people are given the opportunity, they do get vaccinated.
I explored the intersection of racism and COVID-19 vaccination (or, more accurately, anti-vaccination) agendas in a previous article, “Where Racism, Anti-Vaccination, and COVID-19 Conspiracy Meet.” While it’s true that demonstrable historical mistreatment of minorities plays a role in distrust of medical authorities, Dr. Boyd notes:
Many Black Americans need not resurrect the ghosts of the Tuskegee experiment to recall a moment in which they’ve endured medical mistreatment. As KQED recently reported, researchers say Tuskegee rarely comes up when Black people share concerns about Covid-19 vaccines. Rather, issues like racism in health care and safety concerns are cited much more often.
Thus—at least in the case of COVID-19 vaccines—while latent distrust of doctors is a factor in the African American community, it should not be seen as the main driver of vaccine hesitancy. Public health interventions are best crafted by listeningto the affected populations instead of making assumptions about them or speaking on their behalf—and that’s especially true for underrepresented minorities.
There are other media approaches that might help make a difference. From a public relations and messaging standpoint, one suggestion is that news and social media move away from illustrating COVID-19 vaccinations with images or video of people getting injections—not because it’s misleading or irrelevant but instead because it’s unnecessary and may unintentionally deter people. Most people don’t enjoy getting injections of any kind, and health or strong immunity would be a better image to pair with encouragement about getting vaccinated.
We are not out of the covid pandemic yet, and each person who refuses to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, puts us one step further away from ending this outbreak. Until we have reached herd immunity, the best advice is to get vaccinated and continue wearing masks and social distancing. Yeah, it sucks—but you know what sucks even more? Infecting others and dying from COVID-19—or surviving it with long-term health effects.
During the recent trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, an interesting—and easily overlooked—aspect related to psychology and critical thinking arose.
As MSN reported, “Derek Chauvin defense attorney Eric Nelson on Wednesday suggested in court that George Floyd could be heard saying he ‘ate too many drugs’ in audio recorded during his arrest last year. Nelson made the claim while he was questioning Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Jody Stiger, a use-of-force expert brought in by prosecution, during cross-examination. ‘I’d like you to see if you could tell me what Mr. Floyd says in this instance,’ Nelson said before playing a clip from body camera footage captured of Chauvin restraining Floyd during the May 2020 arrest that preceded his death. It is difficult to discern what is said in the clip. ‘Did you hear what he said?’ Nelson then asked Stiger. ‘No, I couldn’t make it out,’ Stiger responded. ‘Does it sound like he says, I ate too many drugs,’ Nelson asked before again playing the footage. ‘Listen again.’”
What did Floyd really say? It’s likely we will never know. But Nelson’s transparent efforts to prime the jury into hearing that phrase may have harmed the prosecution. That’s because of what in psychology is called an anchoring effect: we tend to more easily remember, and accept, the first explanation or information we hear. If there are two or more competing explanations for something, we tend to “lock on” to the first one and disregard others. That doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t change their minds or update their information, of course—just that in general it’s easier to lodge the first idea in someone’s head than the second or third.
In the Chauvin trial, the damage was somewhat mitigated by other witnesses offering different—and in fact contradictory—interpretations of whatever Floyd said, including “I ain’t do no drugs.” The jury, hopefully recognizing that interpretation is highly subjective and easily manipulated, will be careful not to afford that issue too much weight in their deliberations. Whatever ambiguous comment George Floyd said—in his increasingly oxygen-deprived state under former officer Derek Chauvin’s weight and knee—is less relevant than the sea of other clear evidence about the case.
The question of interpretation of ambiguous stimuli is a core concern in many skeptical investigations, from EVP (alleged “ghost voices”) to UFOs (“What’s that odd light in the sky?”) to Bigfoot and ghost sightings and photos (“What’s that weird thing in the distance?”). I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone present me with a photo, audio, or video recording and express exasperation and incredulity that I was not seeing what was plainly obvious to them.
I diplomatically explained that while their favored interpretation was possible, it was not the only—nor even the most likely—explanation. I try to explain the phenomenon of pareidolia, how people see faces in clouds and meaningful messages in ambiguous sounds. I discuss this at length in my books Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, but it’s often useful to see how these principles apply in real-world situations where the consequences of misinterpretation (or over-interpretation) can be dire.
