Dec 122019
 

Celestia and I are especially pleased with a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, in which we spoke to Leo Igwe, the tireless skeptic, humanist, and human rights advocate in Nigeria. His work on behalf of people persecuted as witches in sub-Saharan Africa is both daunting and vitally important. Skepticism and critical thinking can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.  

Please check it out, you can listen HERE. 

Dec 072019
 

The issue of racism in Canada was recently brought into sharp focus when, shortly before the Canadian election, photos and videos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface emerged. They had been taken on at least three occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Trudeau—widely praised for his socially progressive agendas—quickly apologized and promised to do better. 

Trudeau’s repeated use of blackface (and his subsequent re-election despite public knowledge of it) angered many and left Canadians wondering just how common racism is in their country. Veteran hockey commentator Don Cherry was recently fired by Sportsnet following contentious comments about immigrants. The broadcaster issued a statement that “Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided that it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.” 

Americans—and the Trump administration specifically—are often characterized as inherently racist; New York Times writer Brent Staples, for example, wrote on Twitter (on January 12, 2018) that “Racism and xenophobia are as American as apple pie.” Whether racism and xenophobia are as Canadian as poutine is of course another question. Earlier this year, on May 21, 2019, Canadian news organization Global News reported on a survey that seemed to shed light on that question. The article was titled “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal: Ipsos poll.” 

The article began, “Almost half of Canadians will admit to having racist thoughts, and more feel comfortable expressing them today than in years past, a new Ipsos poll reveals … The poll, conducted exclusively for Global News, found that 47 per cent of respondents thought racism was a serious problem in the country, down from 69 per cent in 1992. More than three-quarters of respondents said they were not racist, but many acknowledged having racist thoughts they did not share with others. (All of the Ipsos poll data is available online.) ‘We found that (almost) 50 per cent of Canadians believe it’s OK and actually normal to have racist thoughts,’ said Sean Simpson, vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs.” 

Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article  “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); and even whether or not the public believes that Native Americans exist, something about that headline struck me as off. I didn’t necessarily doubt the statistic—racism is a serious problem in Canada, America, and elsewhere—but my journalistic skeptical sense urged a closer look. The poll was conducted between April 8 and 10, 2019, sampling 1,002 Canadian adults and had a margin of error of ±3.5 percent. 

I clicked through the link to the original poll by the Ipsos organization. Their About Us page explains that “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater. At Ipsos we believe our clients need more than a data supplier, they need a partner who can produce accurate and relevant information and turn it into actionable truth.” 

The Ipsos page referencing the poll displayed a large headline “Nearly half (47%) of Canadians think racism is a serious problem in Canada today, down 22 points since 1992 (69%).” Just below this, in much smaller size, was the line “Even so, almost half (49%) admit to having racist thoughts.” 

That seemed to provide a clue, as of course 49 percent may be the “nearly half” referred to in the Global News headline, but I noticed that the wording had changed: The headline stated that about half of “Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—not that half of Canadians say they have racist thoughts. Just because you acknowledge having a racist thought does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder (a 2018 survey in Japan found that more than one in four Japanese workers admitted that the thought of killing their boss had crossed their mind on at least one occasion). 

But I know that sometimes headlines are misleading, and I assumed that the statistic was contained in the poll. Many people of course don’t read past the headline; of those who do read the full article, very few will bother to click on the link to the polling organization’s data page; even fewer will actually open the original report; of those who do, most will read only the executive summary or highlights section. Vanishingly few people—if anyone—will read the full report. 

This is understandable, as audiences naturally assume that a journalist, news organization, or pollster is accurately reporting the results of a poll or survey. If a news headline says that 40 percent of hockey fans drink beer during games or 85 percent of airplane pilots have college degrees, we assume that’s what the survey or research found. As I discuss in my media literacy book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, that’s not always the case. 

Like a game of Telephone, each step away from the original findings may change (usually toward simplifying and/or sensationalizing) that information. Whether intentionally or accidentally, errors can creep in every time the data are explained, summarized, or “clarified.” Usually these changes are minor and go unnoticed, because of course a person would have to check the original report to catch any discrepancies. But now and then another journalist, pedant, or researcher will take the time to check and see that something’s amiss.

Because the poll is available online, I read through it. There were many questions about many facets of racism among the Canadian respondents, but I found no reference whatsoever to the statistic mentioned in the headline. I checked again and still found nothing. 

I reached out to the author of the piece, Global News Senior National Online Journalist Josh K. Elliott, and the author of the report, Sean Simpson, the Ipsos vice-president of public affairs, asking for clarifications, including which specific question item was referred to in the article. 

I wrote, in part:

I read through the original Ipsos report but was unable to find the poll results you referenced in the headline, and that Sean Simpson references in your quote. I did a document search for the specific term used, “normal,” assuming that it would appear in the survey question. I found three matches, on pages 3, 19, and 20, but in none of the cases was I able to find results suggesting that “nearly 50% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal.”

I have been unable to find that data anywhere in the Ipsos report. The closest I could find was the statistic that half of Canadians say they sometimes have racist thoughts (Question 7). But of course just because you acknowledge having racist thoughts does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder. Question wording is of course critically important in interpreting polls and surveys, and I’m concerned that “having racist thought” was mistakenly mistranslated to “think it’s normal to have racist thought” in your piece. If that statistic appears in the Ipsos report cited, please direct me to it, either by question or page number. If that statistic does not appear in the report, please clarify where it came from. Thank you.  

After repeated inquiries, I was informed that Mr. Elliott no longer worked at that desk, but I got a response from Drew Hasselback, a copy editor at GlobalNews (and, eventually, a cursory and seemingly reluctant reply from Mr. Simpson).

I was directed to four questions that they said were used as the basis for the headline. I looked again at each of them.

• The first, Question 7.6, asks “To what extent do you agree or disagree that racism is a terrible thing?” In response, nearly nine in ten (88 percent) of Canadians agree that racism is terrible. It didn’t speak to whether Canadians think racist thoughts are normal, but if anything seemed to contradict the claim. 

• The second, Question 7.5, asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following: I can confidently say that I am not racist.” Of those polled, over three quarters (78 percent) agree that they can confidently say they’re not racist. Again, this hardly suggests that racism is considered normal among the respondents, and it contradicts the reporting and the headline associated with it.

Frankly, I’m surprised the number is that high. Why might a minority of otherwise non-racist Canadians not be able to “confidently” say that they are not racist? In part because there is a presumption that everyone is racist, whether they realize it or not. This is a widely held view among many, especially progressives and liberals (it’s so common in fact that it serves as the basis for Question 7 in the poll). In other words, even if they sincerely and truly don’t consider themselves racist and have no racist thoughts ever, they would be reluctant to go so far as to state categorically and confidently to others that they are not at all racist. (You see the same issue with polls asking women if they would use the word beautiful to describe themselves; very few do, though they will call themselves prettyattractive, etc. Doing so is seen as vain, just as stating “I’m confident I’m not racist” would be considered by many to be boasting or virtue signaling.)

• The third was Question 7.3, which asks to what extent people agree or disagree with the statement, “While I sometimes think racist thoughts, I wouldn’t talk about them in public.” This, once again, does not support the news headline. It is vitally important when interpreting polls and surveys to parse out the precise question asked. Note that it is a compound question framed in a very specific way (asking about whether one would express a thought in public); the question was not “Do you sometimes think racist thoughts?” But even if it were, you cannot generalize “people sometimes do X” to “it’s normal for people to do X.” Merriam-Webster, for example, defines normal as “average” or “a widespread or usual practice.” Thus, a poll or survey question trying to capture the incidence of a normal behavior or event would use the word usually instead of sometimes

• Finally, we came Question 7.1, the only question that specifically uses the word normal and asks if Canadians agree that “It’s perfectly normal to be prejudiced against people of other races.” 

As I noted, this question and its response do not accurately capture the question of whether or not “X% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal” (as the Global News headline reads), but even if it did, we find that the headline is still wrong. From this statistic alone, the correct headline would be “22% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—which is less than half the number reported in the headline. About one in five whites and one in three minorities said that it’s normal to be prejudiced against people of other races, as did one in four men and one in five women. Instead of nearly half of Canadians thinking racism is normal, nearly 70 percent of Canadians disagreed that racial prejudice is normal

The Ipsos poll itself seems well-researched, sound, and contains important information. Unfortunately, its conclusions got mangled along the way. The question is not whether specific Canadians (such as Trudeau or Cherry) are racist but instead whether or not those views are widely held; it’s the difference between anecdote and data. Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. And, when possible, read the original research data. News reports, such as the one I’ve focused on here, leave the false impression that racism is more widespread and socially acceptable than it really is. Racism is a serious issue, and understanding its nature is vital to stemming it; indeed, as Iposos notes, “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater.” 

 

 

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! 

This article has been adapted from my Center for Inquiry blog, available HERE. 

Dec 042019
 

Last month a Maine man made national news for finding tampered Halloween candy. He posted on social media that he found a needle in candy his son had bitten into. Police investigated and found he lied, hoaxing the whole thing (probably for attention).

He’s now been charged according to news reports

 

 

 

 

Dec 022019
 

When families of missing people are desperate they often listen to psychics.

Here’s a new article on the topic: 

“The psychic, Juanita Szafranski, led a search effort focused on a five-mile area surrounding the East Rock neighborhood. Peter Recchia, 59, went missing seven weeks ago, and was last seen in the area where Szafranski led the search. Szafranski says she got a strong feeling Peter, who suffers from mental illness, may no longer be alive, and she gave police specific areas to search in the coming days.”