Ambiguous Audio in George Zimmerman Trial
There are many real-life cases in which the meaning and significance of words have been subjected to intense legal and forensic debate. In everyday life meanings in speech are not always clear. In February of 2012 a Florida neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. During the trial Zimmerman claimed that Martin had attacked him and that he had shot the young man in self-defense; many, however, believed that the shooting was racially motivated. Those calling for civil rights and homicide charges against Zimmerman referred to a 911 recording of a call in which he muttered “these fucking coons.” Or did he?
Other news media and audio forensic experts heard a very different phrase: “these fucking punks.” Did Zimmerman say “punks” or “coons”? The phonetic sounds are quite different (“pǝNGks” versus “kōons”), and most people would have little difficulty telling the words apart. Different experts, however, came to different conclusions. The distinction is very important: one is a general derogatory label that could refer to anyone of any race, and the other is a racial slur referring specifically to black people. How that one word was interpreted could have been key in deciding Zimmerman’s future if presented as evidence to a jury or prosecuted under hate crime laws.
After several weeks and more careful audio analysis, the prosecution concluded that Zimmerman had not in fact uttered the racial epithet; he had in fact said “punks,” just as his defense attorneys had claimed. In explaining why different well-qualified experts had come to contradictory interpretations, Florida state attorney Harry Shorstein “said [prosecutor Angela Corey’s] team probably relied on audio enhancing from the FBI or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Shorstein called such enhancing ‘an indefinite science.’”
Audio analysis is indeed an “indefinite science”—even for experts and professionals; unlike DNA testing, audio analysis has a large measure of subjective interpretation. The more important point is this: If experienced audio experts with the police department and the FBI could not agree on what Zimmerman said in a reasonably clear audio recording (far greater than most EVP), there is little reason to put much faith in the accuracy or validity of interpretations by amateur ghost hunters with no professional training or experience.
Cursing Elmos and Reverse Speech
We do not, of course, routinely misunderstand one another in everyday conversation but it happens more frequently than most people notice. Lecturer (and former educational programs consultant for the James Randi Educational Foundation) Barbara Drescher wrote an insightful piece on this for her site ICSBSEverywhere, using the then-recent controversy over a seemingly foul-mouthed Tickle Me Elmo as an example:
I just caught a report on our local Fox News station about a couple that appeared on Good Morning New York, complaining about Elmo’s potty mouth…Notice that the segment opens with a statement of FACT — the toy has a dirty message — rather than a question about whether this might be true. This is a perfect example of how human perception is influenced by knowledge. Perception driven by expectation and belief is called “top-down” processing, whereas perception that starts with information from the senses is considered “bottom-up.” Most of our daily perception is top-down in nature.
In many of my classes, I demonstrate this by playing music clips backwards. Some claim that these clips have “hidden messages.” Everyone from the Beatles to Queen to Eminem to Britney Spears has been accused of it. An entire website is devoted to the study of what David John Oates calls the greatest discovery of all time: Reverse Speech. He even sells training courses and other products (surprise, surprise). Oates claims that our unconscious is revealing itself through our speech and that these messages can be heard if we listen to recordings of this speech backwards. He spends countless hours listening to audio recordings of politicians, celebrities, and music — listening for anything that sounds like English and documenting it. Sometimes the audio must be slowed down before one can perceive the message.
It’s always important not to over-interpret evidence, of any kind. We all bring our personal experiences, expectations, and assumptions to bear on everything we experience and remember. It’s not inherently good nor bad—it’s just how the human brain works. But the first step to minimizing the problem is recognizing the psychological and social contexts, the prisms through which we interpret and understand the world. And the best way to do that, of course, is through skepticism and critical thinking.
My friend andSquaring the Strangeco-host Celestia Ward recently interviewed the great Richard Wiseman about his new skeptical comic Hocus Pocus for the Adventures in Poor Taste site… check it out HERE!
There’s a lovely review of my new book Big-If True: Adventures in Oddity at AIPTComics: “The perfect book for anyone that loves diving into mysteries or enjoys a good investigation. It’s a very quick read, easily broken up into chapters, or even chunks at a time. Radford writes plainly and clearly; there are a few large concepts, but nothing that really requires a lot of in-depth scientific knowledge. Radford does an excellent job at introducing topics readers may not have heard of before, with all topics and explanations accessible to all readers.”
I often investigate claims about psychic detectives, and last year I researched claims made by psychics in the tragic case of a missing Ohio boy in late 2020. He went missing without a trace, and several psychics gave information about where he was; what did they say and how accurate was it?
A recent episode of Squaring the Strange is about CRANKS, and why they really grind our gears. Sit back for a little history of crankery, with emphasis on notable cranks from decades past–and even a few from right now! Check it out!
The new documentary Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.
What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.)
Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machine, which analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on.
Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog.
In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.
In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Prof. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).
Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries.
Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts.
Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump.
Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.”
Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists.
Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”
According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)
Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).
The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows.
The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on.
Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).
One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019.
Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it.
Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate.
A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE.
I recently had a free-ranging chat with Vito D’Amico (aka The Amazing Vito) on myriad things including the perils of Zoom masturbation, Bigfoot sex, the wanna-be “vampire” roommate of a girl he dated, why ghost beliefs can be harmful, confirmation bias, why real animals are more amazing that imaginary ones, and more. Check it out!
I’m quoted in a new CBC article on the new appearance of an old social media scare, the “knockout game” or “blackout challenge.” You can read it HERE. Non-Francophones can read it using the “Translate” button at the top right, and the rest of you can marvel at my beautiful French pronunciation. Merci!
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I was a recent guest on the Paracast Paranormal Radio show, talking with Gene and Randall about some of the strange cases in my new book Big-If True: Adventures in Oddity. We get into claims about UFO coverups, curses, walking trees, eHarmony, and all sorts of weirdness. Check it out HERE!
I wrote an article investigating the infamous “Women-Only Wonder Woman” screenings in 2017. It was a fascinating hoax that exploited social media and social justice, reaping huge publicity and lawsuits–and an apology from the theater.
The long-delayed, highly-anticipated sequel to the 2017 film Wonder Woman finally hit screens last month. Wonder Woman 1984 opened to decidedly mixed reviews, but it would be hard to live up to its predecessor. The original film was a commercial and critical blockbuster hit, earning over $820 million to date and a 93% Certified Fresh rating on the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. There were many reasons the film did well, including strong performance by Gal Gadot, a solid script, an empowering female-led cast and crew, good special effects, and so on.
Less attention has been paid to the savvy grassroots marketing of the film, which effectively harnessed social media and social justice outrage. A closer look at the situation through the lenses of media literacy and critical thinking reveal a fascinating—and fabricated—story.
The most effective advertising and marketing campaigns are those in which the audience willingly—even enthusiastically—engages with the brand. The vast majority of advertisements are ignored, many are outright mocked and some are vilified. American media consumers, having grown up in a world cluttered with commercial jingles and ads, are largely jaded and cynical.
Technology makes it easier than ever to skip over ads, and many people pay premiums for advertisement-free entertainment services. Spam filters are very efficient at diverting emailed advertisements, and phones are more adept than ever before at blocking advertisements routed by telephone (an estimated 4 to 5 billion robocalls are made each month to people in the United States, with only a tiny percentage of them—annoying as they are—reaching consumers).
But now and then advertisers strike gold, finding ways to make audiences do their work for them, sharing their memorable message on social media in ways that only billions of marketing dollars possibly could. Superbowl halftime ads, for example, generate attention and interest weeks before the event, with news media playing their role in “reporting” on the funny/shocking/cute/edgy ads that “everyone will be talking about around the office watercooler” the next day. Rarely are so many TV viewers so eager to watch television commercials.
The Superbowl only comes once a year, however, and clever marketers have found other ways to use the news media as their platform, seamlessly blending social commentary and advertising. One of the best known examples is the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, which garnered girl-power cred—and some inevitable backlash from feminists—by emphasizing the beauty in “ordinary women.” Its (real or perceived) newsworthiness kept it in the public eye for years.
The wildly popular and much-discussed campaign was produced by Dove/Unilever, a multi-billion dollar brand. Smaller, independent companies who can’t afford such a slick campaign need to be resourceful and find cheap but effective ways to distinguish themselves from competitors; often this means guerrilla and grassroots marketing using stunts or gimmicks to gain news media attention.