I hope her information is accurate (it’s obvious to search near where he was last seen), but psychic detective success rates are at chance levels. I’ll keep tabs on this case to see what comes of it. I’ve previously followed real-time searches for missing persons, such as in the Holly Bobo case; we discussed it on a recent episode of Squaring the Strange

 

 

Nov 282019
 

I’m quoted in a new article by Rob Lea on Medium about why people see faces in everything from ghost photos to clouds to photos of the galaxy…

A collision of two galaxies of equal size 704-million-light-years from Earth has created what appears to be a ghostly visage staring through the cosmos. But, why do humans see images such as this in random data?

The haunting image of the collision that created the Arp-Madore system was captured on 19th June 2019 by the NASA/ESO operated Hubble Space Telescope.

Galactic collisions are quite common throughout the Universe — but the collision that formed Arp-Madore and its skull-like appearance is somewhat more unique. The collision in the question here was a head-on impact — if you’ll excuse the pun.

It was this violent collision that gave the system in question its striking face-like ring structure. The impact between the two galaxies also stretched the galaxies’ respective discs of gas, dust and stars outwards forming an area of intense star-formation that gives our phantom face its ‘nose,’ ‘jaws’ and other ‘facial features.’

Our phantom’s ‘eyes’ are also evidence of a rare occurrence. This glowing and penetrating stare is formed by the central bulges of the respective galaxies. The fact that they are of roughly the same size implies to astronomers that the two colliding galaxies were also of similar sizes.

You can read the rest HERE!

 

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! 

Nov 232019
 

In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange we look back at pop culture aspects of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s, including Dungeons & Dragons, Geraldo Rivera, heavy metal, “Satanic Yoda,” and how technology influenced the panic…You can find it HERE. 

Nov 202019
 

I’m quoted in a news article from Alabama.com about the Scary Clown Panic of 2016, and an Alabama woman sentenced to 10 years (later reduced to probation) for dressing as a clown and threatening to attack a school… It’s a very good overview of the topic, and a good follow-up story.

You can read it HERE. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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! 

Oct 302019
 

Halloween is coming up soon, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm on children October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats.

But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday

1) Halloween is Satanic

While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent.

Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book “Halloween and Satanism,” explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children’s spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena–and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it’s not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about–they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books.

Historically, however, there is little or no actual connection between Satanism and Halloween; for one thing the early pagan traditions that many scholars believe became part of what we now call Halloween had no concept of Devil. The idea of a Christian Satan developed much later, and therefore Halloween could not have been rooted in Satanism.

2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy

The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country,including in Harrisburg, Penn., are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween.

This threat is essentially an urban legend. There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, “original” case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime.

Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years-and in most cases the “victim” turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. Last year there were a few news reports about suspected tainted candy, and police determined that the incidents were hoaxes. In Philadelphia an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy admitted they made up the story for attention, and a 37-year-old father claimed to have found tainted candy in his kids’ loot; he later admitted it was a hoax and claimed that he put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety.

Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers.

3) Beware Halloween Terrorists

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America’s children, and the FBI looked into the case.Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of ‘large quantities’ of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey. A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man’s nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism.

4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween

Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session.

The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating.

A 2009 study confirmed that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.”

5) Beware Scary Clowns

In the wake of the scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target have removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents are asking children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties have banned scary clown costumes and masks this Halloween. As one writer noted, “A Kemper County, Mississippi’s Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban –which will expire the day after Halloween –comes at the request of the county sheriff… It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches.”

Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as “USA Today” reported, “The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks.”

Fortunately so far there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks over the past few months. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media.

Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids.  The real threats to children don’t involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can’t see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.

 

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! 

Oct 182019
 

Earlier this year a West Virginia mother called 911 to report that an Arab man tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall. Police and mall security arrested the man (an engineer from Egypt who spoke little English), but surveillance footage showed no abduction attempt, nor even any interaction between the man and the girl. The mother was arrested for making a false report, and her trial date has now been set.

You can read my original article on it below and HERE. 

Social and news media have unfortunately seen a rise in two distinct toxic phenomena over the past year or so.

The first is a steady stream of white women calling police on minorities minding their own business in public spaces, in dozens of cases including a Starbucks, a public park, swimming pools, streetcorners, and the common area of university housing.

The second is a series of false rumors of child abductions, both across the United States and around the world; for more on this see my piece “Social Media-Fueled Child Abduction Rumors Lead to Killings” in the January/February 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

For example in June 2018, Joshua Hatley, a Kansas man, posted a message on Facebook with information claiming a black woman attempted to abduct his child at a local Walmart. Police first heard about the incident not from the panicked mother or father but instead from concerned citizens who shared the urgent warning on Facebook over 11,000 times and wanting to know if their children were also in danger. Police investigated the attempted abduction and reviewed the store’s surveillance camera footage but were unable to find any attempted abduction at all. Detectives showed the footage to Hatley, who eventually admitted that he hadn’t personally witnessed the incident—that it was reported to him by his sister-in-law. As more and more questions arose, police became concerned about the woman photographed and publicly accused on social media of trying to abduct a child. For more on this see my blog on the topic. 

Another recent incident with lessons about eyewitness testimony, social media rumor, and racial bias has surfaced. Santana Renee Adams, 24, a mother in Barboursville, West Virginia, called 911 to report that an Egyptian man tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall.

According to a news story,

“WSAZ reported that 54-year-old Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan, of Alexandria, Egypt, tried to grab the young girl by her hair while at an Old Navy store inside the mall at around 6 pm on Monday. The girl ‘dropped to the floor with the male still pulling her away,’ prompting the child’s mother to pull out a handgun and warning Zayan to let her daughter go. Zayan subsequently let go of the girl and ran out of the store into the mall. The Barboursville Police, who were called to the scene following the incident, said that a short time later, deputies and mall security spotted the 54-year-old walking near the food court area in the mall. After the mother confirmed that he was the man who tried to nab her daughter, the deputies moved in and arrested him.”

 

Police, however, could find no witnesses to the incident, and there were inconsistencies in Adams’s statements about the incident when they interviewed her a second time. After being confronted by police with inconsistencies, Adams conceded that what she interpreted as an attempted abduction may in fact have simply been a cultural misunderstanding… He had maybe simply touched her daughter on the head—instead of grabbing it and throwing her to the floor as she’d described—in a display that, while inappropriate, was neither an assault or an attempt at an abduction.

However that, too, was a lie. Zayan’s attorney, Michelle Protzman, reviewed security footage obtained from Old Navy and found “absolutely no evidence that Zayan touched the girl.” In fact Zayan and the girl weren’t even near each other in the store—and furthermore the mother was not seen pulling out a gun, as she’d claimed. Video surveillance showed Adams and Zayan walking out of the store, calmly and seemingly unperturbed, about half a minute apart and walking in opposite directions. Soon after that, however, Adams apparently—and retroactively—decided that the foreign man had (a few minutes earlier) tried to abduct her daughter, and called police.

The accused man is an engineer employed at a local construction job and speaks little English. After Zayan’s mug shot and the accusations against him were shared widely on news and social media, the charges were eventually dropped. “Instead of caring about facts and caring about evidence and the truth, I think the court of public opinion and social media don’t care about innocent until proven guilty and everyone jumps right on as soon as somebody makes an accusation,” Protzman said.

So we have an innocent Muslim man who never even touched the girl being falsely accused of an attempted kidnapping by the girl’s mother. Why would anyone—especially a mother—make up a false accusation of attempted abduction against a total stranger?

It’s not clear; the motivation could be racism, a misunderstanding caused by drugs or mental illness, or maybe just a desire to get attention and sympathy by casting herself as a heroic mom bravely brandishing a gun in defending her child from a stranger abduction (on social media she was hailed as a hero and as an example of why guns are needed when in public).

Whatever the motivation, last week Adams was arrested for filing a false report, a misdemeanor. Most people who make false accusations are not charged; of those who are charged, most are dismissed (the Jussie Smollett case being a recent example); and of those that are not dismissed, the penalties are usually very light, such as a fine or probation.

Though false accusations (of all crimes) are rare, they are especially egregious when they are used as a weapon against minorities, and a measure of skepticism is always important when facts don’t add up.

 

Oct 082019
 

We’ve all seen it on social media, especially Facebook. Some friend, or “friend,” or friend of a “friend,” posts a news story. Because it’s social media, the story is often selected (by human nature and algorithms) for its outrage factor. Amid the kitten videos and funny or cute memes, the news stories most likely to be shared are those that push people’s buttons—sometimes good news but more often bad news, tragedies, disasters, and the obligatory political outrage du jour. 

You read the headline and may Like or Share, but in the back of your head the news story may seem vaguely familiar … didn’t that happen years ago? In a world of twenty-four-hour news, it’s hard to remember, and on some level a lot of the stories sound (or are) basically the same: Someone killed someone in a gruesome way or because of some toxic motive. Trump said something that provoked (real or feigned) outrage. Some country implemented some new law affecting minorities. And so on. Even if it happened before, it must have happened again. 

Not long ago you could be reasonably certain that news was in fact news—that is, it happened recently and was “new.” But one of the consequences of getting news filtered via social media (as more and more people do) is that news organizations are further and further removed from their audiences. On television, in newspapers, or on news websites, the information is direct; you’re reading what a journalist (who presumably has some credibility to maintain) has to say about some given topic. News editors as a rule value breaking news, not old news. Unless it’s a special case (such as an anniversary of some significant event) or a retrospective, old news very rarely appears on broadcasts or on reputable news sites except in clearly-designated archives. 

On social media, of course, news is filtered through our peers and friends. Often it’s legitimate “new news,” but increasingly it’s old news misrepresented, mistaken for, or disguised as new news. This is a media literacy challenge, because old news is often fake news and shared by well-meaning people. News sharing on social media is less about the content of that story than it is about symbolic endorsement, or what’s been called virtue signaling. Liking or Sharing a news story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve read it—much less understand it or can intelligently discuss it—but instead it’s often used as a visual badge representing your social and political views. If you’re concerned about environmentalism, social justice, immigration, politics, or anything else you can remind everyone where you stand on the issue. It’s sort of like bumper stickers on the information superhighway.

The Epistemology of Fake News

To understand why old news is often fake news, let’s take a brief look at epistemology, or the nature of knowledge. All of science is subject to revision and further information; new studies and research may always throw “facts” into the “former facts” category.

Science does not deal in absolute certainties, and it is possible—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that smoking does not cause lung cancer, for example, and that humans are not contributing to global warming. Decades of research have established a clear causative link between these variables (smoking and lung cancer, human activity and global warming), but they are not 100 percent definitive; nothing in science ever is. 

Facts are only true at a certain time and under a certain set of circumstances. But the world is constantly changing, in ways both miniscule and dramatic, thus a fact about the world is accurate as of that time. It was once a fact that there were forty-eight states in the United States, but that no longer a fact; there are now fifty (including commonwealths). It was once a fact that the capital of the African state of Rhodesia is Salisbury; but Rhodesia no longer exists, and therefore that fact is a former fact, or more accurately the fact has been slightly changed to maintain its accuracy: “The capital of Rhodesia was Salisbury” remains a true fact. 

The point is not to revel in pedantry—though I’ve been accused of doing as much—but instead to note that many facts that we have incorporated into our knowledge base have changed and may no longer be true. That Texas is south of Canada has been true my entire life, but that my friend Amy is unmarried has not (she got married a few years ago). There are countless other examples, and they show why “is” and “was” are important distinctions, especially when it comes to news stories. Rehashing old news as new blurs the line between the two, sowing unnecessary confusion about what is true and what was true at one point (but may no longer be). 

This does not at all suggest that facts are subjective, of course, or that each person (or political party) is entitled to their own facts. But keeping in mind the important caveat that many people don’t read past the headline of a given news story, we see that recycling headlines makes misleading people likely. People don’t constantly update their knowledge about the world unless they have to, and thus typically rely on old (often outdated) information. 

Samuel Arbesman discusses this issue at length in his 2012 book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He notes that “Ultimately the reason errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact … . Bad information can spread fast. And a first-mover advantage in information often has a pernicious effect. Whatever fact first appears … whether true or not, is very difficult to dislodge … . It’s like trying to gather dandelion seeds once they have been blown to the wind.” The best way to stop the spread of misinformation is Skepticism 101. “There is a simple remedy: Be critical before spreading information and examine it to see what is true. Too often not knowing where one’s facts came from and whether it is well-founded at all is the source of an error. We often just take things on faith.”

We all know that recycling is good in the context of natural resources, for example. Good ideas can be recycled, because, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and what works (or doesn’t) at one point in time, in a specific set of circumstances, may work (or fail) at another time under a different set of circumstances. At one point, for example, developments for electric cars were prematurely proclaimed dead (as seen in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?) but today is a growing business. News stories are a different beast. 

Recycling Bad News

The news media go out of their way to emphasize bad or alarming news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but social media compounds the problem. For the past year or two, I’ve noticed news articles from reputable sources shared on Facebook and other social media as if they were recent. Articles from 2015 and 2016 have been revived and given a new life, often shared and spread by people who didn’t know (or care) they were recycling old news. 

This is misleading because the posts rarely if ever include the date, instead showing merely the headline and perhaps a photo and the first sentence. So when unflattering events about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or anyone else circulate, they are likely to take on a second or third life. Sometimes the events themselves are clearly dated (tied, for example, to election results), but it’s often political stories putting a prominent person in a bad light that tend to get recycled. A news story about a natural disaster is unlikely to get intentionally seen again, because no one benefits from fooling others into thinking that another devastating earthquake recently hit Mexico, for example. 

But a news story about a single specific incident of, for example, a Muslim group killing innocent Christians, or vice-versa, may be revived multiple times over the years, giving the illusion that the events keep occurring when in fact it may have been a one-time event. News organizations would not intentionally present past events as recent news, precisely because people assume that what they’re seeing in news feeds is both timely and important. Social media users, on the other hand, have no qualms about sharing old or misleading content if it promotes some pet social or political agenda. To conservatives, old news stories that make Obama or Clinton look bad are just as relevant and useful today as they were nearly a decade ago. To liberals, old news stories that highlight Trump’s corruption or incompetence are equally useful. (The Russians, for their part, are just happy to stir up divisiveness.)

Information can always be weaponized, but old news is by its nature often weaponized; it’s recirculated for a reason. It’s not information for the sake of knowledge; it’s information that misleads for a purpose and shared by those trying to support a greater good.

 

You can read the rest HERE!

Sep 252019
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First we talk with Dr. Hans House about infectious diseases (flu, ebola, measles, etc.), as well as how to deal with vaccine deniers. Then we’re joined by Kenny Biddle to talk about faked credentials, and I talk about an undercover investigation I did exposing a Canadian college professor who faked his diploma!

You can listen HERE! 

Sep 212019
 

How a fictional missing girl led to a massive police search that terrified a community. My recent article takes a closer look at a recent child abduction rumor and panic in England…

 

A mother recently claimed in a Facebook post that an eight-year-old girl had been abducted by two men in a white van in Felling, England, and asked those in her neighborhood to be on alert. It understandably caused alarm—despite the fact that the victim did not exist. 

Rumors about the kidnapping were widely shared on social media; for example, one post began with the requisite plea for viral status: “XXXXX URGENT SHARE SHARE SHARE XXXXX: A 7-year-old girl has been kidnap from outside of the church next to Carl gills in Felling, Gateshead. Police have helicopters and officers in the area. She is wearing black leggings and pink purple top hair is blonde brown. She has been taken by two men in a white van. Registration is for a black car but it is a white van using false plates  AP04 USH” 

 

Fig 1

Indeed, thirty police officers swarmed the area in cars and helicopters looking for the missing girl but found nothing. Police spent hours reviewing CCTV footage from the area—England is the most heavily surveilled country in the world, with four to six million CCTV cameras in public places—and saw no abduction or even any attempted abduction. Even more puzzling, no children were reported missing from the area.

While police investigated, social media buzzed with thoughts and prayers for the girl and her (nonexistent) distraught family, with hundreds of sentiments such as “Hope she’s found soon” and “I hate this world and the horrid people who live in it.” 

Fig 2

Tracing the Social Media Abduction

The incident is an interesting one from folkloric and investigational points of view and merits a brief analysis. Reporting from The ChronicleLive website is especially useful, as it provides a rough timeline of its coverage

  • “There is a police presence in the area and widespread reports circulating on social media about a young girl being ‘kidnapped’ in a van outside a church near Coldwell Street.”
  • “One man told us: ‘I’ve been told they’re looking for an eight year old girl who has gone missing.’ Most people don’t seem to know what has happened but many reference a post on Facebook which claims a girl was kidnapped from near the Felling Methodist Church… A mother finishing her shopping said: ‘We don’t know what’s happened, just hearsay about a little girl. The police seem to be talking to people.’” 
  • “The police then released a brief statement: ‘Police are carrying out enquiries after reports of a suspicious incident in Gateshead. At about 8.15pm police received a report of a girl being forced into a white van on Coldwell Street, Felling.’”
  • “Duty Inspector Pete Dedes spoke to the crowd: ‘We have 30 officers actively looking behind the scenes, more doing community reassurance. We are trying to get to the bottom of this. At present there is not a child reported missing in the Northumbria Police area’ Minutes later the police clarify the vehicle they’re searching for, in response to a query: he said there had been rumours of a black car, but that their report had been about a white van.” 
  • “Gina Willison says police have taken CCTV from her newsagents’ shop. She’s one of the many people who have been really shaken up by this. She said: ‘I’ve got a son myself and I texted his dad saying Don’t even let him into the garden—feels like you’re not safe on your own doorstep. On the one hand I hope to god it’s a hoax, but on the other hand if it is a hoax it’s sick.’”
  • “Rumours are flying at the scene and on social media; there are some people online claiming they know someone who saw what happened, others say they’ve heard that the girl who was reported to be ‘abducted’ has been found. It’s a panicky atmosphere at the scene and people are desperate to know what has happened, but no one does yet. We’ll update you as soon as we know anything concrete and official, but in the meantime an extensive police investigation remains ongoing and it is important to continue to note that no child has been confirmed as missing at this stage. We are reporting only what has been confirmed from official sources and will continue to do so.” 

 

A Closer Look

The mother who posted the item, Angela Wilson, eventually admitted to police that she didn’t know if anyone had been abducted or not but had merely repeated what her young daughter told her: “My child was outside playing with three friends, they all thought they saw, or heard, an abduction…. She didn’t see it herself, but that she heard the screaming.” 

Thus screaming was interpreted as an abduction. Shouting and yelling children are of course common in playgrounds, parks, and anywhere else children gather to play, and the mere sound of a scream—if indeed it was a scream—would not necessarily indicate that anything bad was going on. A shriek of terror can sound exactly like a shriek of glee. But Wilson’s daughter and her friends duly mentioned it to her, and she in turn took to social media to warn others. 