Making your brand legitimately newsworthy isn’t easy, but doing so is part of many marketing strategies. Every minute of being mentioned in “news”reports—assuming the coverage is positive or at least neutral, of course—is worth far more than a comparable minute of straight-up traditional advertising or infomercials. Many people skip over, tune out, and ignore commercials, but when a company or brand is mentioned as part of the news, it garners much more active attention.
Sometimes this technique backfires, as happened in 2007 when mysterious devices promoting the Turner Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force show were mistaken for bombs and caused terrorism scares in Boston and other cities. But usually such campaigns make a small blip and then quickly fade away.
One way to give your advertising campaign longevity is to piggyback it onto a topic that people already care about—and, ideally, consider themselves activists for, such as environmentalism or social justice—and let them do your work for you. Instead of creating a demand and then selling your product to fill that demand, demonstrate how your brand aligns with their pre-existing worldview and concerns, and let the social media public promote you.
Which brings us to the Alamo Draft House, a small theater chain founded in Austin, Texas, in 1997. Part of the Alamo’s appeal (and its fame) is its quirky cinemaphile focus. Patrons are not merely discouraged from talking or texting during screenings but have been removed from the theater for doing so! Toddlers are restricted to certain showings, and audience members are often encouraged to participate by dressing up for themed occasions. The chain has 40 theaters across the country, half of them in Texas.
The ‘Clowns Only’ It Screenings
In 2017, and again in 2019, the Alamo held “clowns only” screenings of the horror movie It (parts 1 and 2, respectively) featuring Pennywise the clown. Non-clowns (or at least those not dressed as clowns) were (supposedly) barred from the screenings.
As an Uproxx article noted, “Who needs nightmares when you can be traumatized by creepy-ass clowns in person? The Alamo Drafthouse is celebrating the arrival of the 2017 cinematic take on Stephen King’s It with a clown-only screening of the movie. The Austin location of the theater chain will cater to a clown-specific audience on September 9th with a special screening of It. All attendees are expected to be done up like a clown (I can count the Captain Spauldings already) and can also visit ‘an IT pre-party where we will have face-painters available for clown ‘touch-ups,’ a photo booth, raffles for prizes, and other terrifying merriment.’” A writer for GQ attended the 2019 event and noted that clown attire (such as red noses and funny hats) was available at the door for people who showed up for the screenings without the “required” clown costume.
Headlines universally described the Alamo’s “clowns only” screening—but in fact no “clowns only” policy was enforced; for example the September 9, 2017 “clown-only” screening at the Alamo merely requested that “all attendees should arrive dressed as a clown.” It was just a silly publicity stunt that got the desired national media attention. Few questioned the truth of the advertising claim or the news media’s reporting of it; after all, it’s not as if any non-clowns were upset at being excluded. A few years earlier, however, it had been an entirely different situation.
The ‘Women Only’ Wonder Woman Screenings
When it came to scaring up controversy, Pennywise had nothing on Wonder Woman. As successful as the “clowns only” screening was, the Alamo had been more successful at courting publicity and headlines in 2017 by advertising an all-female screening of Wonder Woman; not only would female patrons be the only ones be admitted according to advertising, but “Everyone working at this screening—venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team—will be female.”
Given the Alamo’s well-known strict intolerance regarding violating theater etiquette and policies, the idea that it would hold female-only screenings sounded perfectly plausible. Most people took it seriously, and misunderstood what was going on. Dozens of journalists jumped on the bandwagon, smelling a great story.
When the screenings were announced, they were greeted with widespread approval. The first screening sold out in hours, and additional screenings were slated. The stunt worked perfectly, generating controversy and sympathetic news headlines while scoring female empowerment points and endearing the theater chain to legions of fans. A handful of people complained, sparking a predictable backlash of outrage that garnered the theater millions of dollars in further free publicity.
As it turned out, however, the Alamo was joking; paying male patrons were not refused entry to any “all-female” Wonder Woman screenings. It was a clever response by Alamo, anticipating and exploiting an equally predictable social media “outrage.”