This solves one mystery but raises additional questions: If the children didn’t actually see any abduction—or even anything that could have been mistaken for an abduction such as perhaps a man putting his tantruming child into a vehicle—then how could they (or anyone else) have described the girl or her abductors and their vehicle? A shriek may or may not indicate an abduction, but it doesn’t offer any description. 

It’s not clear who introduced the “black leggings and pink purple top” and “blonde brown hair” descriptions, much less the license plate number of the abducting vehicle. Thankfully it seems that no actual specific person was falsely accused in this incident—though it does happen; more on that later—but what if that license plate happened to be registered to a van (especially a white or black one) and a mob surrounded its presumed pedophilic, child-snatching occupants? 

While some people (including journalists) recognized that much of what was circulating was unverified rumor, misleading news headlines seemed to officially confirm that a kidnapping had indeed occurred, regardless of whether the particulars were correct. For example, one headline read “Police Confirm Report of ‘Girl Being Forced Into Van’ On Street,” which surely led many readers to believe that the abduction they’d been hearing about had been “confirmed.” Yet a closer reading notes merely that the police “confirmed” that they were investigating the incident (which frankly was obvious from the police presence)—not affirming that it happened. 

Fig 3

 

Once the report was determined to be false, a predictable mixture of relief and anger flooded social media. The abduction (seemingly validated by headlines and the very public police presence) had caused considerable alarm in the community, and the news that evil men in vans weren’t lurking in the neighborhood to snatch children was widely welcomed. But others criticized Wilson for lying or perpetrating a hoax. As is often the case, people fell into the false-choice fallacy of assuming that the abduction either a) was real and had happened more or less as described or b) that someone was intentionally lying about it or hoaxing. Yet there is a third option—one that’s more common than either of the others: a misperception or misunderstanding, amplified and twisted by social media. 

It’s interesting to note that no one involved felt they had done anything wrong. The daughter and her friends were, understandably, not punished for making a false report. Wilson received some criticism on social media for her role but defended her actions: “We were all very worried, obviously I’ve panicked and, thinking I’m doing a good thing, put it on Facebook, because at that time I was convinced it had happened. Imagine if something had happened and I hadn’t done anything. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself… I didn’t expect it to get out of hand so quickly… I’m not lying, I would not make that up, it would be absolutely sick for somebody to do that. I’ve got my own children, I was doing what I thought was right, any mother would do the same. We were out in the back lane searching like everybody else.”

Wilson’s error was not in reporting it to police (apparently she herself did not contact the police with the report; someone else who had seen her post on social media decided to do it for her) but instead in posting the warning on social media, essentially circumventing proper investigational procedures. Rumors and gossip have always circulated informally, outside official channels of information; the fact that it now appears in typed words on a smartphone or computer screen instead of whispered over a backyard fence or a round of beers lends it undeserved credibility—and gives it an unprecedented potential audience. Had there been an actual abduction, Wilson’s actions would likely have hindered the effort to recover the little girl because police had to dedicate resources to pursuing spurious reports, rumors, and dead ends. 

At each stage people justified their lack of skepticism by erring on the side of caution; even those who had some reason to doubt that anyone had been kidnapped likely took a “better safe than sorry” approach, seeing no harm in sharing the information on social media—and potentially saving a girl’s life if the information was true and the right person happened to see it and be in the right place at the right time. 

But like all social media posts, people should exercise critical thinking and judgment before sharing information. Some of it may be true, but often seemingly credible information—especially “breaking news updates” about child abductions—is false and in many cases has led to innocent people being accused or even attacked by vigilantes. In 2018 and 2019, dozens of people were killed in India when mobs set upon suspected child abductors they’d been warned about in bogus messages on social media (for more on this, see my article “Social Media–Fueled Child Abduction Rumors Lead to Killings” in the January/February 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine). The ChronicleLive newspaper, to its credit, recognized that much of the information being circulated was either rumor, unverified, or flat-out false and stated as much. 

In classic rumor and moral panic pattern, the specifics of the story constantly changed, sometimes by the minute. Was it a white van or a black sedan? Was it one or two men? Were the men white in a white van, or black in a white van, or white men in a white sedan, or black men in a black sedan? Such crucial details can and do easily become confused: urgency, not accuracy, is the mandate in such circumstances. Fact-checking be damned, we’ve got vans of child-snatching pedophiles to be alert for, and often one scapegoat looks as good as the next. 

 

False Rumors Often Target Minorities

False rumors of child abductions have become increasingly common over the past few years as more and more people turn to social media to share warnings. 

Fig 4

Unfortunately these false warnings often target racial and religious minorities. In June 2018, a Kansas man posted a message on Facebook with information claiming that an African American woman had attempted to abduct his child at a local Walmart. When contacted by police and shown video evidence that nothing had happened, he admitted that he hadn’t personally witnessed the attempted kidnapping he described but was merely reporting what his wife had told him about what his sister-in-law had told her about what she claimed she saw. This game of rumor telephone might be cute in a classroom but had real consequences: photos of the falsely accused African American (and her vehicle) were widely shared on social media, branding her as a potential child abductor (or worse). 

A year later, in April 2019, a mother called 911 to report that an Egyptian man had tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall in West Virginia. The man, Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan, was confronted at gunpoint by police and mall security and arrested. Further investigation and review of video surveillance revealed that Zayan had never even touched the girl, much less tried to abduct her. Thus an innocent Muslim man who never even touched the girl was falsely accused of an attempted kidnapping by the girl’s Caucasian mother. There are countless other examples, but it’s important to recognize the harm that false reports can do to innocent people, and especially people of color. 

There are many other cases, and these are not isolated incidents. Despite common “Stranger Danger” warnings, child abductions are very rare. Not only are children rarely kidnapped, but the vast majority of abductions are carried out by one of the child’s parents, relatives, or a caregiver. The image of white vans carrying men (people of color or otherwise) lurking around town to abduct kids is more of a social Boogeyman than a reality, and false abduction rumors only fuel fear and panic. As always, the best defense against misinformation is skepticism and media literacy. 

Adapted from my CFI blog “A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper.”

Sep 182019
 

For those who didn’t see it, a recent episode of Squaring the Strange featured special guest Matt Crowley and I talk about our experience at Bigfoot conferences, the rise and fall of “Bigfoot’s Butt Print” evidence, and why Matt decided that the credibility of Bigfoot research is beyond salvage. 

You can listen HERE. 

Sep 152019
 

Squaring the Strange time! This started off as a little bonus mini-episode where we have a little roundtable about some frustrating patterns of thought we have spotted on social media and other types of public discourse; some have actual fallacy names, some don’t necessarily have a label. Lo and behold, once we got chatting it turned into a regular length episode.

Just a bit less formal. Hope you enjoy; you can listen HERE! 

 

Sep 122019
 

One common claim about Donald Trump is that he often says and does things not only for effect, but with the specific goal of distracting the public and news media from something else he wants to keep hidden. The claims have circulated for years, especially on social media; for example one Facebook post recently stated that “Trump’s quixotic attacks on immigrant children, Denmark, and American Jews are horrible, but even though we can’t ignore them, they are obviously meant to distract.”

While possible—anything is possible—it wasn’t clear what Trump’s statements and actions are “obviously” meant to distract the public or the news media from. While not a formal conspiracy theory, the claim demonstrates classic conspiracy thinking: that there must be some hidden agenda, some “real” reason why something happens, in this case why Trump would crack down on immigrants, pick a fight with Denmark, and opine that American Jews who didn’t support him were “disloyal.” (By implication this comment might suggest that Trump’s statements, positions, and actions were insincere and didn’t reflect his true values but were merely a shiny decoy.)

The claim essentially posits or assumes a correlation between Trump’s often wild, news-making statements and actions, and the existence of some potentially unsavory act or news story that does (or might potentially) involve Trump in some way. The claim is typically stated as a self-evident matter of fact, that “obviously” some devious (if transparent) distraction tactic is afoot. The idea merits a critical media literacy analysis, so let’s take a closer look.

First let’s examine Trump’s comments and actions. Virtually every statement or Tweet Trump issues is arguably newsworthy (whether that is in fact true has been the subject of legitimate journalistic debate).

 

Trump’s statements are notable and reported on for many reasons, chief among them that 1) they reflect formal, official positions by the United States government; or 2) they’re factually and demonstrably false, misleading, or exaggerated; or 3) they’re bizarre, non-sequitur, and/or petty personal attacks. The news media rarely reported on the last two categories of statements by previous presidents for the simple reason that those presidents rarely made them. Therefore the sheer number of newsworthy statements by Trump are far higher than in the past—coming in some cases on a daily basis—and thus represent a huge pool of statements that could potentially be seen as having been issued as part of some distraction strategy.

Against this backdrop we have the second part of the equation, events and issues that are potentially (personally or politically) embarrassing or damaging to Trump. Once again we find a deep well of material. The Trump presidency—and arguably most of Trump’s adult life—has been characterized by a constant stream of realized and potential scandals of every conceivable type, including sexual abuse allegations, collusion with Russia, concerns about his mental health, obstruction of justice, hiring criminal or unfit officials for his administration, misogynistic comments, nepotism, taxpayer Secret Service expenses for his family’s travel, bankruptcies, dubious “bone spur” draft deferrals, mocking Sen. John McCain (even in death), racist and antisemitic statements, and dozens more. Many of these were not one-time issues but have dogged Trump for years.

What the “distraction tactic” theorists are asking us to do is connect one or more of Trump’s thousands of “newsworthy” statements (which ones? Take your pick) with one or more of Trumps hundreds of real, apparent, or potential scandals (which ones? Take your pick) and see that the former is being used to somehow distract from the latter.

Seeing hidden connections and causes is a common logical fallacy with a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “after this, therefore because of it”). Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that “B happened after A did, so A must have caused B.” It makes sense, and it’s often true—but not always. It’s like saying “roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise.” Like a conspiracy theory, claims about the Trump Distraction Plan are not falsifiable and can’t be disproven.

The fact that Trump did or said something newsworthy (or outrageous) at the same time that some real or potential scandal looms over him is meaningless since he has always been mired in scandal, even before he was elected. Anything he says or does can be plausibly contrasted with some other contemporaneous issue he might conceivably want to distract from.

It’s important to note that if this indeed part of Trump’s master plan, it’s largely failing. Journalists tend to be a pretty savvy lot, and news organizations can cover more than one story at a time. The idea that there is a single spotlight that “the news media” train on a specific topic to the exclusion of other news stories is absurd. It’s true that a single reporter can usually only work on one story at a time, and that if a journalist is writing a piece about Trump’s offer to buy Greenland for example, he or she is not at the same time writing an in-depth piece about the effect that Trump’s trade war has on the American economy. That’s why newsrooms employ more than one reporter, in some cases dozens of them. Even if a reporter at a given organization is temporarily being tied up on some red herring “distraction” issue, there are many others who are working on reporting whatever topics are presumably being distracted from; it’s not an either/or proposition. (I previously wrote about the common—and often mistaken—complaint that “the media isn’t covering” a given story).

This is not to say that politicians and others never try to bury bad news behind even worse news or hope to distract or diminish the public’s attention. It’s a well-known tactic, and one reason why press offices often release bad news on Fridays. As Slate noted, “Investors and journalists have long complained that companies release bad news—a failed product trial, a recall, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation—on Fridays, particularly after the market closes. The Friday release is a transparent attempt to evade fallout by burying bad news ahead of the weekend…. Why do companies try to bury the news on Friday? Whether you’re a press aide to a senator or an investor relations official, there’s a natural psychological tendency to take steps to ensure that good news is trumpeted loudly while bad news is whispered sotto voce. In addition, when things are going poorly at a company, executives tend to focus on strategies that will get them through the next few days, the next quarter, and the next year—in that order. If that means buying a few days’ reprieve with a Friday release, they’ll do it.”

But choosing what day to release information that will come out sooner or later is not the same as Trump issuing some false or bizarro comment that he knows will be covered in the hopes that it would somehow distract from some other topic he hopes will not be covered. There was even an infamous case of a British government advisor who suggested that the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks would be a good time to issue unpopular statements because the attacks would dominate the news coverage. This, also, was not a case of a person or government creating an intentional “distraction” from something else it was involved in.

It’s also worth noting that the Trump Distraction theory implicitly assumes that whatever
Trump is distracting from is worse than what he’s drawing attention to. But the fact is that Trump is widely criticized–and even mocked–for many of his alleged “distraction tactics.” His recent comments about Denmark and Jews have drawn widespread jokes and scathing attacks, including from Jewish groups who explicitly called them anti-Semitic. Whatever Trump would be trying to distract from, this hardly seems to be a winning strategy.

Of course it’s possible that Trump has, at some point, said something outrageous solely for the purpose of distracting from some other story. But there’s no evidence that it’s done routinely as part of some strategy by a political mastermind. He has a long history of lies, outlandish actions, and wild conspiracies. The principle of Occam’s Razor suggests that the simpler explanation is more likely to be the correct one: Trump’s wild statements are the result of pathology and impulse, not a considered strategy of social distraction.

 

Adapted from my Center for Inquiry blog A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper 

Sep 082019
 

Squaring the Strange time!

Join us for a deep dive into some popular movies of the past few decades and their associated curses . . . some that are due to genuinely tragic or strangely coincidental circumstances, others that have been a bit cultivated by those wishing to market the movie or just tell a good yarn years after its release. Filmmaker and friend of the show Erik Myers joins Ben and Celestia to look at several horror films and a couple of superhero movies that have been rumored to have curses attached to them.

Check it out HERE!

Aug 152019
 

This is part three of a three-part series. You can read the rest of the series here.

Mass shootings have captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem. 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 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. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’: A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “‘Why Isn’t the Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”). 

In this three-part series I focus on myths about mass shootings in America specifically. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically as it is spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from common myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem. 

In Part 1 of this series, I tackled the nature and frequency of mass shootings; in Part 2, I examined the demographics of mass shooters. Here I conclude with an overview and examination of how we can apply media literacy and critical thinking to mass shooting statistics.  

Racial Biases in Mass Shooting Coverage

We can begin by noting a racial disparity in the amount of attention that mass shootings get, especially on social media. As described in Part 2, many or most victims of mass shootings are African American, yet the shootings that tend to receive the greatest coverage involve white victims—and usually a white perpetrator (statistically most killers and their victims are of the same race). 

This disparity is the result of several factors. The first is that there is not a single type of “mass shooting” but instead three types (familicides, felony, and public mass killings), each with their own distinct patterns (see Part 2). Because of sensationalist and alarmist news media coverage, only the rarest type, the public mass shooting, is often thought of by the public as a “mass shooting.” There are of course several reasons for this, including the relatively high body count; twenty people killed in a single shooting will generate far more media coverage than four people dead. 

As described in Part 1, this is because of what social psychologist John Ruscio calls “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. 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 such as horrific school shootings and mass murders. 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. 

The bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are. But such shootings are relatively rare, while far more common “ordinary” (e.g., family and felony) mass murders largely pass under the radar. Omar Mateen killing forty-nine people in a nightclub made international news for months, but ten other murderers in ten different cities (each killing four or five people in domestic incidents or drive-by shootings) over the course of a month won’t make national news.  

Compounding this bias, mass shootings with white victims tend to get more attention, both from journalists and those on social media, than those with victims who are people of color. This is a well-known pattern and explains why the public is quicker to react to a missing young blonde girl than a missing young black girl (for more on this, see my book Media Mythmakers). Such shootings also tend to be among the most notable and dramatic, such as the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, Thousand Oaks nightclub shooter Ian Long, and others. This perception is intentionally amplified by memes attempting to debunk a real or perceived media and social bias that systematically downplays shootings by white males and highlights shootings by minorities. 

But if we care about people of color and what violence is doing to our communities, we need to pay attention to their deaths too. Unfortunately there seems to be a cultural blindness; perhaps it makes white people uncomfortable to discuss mass shootings that overwhelmingly victimize black people. The bulk of violent crime is not black on white or white on black but instead white on white and black on black—the opposite of what racists often suggest. 

Among the recent examples of public mass shootings with victims of color whose murders got far less media coverage than those of white killers:

  • At a mass shooting at a Maryland Rite Aid warehouse on September 20, 2018, six people were attacked by coworker Snochia Moseley, three of them killed. Most of the victims were minorities and foreigners, including people from Nepal, the Dominican Republic, and Nigeria. 
  • Serial shooter Aaron Saucedo killed nine people and wounded three others in mass shootings in Phoenix, Arizona, in July and August 2016; his victims were mostly people of color. 

White vs. Black, Crazy vs. Terrorist?

In recent years a common criticism of the news media is that Caucasian mass shooters are described (by journalists, police, and others) as mentally ill (implying perhaps sympathy or an excuse, though it’s not clear that such a designation absolves any responsibility in the public’s mind) while people of color are deemed to be terrorists

One specific meme, adapted from a Family Guy episode, depicts with dark humor a skin color guide—held, notably, by a white hand—describing how to determine whether a given suspect should be considered either “mentally disturbed” or, alternately, a “terrorist.” This binary distinction implies that it refers specifically to high-profile violent acts such as mass shootings or bombings. (Of course the meme contains a false-choice fallacy; mass shooters may be widely described as neither or both. This is perhaps taking the meme too literally, though it presumably accurately reflects a widespread belief about an important social truth, otherwise it wouldn’t be widely shared.)

Mental Health Tweet

 

Elsewhere I explore the truths and myths behind why a given act may be designated as terrorism; I note that in many cases white attackers are indeed labeled terrorists by journalists, police, and others. It’s also true that white mass shooters are often described as mentally ill.

But how accurate is this specific disparity? Are white mass shooters typically described as mentally ill while black ones are instead typically “terrorists”? Despite gaining widespread currency on social media, it seems no one has researched this specific question, though I endeavored to quantify the issue. 

In 2013, Diamond Sharp, a writer for the African American publication The Root, assembled a list of “Rare Gunmen: Black Mass Shooters.” She listed the following seven black mass shooters. 

1) Colin Ferguson attacked commuters on a Long Island train in 1993, killing six people and injuring nineteen others with a 9 mm handgun. Not only was he widely described in news reports as mentally ill, but his lawyers claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity. 

2) Omar Thornton shot and killed eight former coworkers at a Connecticut distribution center before turning a gun on himself in 2010; it was the deadliest workplace mass shooting in Connecticut history. A forensic psychologist commenting on the shooting stated that such attacks occur “because of longstanding psychological or characterological disorders.” 

3) Mass shooter Maurice Clemmons killed four police officers in Parkland, Washington, in 2009. He had a long history of violence, including sexual assault on a child and burglary. He was described in news reports as mentally ill, at one point telling psychologists that he suffered from hallucinations, including “people drinking blood and people eating babies, and lawless on the streets, like people were cannibals.” 