The Alamo expertly manipulated social justice activists by creating a marketing narrative in which they were the heroes, bravely battling censorship and standing up for women’s safe spaces, “girl power,” and feminism. Activists and journalists didn’t get the joke, and the Alamo laughed all the way to the bank (at least at first). In their rush to generate clickbait headlines about a company providing women refuge from our society’s rampant misogyny the news media got it wrong—not once but twice. Not only did the news and social media misunderstand whether the “women only” screenings had actually occurred, but they also misunderstood who was complaining about it and why.
Was There a Women-Only Wonder Woman Screening?
As with the “clowns only” It screenings—which encouraged clowns but did not prohibit non-clowns from attending—the “women only” Wonder Woman screening encouraged women (more specifically, “people who identify as women,” presumably signaling Alamo’s nonbinary inclusiveness) to attend but didn’t actually prohibit non-women from attending.
Not only were men not denied entry to Wonder Woman, but the stunt backfired when two complaints were made about the screenings. These complaints added fuel to the fire and amplified the narrative that imagined hordes of misogynists were throwing petulant tantrums about not being allowed to see that specific screening. The Alamo enjoyed a second wave of publicity, this one greater than the first.
Amid all the hand-waving, self-righteousness, and troll-baiting, a little detail was lost: the screenings were in fact illegal. Even though no enforced “women-only” Wonder Woman screenings took place, the Alamo’s advertisements that there would be violated the law. Austin equality codes prohibit any public accommodation (restaurants, movie theaters, bars, community centers, etc.) from limiting their services based on a variety of factors including race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.
Many news reports simply stated that “some men” were upset at the women-only screenings. Few, however, bothered to take a closer look at who, exactly, those “some men” were, and what specifically their complaints were. Journalists accepted the most obvious answer—and took at face value the seemingly self-evident assumption that tone-deaf misogynists were the ones making a fuss. Many journalists didn’t bother to survey the social media responses beyond simply offering screen captures of various tweets, a process guaranteed to highlight the most extreme voices and thereby exaggerate the controversy (New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg hyperbolically referred to the incident as “causing an international uproar” in his June 5, 2017, article; the Times did not respond to a request for clarification).
To be sure, there were plenty of tweets to choose from, and in a social media world where even innocuous cat videos can generate controversy—never mind “debates” about the color of a dress or which way toilet paper should correctly unspool—it wasn’t hard to sift out some obnoxious responses.
The mayor of Austin, for example, received a bizarre, ranting email from a Richard A. Ameduri who wrote in part, “I hope every man will boycott Austin and do what he can to diminish Austin and to cause damage to the city’s image. The theater that pandered to the sexism typical of women will, I hope, regret its decision.” The mayor gamely counter-trolled: “I am writing to alert you that your email account has been hacked by an unfortunate and unusually hostile individual. Please remedy your account’s security right away, lest this person’s uninformed and sexist rantings give you a bad name. After all, we men have to look out for each other! . . . You and I are serious men of substance with little time for the delicate sensitivities displayed by the pitiful creature who maligned your good name and sterling character by writing that abysmal email. I trust the news that your email account has been hacked does not cause you undue alarm and wish you well in securing your account.”
The rant was widely and rightly mocked, and, with Ameduri quickly and spectacularly shot down in flames, another man soon became the new face of the seemingly misogynistic anti-Wonder Woman crusade. Unlike the noisy, mostly-anonymous online trolls and Ameduri, he took it to a whole new level and actually filed a formal complaint with the city of Austin. The Alamo’s many supporters on social media greeted the news with a mix of outrage and mockery.
Who was this angry incel, this misogynist who couldn’t stand to let women have their own screening? It was a law professor in Albany, New York, named Stephen Clark. As Salon noted, Clark “explained that the promotion of the screenings didn’t sit well with him. ‘I’m a specialist in anti-discrimination law, so I was fairly certain that this was not lawful,’ he told MyStatesman. ‘If they were trying to do a gay-only Brokeback Mountain, I would feel the same way.’” (Salon writer Alessandra Maldonado, like the Alamo, denigrated Clark’s defense of anti-discrimination laws as “whining.”)