4) Aurora, Colorado, mass shooter Nathan Dunlap shot five employees at a restaurant, killing one of them, in December 1993. Dunlap was reported in the news media as having suffered from mental illness and was diagnosed at age fourteen with a mood disorder. Dunlap was sentenced to death in 1996 and in his appeal complained that his lawyer had not fully emphasized his mental illness. 

5) and 6) John Allen Muhammad, perhaps America’s best-known mass shooter, was better known as the Beltway Sniper. Along with accomplice John Lee Malvo, Muhammad killed ten people over the course of three weeks in 2002. Because of the terror that the killings caused, he was charged with terrorism. He was also publically described by his attorneys and the news media as mentally ill, though he was ruled competent enough to stand trial in March 2006. As reported in the Chicago Tribune (December 12, 2003) and elsewhere, psychiatrists testified that Malvo was also mentally ill and not guilty by reason of insanity.

7) The final black mass shooter on The Root’s list is Christopher Dorner, a Los Angeles police officer who attacked seven people, killing four and wounding three others in February 2013. Though he died before he could stand trial, Dorner left an extensive rambling manifesto complaining about racism, politics, and his perceived scapegoating when he reported another officer’s misconduct toward a mentally ill man. He quotes Mia Farrow and D.H. Lawrence; praises a long list of celebrities including Chris Matthews, Bill Cosby, Tavis Smiley, and others (Charlie Sheen is “effin awesome”); he lists “THE MOST beautiful women on this planet, period” (including Jennifer Beals, Natalie Portman, Kelly Clarkson, Margaret Cho, and Queen Latifah); gives musical shout-outs (Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Metallica, etc.); and so on. Recognizing that his mass murder spree would likely end in his death, he also lamented the fact that he would not live to see The Hangover 3

He also addresses those he plans to kill and explains his motives: 

Terminating officers because they expose a culture of lying, racism (from the academy), and excessive use of force will immediately change. The blue line will forever be severed and a cultural change will be implanted. You have awoken a sleeping giant. I am here to change and make policy. The culture of LAPD versus the community and honest/good officers needs to and will change. I am here to correct and calibrate your morale compasses to true north …. I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours. Look your wives/husbands and surviving children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your children are dead. 

Dorner was widely described by officials and news media as mentally ill, with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stating that “Whatever problem [Dorner] has is mental” and a February 9 Associated Press news article describing Dorner as “severely emotionally and mentally disturbed.” In fact the characterization of Dorner as mentally ill was so prominent that some even complained about it; one writer, Thandisizwe Chimurenga in the L.A. Watts Times (February 21, 2013), complained that “The Media Tried to Assassinate Chris Dorner [with descriptions] of ‘Mental Illness.’” 

Of course white mass shooters are also widely described as being mentally ill, which is hardly surprising considering that public mass murder is an inherently abhorrent and irrational act, and anyone—regardless of race—who commits it is immediately and understandably suspected of not being in his right mind. We can easily conceive of an escalating fight over a specific beef resulting in a single death, but there is no valid reason or justification to kill multiple innocent people. 

It’s notable that 100 percent of the African American mass shooters profiled in The Root article were publicly described in mainstream news media—often by police officials, family members, and sometimes even the shooters themselves—as being mentally ill. I, of course, don’t suggest that the list is representative or comprehensive; it only includes shooters as of 2013 (though given the rarity of black public mass shooters overall, it’s unlikely that there are a significant number of exceptions), but it seems a reasonable representative sampling of the public mass shooter demographic. 

A review of more recent examples reflects the same pattern. Aaron Alexis, a mass shooter who killed twelve people and wounded three others at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, was widely reported to have suffered from mental illness, including schizophrenia and hearing voices. Radee Labeeb Prince, who killed three people and injured three others in Aberdeen, Maryland, in 2017, was widely described in the news media as being mentally unstable. His half-sister was quoted describing him as angry, paranoid, and “a psychopath” who should have been committed to a mental health facility. DeWayne Craddock, a Virginia Beach man who killed twelve people at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in June 2019, was described in The New York Times as having recently mentally “snapped.” 

An African American woman, Shana Decree, and her daughter Dominique killed five family members in February 2019; news media, including USA Today, referenced the elder Decree’s mental health issues, including hearing voices urging suicide. Gary Martin walked into a warehouse in Aurora, Illinois, in February 2019, opening fire on five coworkers and wounding another five police officers. He died in the shootout; the Chicago Tribune, among other news media, reported his history of mental illness. Mass shooter Snochia Moseley, mentioned earlier, was widely reported in news media, including the Baltimore Sun, to have been diagnosed with mental illness in 2016. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but even a cursory review demonstrates that African Americans and other minority mass shooters are indeed often described in the news media as having mental illness issues, viral memes to the contrary notwithstanding. 

This does not, of course, suggest that news coverage is race-blind. As I noted earlier, many studies have found, for example, that journalists are more likely to describe a white mass shooter as coming from a good environment (evoking a bogus and biased “What went wrong?” narrative) while describing African American ones as being inherently more dangerous and “bad.” My argument here is specifically that when it comes to labeling mass shooters as either terrorists or suffering from mental illness, despite popular belief there’s little clear difference between the races. 

The simple fact is that most mass shooters, regardless of race, are described as mentally ill (assuming of course they are and sometimes even if they’re not). Even if further research found that white shooters are more often described as having a history of mental problems than minorities, it would hardly be surprising. Whites are more likely than blacks to get quality healthcare, including mental health care and screenings, which in turn makes whites more likely to have been diagnosed and treated for mental illnesses. In other words, it’s not that mental illness is necessarily overrepresented in white shooters (or media coverage of them) but instead that whites are more likely than blacks to have benefitted from the privilege of a healthcare system that would have caught or treated the problems. Racial bias can be discerned in the system—just not in some ways many people assume.

Mental Health and Mass Shooters

Mental illness is heavily stigmatized and not seen as a moral absolution; the widely publicized mental health problems of mass murderers such as Stephen Paddock did not elicit sympathy from the victims or anyone else. The idea that police authorities or journalists selectively disclose or emphasize the mental illness history of whites to make them sympathetic or somehow excuse their crimes has no clear basis in fact. 

The focus on mental illness as an important factor in mass shootings is in many ways a distraction from the deeper issues. As with other mass shooter demographics (see Part 2), 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. Contrary to popular perception, most mass shootings have a reasonably clear motive; in the two most common categories described by Fridel (see Part 2), family and felony mass murders, are rooted in personal grievances (divorce, custody battles, etc.) and criminal activity (drive-by shootings, drug deals, etc.). 

Fridel table

For felony mass murders, just under 2 percent of the offenders had such a history; for family mass murders the number rises to 16 percent, and about a third of public mass murderers had received mental health treatment. This means, of course, that two-thirds of them did not. One study (see Vossekuil et al. 2002 in Further Reading at end of article) found that only a third of mass shooters ever received a mental health evaluation, and 17 percent had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. The researchers also found that most mass shooters had no history of prior violent or criminal behavior. 

Again we see how focusing on the exceptional anecdote misleads us. Several mass and school shooters had suspected or diagnosed mental deficiencies. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer, was said to have had Asperger’s syndrome, as did Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine at an Oregon community college in 2016.

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. 

Going Postal (Or Not): Fabricating ‘Trends’ from Statistical Noise

Not long ago the focus was less on mental health than career choice—specifically working at the Post Office. As we have seen, the news media play an important role in shaping the public’s perceptions, especially of risk. One example is the phrase “going postal,” which began as a dark humor slang phrase and was soon popularized by prominent newspapers in 1993, including the Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times. Though there have only been about a dozen cases of Postal Service workers killing themselves, coworkers, or others over the years, the phrase came to represent any workplace killing. 

It’s important to keep the numbers in perspective; at any given time the United States Postal Service employs over a half million people full time, including clerks, drivers, delivery personnel, and managers. In addition there are part-time workers, contractors, and others hired during the holidays. The list of current and former post office employees reaches into the millions, and some tiny percentage of those will be involved in homicides simply by random chance. 

A 2000 “Report of the United States Postal Service Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace” examined the relative risk of working at the post office and found that its employees were in fact one-third less likely to be killed at work than those in other jobs. In fact, “Of the 15 instances of post office homicide between 1986 and 1989, only four were judged to be purely work-related. Fourteen of the killers had problems such as substance abuse, mental illness, a violent past, or a criminal record.” The commission’s chairman, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., noted in the report that “‘Going postal’ is a myth, a bad rap. Postal workers are no more likely to physically assault, sexually harass, or verbally abuse their coworkers than employees in the national workforce.” 

Curiously, the once-common phrase “going postal” has largely faded from public parlance. It’s almost as if the spate of shootings at post offices and among postal workers was an anomaly, a statistical quirk instead of a genuine trend. The criminologists and statisticians were right all along, while the journalists who blithely cobbled anecdotes together onto the next “terrifying trend” were wrong. At the time the threat of a postal worker “going postal” was taken very seriously and was not recognized as statistical noise. It was only with time and closer analysis that the true nature of this threat was revealed.  

Mass Shooters and the Mass Media 

One of the most influential—yet least-discussed—commonalities among public mass shooters is the role that the media play. Perhaps the most reliable predictor of future mass shootings is … media coverage of past mass shootings. Researchers have found that mass shootings (as well as the threat of mass shootings) are strongly correlated with earlier recent mass shootings—typically within two weeks. Thus part of the solution, ironically, is restraint in covering and promoting the stories on social media. In recent years, police and politicians have begun to recognize this effect and take steps toward trying to stem the influence of mass shooters. 