Peter Holley profiled the chief complainant for The Washington Post: “Stephen Clark almost let it slide. The theater was 2,000 miles away in Austin, and there was no chance he was going to show up there to see a movie anyway. As a gay man who considers himself sensitive to historically disadvantaged groups, there was even a part of him that saw the value of a celebratory, women-only screening of Wonder Woman. But Clark… changed his mind when he looked up Alamo Drafthouse’s Facebook page and began reading the heated exchanges between the theater’s management and the frustrated men calling the venue’s women-only events ‘discriminatory.’”
The Alamo’s snarky tone on social media in response to (what turned out to be legitimate) complaints was another calculated effort to endear itself to audiences. Alamo fueled the flames of controversy by characterizing the complaints as completely baseless, misogynistic, and malicious. Morgan Hendrix, Alamo creative manager, said that the fact that the event “has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right.” Clark found that attitude “brazen” and dismissive: “I understand the reason for creating a women-only event, but the equality principle is fundamental…. There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women’s empowerment. There are women in Austin who would like to go to this event with their gay best friend, and they can’t under this rule.”
The Washington Post added, “He alleged that the Drafthouse’s women-only event—as it was described in the theater’s advertising—discriminated against male customers based on their gender. Citing the theater’s promise to staff only women at the events, Clark also alleged that the Drafthouse was illegally engaging in employment discrimination. ‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ he told the Post, ‘I’m a gay man, and I’ve studied and taught gay rights for years. Our gay bars have long said that you do not exclude people because they’re gay or straight or transgender—you just can’t do that for any reason . . . . We have to deal with the bachelorette parties that come to the gay bar,’ he added. ‘They’re terribly disruptive, but if you forbid women from coming to a gay bar, you’re starting down a slippery slope. It’s discrimination.’”
It was of course too late for the Alamo to publicly admit that the women-only screenings were a prank, something they never really planned to enforce; they had legions of fans defending them and encouraging them on social media. It’s not clear when they realized that their actions may have been illegal, but at any rate the theater chain decided to double down. While (justifiably) flipping the bird at the (seeming) hordes of cranky basement-dwelling misogynist manbabies online who apparently couldn’t bear women having their own screenings, they also did the same to advocates who had no problem with women—but had a very real problem with gender discrimination. That would be their undoing.
Stacy Hawkins, an associate professor of law at Rutgers University who specializes in employment law, civil rights and diversity, agreed with Clark, explaining to The Washington Post that “As far as public accommodations are concerned, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the reason this case was filed under the Austin city code is that it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.” Hawkins noted that “the entire controversy could have been avoided with a simple tweak in the theater’s advertising. ‘Just eliminate ‘no men welcome’ language,’ she said. ‘You try to make sure you demonstrate this is an event for and about women and, most likely, men aren’t going to show up.’” It’s classic human behavior: Tell people they can’t do something, and suddenly they want to do it—just to prove a point, not because they necessarily care a whit about it. The Alamo understood this bit of psychology and deftly used it to its advantage.
A second complaint, from an Austin resident named Mingfey Fan, also argued that “the very act of advertising violated the Code . . . the discriminatory screening should not be allowed.” Fan withdrew the complaint after the Alamo addressed his complaint with respect instead of mockery, admitted it had in fact violated the law, and sent him a DVD of the film.
Once lawyers got involved, after profits had been made and publicity garnered, the Alamo decided to come clean. First it admitted that the women-only Wonder Woman screenings were a prank, something they had led people to believe they would do, but never actually did, and had in fact never planned to do: As the Dallas News reported, “The chain’s director of real estate and development, Missy Reynolds, said . . . that the theaters would not, in fact, have turned away any men who bought tickets to the screening.”
In a letter to the city, the Alamo apologized for the screenings and admitted they had made mistakes, violating Austin’s anti-discrimination laws. It read in part, “Respondent did not realize that advertising a ‘women’s-only’ screening was a violation of discrimination laws. . . . Respondent has a very strict non-discrimination policy in place, but this policy did NOT include a specific prohibition against advertising.”
The Alamo agreed to revise its anti-discrimination policy to comply with local ordinances, and the matter was done. When the dust had settled (and after outrage profits were reaped), with hindsight it’s clear that the imagined hordes of angry men pounding on the Alamo theater’s doors demanding to be let in to see Wonder Woman never existed except as virtual boogeymen in the skewed online world, where public perception often veers markedly from reality. The myth wasn’t created by accident or coincidence, but instead was a golem cobbled together from scraps of advertising gimmickry, social narrative, clickbait outrage, and superficial journalism.