In June 2019, after DeWayne Craddock killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach, the police chief refused to repeat the shooter’s name. “We’re going to mention his name once, and then he will be forever referred to as ‘the suspect,’” Chief James Cervera said at a press conference. Though there is no national policy on denying shooters the fame they crave (at least in some small measure), other law enforcement officials have done the same, as did New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardernfollowing a horrific mass shooting at mosques in the capital of Christchurch in March 2019. 

As The New York Times reported:

Explicit evidence of “fame seeking” exists for nearly half of the deadliest mass shootings since 2010, according to Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama, who presented his data at a National Science Foundation workshop in April. His research found that 90 percent of high-fatality shootings have some circumstantial evidence of a desire for attention. “The evidence supporting these types of strategies is stronger than ever before because we have more cases and more data,” Dr. Lankford said. “And law enforcement is also increasingly desperate to do something that would make a difference.” 

In the end, mass shootings will continue. Perhaps one day, through a blend of legislation, media restraint by journalists (who refuse to name killers and sensationalize their crimes) and social media users (who refuse to create and perpetuate agenda-drive myths and misinformation about mass shootings), or some other measure, they will decrease. But until then the best antidote to the fear and misinformation is critical thinking and media literacy. 

Further Reading

Adams, Cecil. 2007. Are U.S. Postal Service workers more likely to ‘go postal’? The Straight Dope(March 9). Available at https://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2697/going-postal/. 
 
Beckett, Lois. 2016. Most victims of US mass shootings are black, data analysis finds. The Guardian(May 23). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/23/mass-shootings-tracker-analysis-us-gun-control-reddit. 
 
Blinder, Alan, Amy Harmon, and Richard Oppel Jr. 2019. Virginia officials will not utter name of ‘the 13th person.’ The New York Times (June 4): A15. 
 
Cai, Weiyi, and Jugal Patel. 2019. A half-century of school shootings like Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Parkland. The New York Times (May 11). Available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/05/11/us/school-shootings-united-states.html.
 
Duxbury, Scott, Laura Frizzell, and Sade Lindsay. 2018. Mental illness, the media, and the moral politics of mass violence. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 55(6): 766–797.
 
Emery, David. 2018. How many school shootings have taken place so far in 2018? Snopes.com (February 16). Available at https://www.snopes.com/news/2018/02/16/how-many-school-shootings-in-2018/. 
 
Engber, Daniel. 2017. Mass shooters aren’t disproportionately white. Slate.com (October 6). Available at https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/10/what-the-white-mass-shooter-myth-gets-right-and-wrong-about-killers-demographics.html. 
 
Hay, Mark. 2017. What I learned tracking every mass shooting in America and Europe in 2016. Vice.com (January 3). Available at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bmn438/what-i-learned-tracking-every-mass-shooting-in-america-and-europe-in-2016

Ingraham, Christopher. 2016. We have three different definitions of ‘mass shooting’ and we probably need more. The Washington Post (February 26). Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/26/we-have-three-different-definitions-of-mass-shooting-and-we-probably-need-more/. 

Vossekuil, B., R.A. Fein, M. Reddy, et al. 2002. The Final
Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of
School Attacks in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Secret Service and
U.S. Department of Education.

 
Aug 122019
 

This is part two of a three-part series. You can read the rest of the series here.

With the recent tragic attacks in El Paso and Dayton, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

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. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “’Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).

In this three-part series I focus on myths about mass shootings in America, as they represent a common concern. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically as it is spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem.

Specifically, in this series I tackle 1) the nature and frequency of mass shootings, 2) the demographics of mass shooters, concluding with 3) applying media literacy to mass shooting statistics. You can find Part 1 here.

In this part, I examine truths and myths about the demographics of mass shooters. In the previous article I discussed why mass shootings statistics can be contradictory and confusing, especially because of differing definitions of what constitutes a mass shooting (for example numbers of victims involved).

Different Types of Mass Shootings

Just as there are differing definitions of mass shootings, there are different types of mass shootings. One recent analysis by Emma Fridel in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (discussed in more depth later) identified the three most common types of mass shootings: Family killings, felony killings, and public mass killings.

 

Fridel cover ILLO
Fridel

 

  • Familicides represent the most common form of mass murder and are principally defined by a close victim-offender relationship. Perpetrators are typically White, middle-aged males who target their spouse or intimate partner, children, and other relatives (Fridel 2017, 3).
  • Felony killings are distinguished by motive. Murder is used to achieve some primary criminal objective, typically involving financial gain. … Due to their general lack of sensationalism, felony killings are not widely publicized despite representing the second largest category of mass murder. Perpetrators of felony mass murders tend to be young black or Hispanic males with extensive criminal records (Fridel 2017, 7).
  • Despite their extreme visibility, public mass killings account for the smallest proportion of all mass murders. Formally, these incidents are defined by attack location. Public mass killers are a heterogeneous group and are frequently delineated into several subtypes. Public murderers are often stereotyped as middle-aged white men who have suffered a series of failures in different areas of life, though some research indicates a disproportionate number of immigrants commit public massacres (Fridel 2017, 5). These public mass shootings are what most people (wrongly) consider as typical of mass shootings.

Fridel found that blacks commit twice as many felony mass shootings as whites (50.49 percent versus 22.33 percent), so it’s not surprising that blacks are overrepresented in this group:

In most instances, the murders serve to eliminate witnesses of a robbery, drug crime, or gang-related attack. Due to their general lack of sensationalism, felony killings are not widely publicized despite representing the second largest category of mass murder (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Perpetrators of felony mass murders tend to be young Black or Hispanic males with extensive criminal records (Lankford, 2016b). With frequent ties to the drug trade or gangs, they operate in pairs or small groups in urban areas (Fox & Levin, 2015; Petee et al., 1997). As the primary purpose of murder is to cover up another crime, felony killers leave few survivors and generally claim four or five victims on average, similar to family killers (Duwe, 2007). … As with homicide in general, most victims are the same race as the offender(s). [References can be found in the original article.]

 

Fridel table ILLO

 

One of the highest-profile recent mass shootings was a felony killing, the murder of a young African American girl, Jazmine Barnes. On December 30, 2018, the seven-year-old Houston girl was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital. The investigation carried over into the new year as the public and police searched desperately for her killers. Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced that Eric Black Jr., a twenty-year-old black man, had been arrested for the shooting. Black admitted to being the driver in the car, while Larry Woodruffe—also a black man in his twenties—fired the fatal shots into the Barnes’s vehicle. It was a gang-related drive-by shooting, and the pair had mistaken Washington’s vehicle for their intended target.

More than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. As Lois Beckett noted in The Guardian:

A new analysis of 358 mass shootings in America in 2015 found that three-quarters of the victims whose race could be identified were black. Roughly a third of the incidents with known circumstances were drive-by shootings or were identified by law enforcement as gang-related. Another third were sparked by arguments, often among people who were drunk or high. The analysis, conducted by the New York Times with data collected by Reddit’s mass shooting tracker and the Gun Violence Archive, used law enforcement reports on shootings that left four or more people injured or dead in 2015. Few of the incidents resembled the kinds of planned massacres in schools, churches and movie theaters that have attracted intense media and political attention. Instead, the analysis, defined purely by the number of victims injured, revealed that many were part of the broader burden of everyday gun violence on economically struggling neighborhoods. … Many gang-related mass shootings began as fights over small incidents of perceived disrespect.

As noted, truly random violence (involving mass murder or otherwise) is quite rare; shootings almost always emerge from personal conflicts and grievances, between friends, lovers, coworkers, and so on.  

Dueling Demographics

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Many news headlines suggest instead that white males account for most mass shootings. Newsweek, for instance, ran a story with the headline, “White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group.”

Politifact examined this claim and found it be technically true, with some important caveats:

Newsweek based its claim on data from Mother Jones, which defines a public mass shooting as an incident in which the motive appeared to be indiscriminate killing and a lone gunman took the lives of at least three people. Under this definition, Mother Jones found that non-Hispanic white men have been responsible for 54 percent of mass shootings since August 1982. Another tally, with a longer timeline and a different definition of mass shooting, found non-Hispanic white men make up 63 percent of these attacks. Under both definitions and datasets, white men have committed more mass shootings than any other ethnicity group. Newsweek’s claim is literally accurate. But it’s worth noting the imprecision of this data, and the percentage of mass shootings by white men is lower than their share of the male population, according to Mother Jones.

It’s also important to note that the Newsweek and Mother Jones analysis only examined one of the three types of mass shootings—public mass killings—which also happens to be the rarest type, though the kind most conforming to social assumptions and expectations.

Despite the widespread perception that mass shooters are overwhelmingly white males, researchers have found that white men are not overrepresented among mass shooters. In other words, white men are no more likely than other male demographic to engage in a mass shooting. Daniel Engber, writing for Slatenoted that mass shooters are not disproportionately white male. He writes that “the notion that white men of privilege are disproportionately represented among mass shooters—indeed, that they make up ‘nearly all’ of them—is a myth.” A widely referenced analysis by Mother Jones (mentioned earlier) found that “white people weren’t overrepresented among mass shooters. The media outlet had found that roughly 70 percent of the shooters in mass killings were white—certainly a majority. But according to Census Bureau estimates for 2012, whites accounted for 73.9 percent of all Americans.” In other words, there are more white men in America than there are Asian, black, or Hispanic men, and therefore there are more white shooters. This, too, is unremarkable and expected, though the nuance is lost on many who claim, for example, that “90% of mass shootings are committed by whites.”