The idea of the “clowns only” It screenings—like that of the “women only” Wonder Woman screenings—was a misleading media myth that the Alamo had no reason to correct and every incentive to promote. When a priceless publicity stunt works, you stick with it. While some may feel that the Alamo profiting from social justice was crass, others marvel at the genius of its marketing stunts.
Social Justice-Driven Box Office
Other films in recent years have also generated free publicity (and millions of dollars) by casting themselves as somehow oppressed, or outsiders battling the status quo. Perhaps the best known example is the 2014 film The Interview, which sparked controversy when its studio, Sony Pictures, was warned not to release it—presumably at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who in the film is not only mocked but also the target of an assassination plot. Apparently giving in to censorious threats, Sony reportedly cancelled all plans to screen The Interview, on the premise that it was better that no one saw the film than anyone be injured or killed by a terrorist act at one of the screenings. This in turn led to an outpouring of public support, with moviegoers proudly announcing their determination to see the film (sometimes repeatedly), in an explicit effort to spite Kim Jong Un. Sony came under fire for caving in to terrorist threats by scuttling the film.
However, as in the Alamo screenings, Sony’s critics were acting on—and reacting to—misinformation. As The New York Times noted, Sony never planned a total blackout of the film, as had been widely reported. They had left the choice of whether or not the screen the film to theater owners—who had chosen not to. (For more on this, see my January 7, 2015 article “Censorship and Free Speech: Did Sony Really Cancel The Interview?”)
The internet being what it is, just about any news story will inevitably bring out some contrarians and trolls. This is especially true for controversial topics such as gender, race, religion, gun control, and so on. Faux outrage, marketing stunts, and manufactroversies are nothing new, of course. But they can have real consequences when people don’t see through the deception. Tens of millions of Americans, for example, likely remember a fictional widespread misogynistic outrage at an independent theater that dared to hold Wonder Woman screenings just for women.
As is always the case, the initial outrage got widespread publicity while the second half of the story—including the fact that the Alamo admitted that its women-only Wonder Woman screening had been a hoax (and publicity stunt)—got very little attention. There are plenty of real-world, legitimate examples of widespread sexism, but the reaction to the “women only” Wonder Woman publicity stunt was not among them. Skepticism, critical thinking, and media literacy are the best defenses against being manipulated by the media.
A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
In the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we discuss the Capitol rioters, then debunk many vaccine fears including about Andrew Wakefield’s bogus MMR-autism link study and myths about Covid vaccine harms. Check it out HERE!
In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel) and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).
Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that–despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary–the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa.”)
I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even “a distraction tactic.”
One person wrote, “I actually can’t believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It’s not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist.” Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump’s election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.
The ‘Distraction’ Tactic
One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was “a distraction tactic–now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.” I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, “Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.’ I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.’” No one–and certainly not me–was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was “only” ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.
But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration–period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?
Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error–not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”
I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions–and indeed the entire issue–as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”
Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election.” Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists’ questions as distractions as well.
This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.
There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what’s really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.
Importance of Due Diligence
A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.
According to the Post, “In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings’ that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.”
The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, “explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story.” Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips’s account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore–in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore’s accusers–but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don’t question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they’re being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.
Had The Washington Post not questioned the story–or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips’s claims was some sort of “distraction” tactic–the paper’s credibility would have been damaged when Phillips’s false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post’s failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women’s accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post‘s executive editor, said that the false accusations were “the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.”
There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn’t making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn’t have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn’t issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.
The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened–and for that I was told that I was causing a “distraction” and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.
It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. “The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.”
To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim–any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories–I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.
But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.
The problem is when the person does encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.
Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?
My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media–especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet– should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”
The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth–and the truth matters.
A longer version of this story appeared on the Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.
Back before the pandemic, amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.
It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”
The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.
However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.”
Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.
There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.
At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”
This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.
While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.
The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.
A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.
The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.
Unpacking the Reporting
I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.
Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.
Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.
“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.
“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.
When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.
“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.
In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).
In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.
The Good News
Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.
Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”
This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.
In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.
I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.
A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.