The Slate article goes into some detail about differing statistical analyses, and I recommend it for an insightful glimpse into just how different methodologies—each as valid as the next—can result in different numbers. In the end, Engber notes:

The whites-are-overrepresented-among-mass-shooters meme does serve a useful purpose in that it helps displace another myth about mass shootings: that they’re most often perpetrated by angry immigrants from travel-banned countries, and that nothing is more dangerous to America that the scourge of Islamic terrorism. … These are worthy ends, but we shouldn’t have to build another myth to reach them.”

In other words, as skeptics and critical thinkers know, debunking a myth with another myth is a problematic path. We can all agree that mass shootings are a serious social problem—and that the threat posed by immigrants and Muslims are often greatly exaggerated—without fabricating factoids about how common white (or black) male mass shooters are. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Men in general and across cultures commit more violence than women do—whether in the context of a mass shooting or a fistfight—so that’s no surprise. Beyond that, the collective data suggest that, across all three types of mass shootings, the races commit mass shootings at about what we’d expect based on their representative demographics. No single race emerges as an obvious mass shooter threat.

Nevertheless, some memes circulating on social media go so far as to claim that white males are solely responsible for mass shootings; one from Occupy Democrats circulating in July 2018 claimed “154 mass shootings this year and not one committed by a black man or an illegal alien. Let that sink in.” It’s a bold and damning claim—and it’s also completely false.

 

Mass misinformation on mass shootings

 

As we saw in the first article in this series, there is no single universal definition of “mass shooting,” so there is not a single “correct” number of mass shootings in America. As with “school shooting,” it depends on how you count them. Do you mean armed adults or teenagers showing up at a school with the intent to kill students, or do you mean a police officer’s accidental weapon discharge after hours in an empty college parking lot in which no one was injured? Or gunfire at a bar near campus in a drunken altercation?

Looking at school shootings specifically, a recent New York Times analysis identified 111 cases since 1970 “that met the F.B.I.’s definition for an active-shooter scenario, in which an assailant is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people, on school property or inside school buildings. It excluded episodes that fit more typical patterns of gun violence such as targeted attacks, gang shootings and suicides.” It also excluded incidents at colleges and universities.

It found that the majority of shooters were young white males (average age about fifteen), many of them current or former students of the schools where they opened fire. The analysis noted that such “active shooter” incidents, though generating much media coverage, “account for only a small fraction of the episodes of gun violence that children experience in American schools. Other cases might include a student showing off a gun to friends in the hallway, the accidental discharge of a school resource officer’s gun, or a gang-related drive-by shooting at a school bus stop.”

Examining January 2019 Mass Shootings

To independently investigate a limited sample of mass shooter demographics, I chose a widely referenced database, the Gun Violence Archive. The Gun Violence Archive (GVA) is “an online archive of gun violence incidents collected from over 2,500 media, law enforcement, government and commercial sources daily in an effort to provide near-real time data about the results of gun violence. GVA is an independent data collection and research group with no affiliation with any advocacy organization.” I chose GVA for several reasons: it is continually updated and provides not just a summary of incidents but links to original news reports, which can be analyzed for additional information about locations, circumstances, demographics, and so on. In addition, the GVA is open-sourced, so anyone can easily confirm the results.

GVA ILLO

A full year of mass shootings would be too many to quickly and efficiently analyze, so I chose the most recent full month (in this case, January 2019), which would presumably be fairly representative of other months. The crime rates for many specific offenses vary by season (for example, summer nights provide more hours of social interactions—and by extension robberies and assaults—than winter nights), but there seemed no reason why the number and nature of mass shootings in January, for example, would be dramatically different than those in March or May. (Should other researchers believe that month was unrepresentative for some reason I welcome similar analyses of other months or the full year.)

I found a total of twenty-seven American mass shootings in January 2019. Of those, two were home invasion shootings in Houston, Texas: one in which several would-be robbers breaking into a home were shot by the homeowner, and the second when police raided the wrong house and came under fire from the (innocent) occupants within. Neither of these fit the typical image of a “mass shooter” threat or categories, so both were omitted from the dataset, bringing the total to twenty-five. I read news reports about the incidents and recorded when the race of the suspect was mentioned. There were four categories: white, black, other (Hispanic, Asian, etc.), and unknown.

Of the twenty-five mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive database for January 2019, 16 percent (four) of them were committed by white males; 4 percent (one) was committed by a Hispanic man; 64 percent (sixteen) were committed by African Americans; and in 16 percent, or four cases, the attacker’s race is unknown. As described by Fridel, most of these incidents fell into the felony and familicide categories, and the profile of perpetrators seems to track well with those demographics.

Interestingly, a meme circulating January 27, 2019, highlighted three mass shooters that month—all of whom were white males, in fact three of the four that month. They were likely chosen to make a specific political point—in service of debunking myths about “dangerous” immigrants and minorities—but they were cherry picked and not representative of mass shooters generally. Thus, it’s not surprising why social media users are misled; they are seeing intentionally misleading information.

Mislead meme ILLO

There Is No ‘Typical’ Mass Shooter

There is no single accurate profile of a mass shooter. It really depends on what type of mass shooting you’re talking about. Several of the highest-profile mass shootings in recent memory (the rare “public mass killing” category) were committed by white males, such as the 2017 Las Vegas attack by Stephen Paddock. But much beyond that, the stereotype breaks down; Muslim man Omar Mateen killed forty-nine people at a Florida nightclub in 2016 on behalf of a terrorism group; white male Adam Lanza killed twenty-seven people in 2012 at an elementary school, though Asian student Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. And so on.

The New York Times noted that “As convenient as it would be, there is no one-size-fits-all profile of who carries out mass shootings in the United States. About the only thing almost all of them have in common is that they are men. But those men come from varying backgrounds, with different mental health diagnoses and criminal histories.” Mass shootings with white victims tend to get more attention, both from journalists and those on social media, than those with victims who are people of color. This is a well-known pattern and explains why the public is quicker to react to a missing young blonde girl than a missing young black girl (for more on this see my book Media Mythmakers).

Focusing on the statistically rare but high-profile mass shootings makes for sensational news coverage and concern but doesn’t address far greater dangers. Similarly, focusing on the handful of high-profile mass shootings in which dozens are killed at a time—or for that matter serial killers, who prey on multiple victims over months, years, or decades—doesn’t help the public determine their individual risk. Any one of us could be killed at any moment by a mass shooter or serial killer, but the chances of it happening are so remote that it’s pointless to worry about, and there’s not much we can do to prevent it anyway.

The question of the “typical mass shooter profile” is a red herring. As simplistic and satisfying as it would be, no single demographic emerges from the data as “the typical mass shooter.” It depends on what type of mass shooting you’re looking at, but in any event, focusing on the race or gender of mass shooters is not helpful for the general public; it is not predictive of who is likely to engage in gun violence. Singling out any specific race as being dangerous—or, worse yet, highlighting rare anecdotal violent incidents as representative of larger groups—is more likely to fuel racism than help the public. Unless you’re a criminologist or social scientist aggregating data, it doesn’t really tell you anything useful. It doesn’t help you decide who to watch out for and who to avoid. The percentage of mass shooters in any demographic is vanishingly small, and the chances of being killed in a mass shooting is even smaller.

In the last of this series I’ll examine the ways in which media literacy and critical thinking can help the public sort fact from fiction regarding mass shootings.

Reference

Fridel, Emma E. 2017. A multivariate comparison of family, felony, and public mass murders in the United States. Journal of Interpersonal Violence (November 1).

 

Part 3 will appear soon. 

Aug 102019
 

This is the first part of a three-part series examining mass shootings from a critical thinking and media literacy perspective.

With the recent tragic attacks in Dayton and El Paso, the world once again turns its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years, with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

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. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018 Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018 piece “‘Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).

In this three-part series, I will focus on myths about mass shootings in America specifically. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem.

Specifically, in this series I will tackle 1) the nature and frequency of mass shootings, 2) the demographics of mass shooters, and concluding with 3) applying media literacy to mass shooting statistics. As with any topic, the best place to start is with definitions, so I will begin by taking a closer look at the nature and frequency of mass shootings.

How Common Are Mass Shootings?

Mass shootings, and especially the subset of shootings at schools, are often portrayed in the media as “horrifyingly common” and “the new normal.” Sarcastic phrases and memes such as “another day, another school shooting” reinforce the idea that they happen all the time. Following many outrages—ranging from school shootings to real or perceived un-American actions by Donald Trump and others—it’s common to hear concerns that Americans are “numb” to terrors and that the transgressions are becoming so routine and “normal” that citizens have lost their ability to be outraged.

However, the reaction to school shootings suggests that Americans are anything but numb or indifferent to the violence. People do not protest against events, situations, and conditions that they consider normal or ones that they are numb to. Protests and boycotts have become common following school shootings (whether those have resulted in political action is another question).

The concern that Americans are numb to violence is widespread and often shared on social and news media. It’s a common claim among pundits and politicians. For example, in an October 1, 2015, speech shortly after a shooting in Eugene, Oregon, President Obama said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people had “become numb to this. … And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.”

The Washington Post followed up two months later with an article titled “President Obama’s Right: Americans Might Be Growing Numb to Mass Shootings. Here’s Why.” The piece explores a few reasons a steady stream of violence could desensitize the public. The author, Colby Itkowitz, did himself no favors by referencing dubious and discredited theories about the influence of video game violence on real-world violence (Donald Trump was widely and rightly ridiculed for suggesting just such a link).

So are mass shootings common or not?

Dueling Headlines

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 on any given day is nearly 100 percent, but the chance of any given specific person—say you or me—being a victim is remote.

Let’s briefly sample prominent headlines from the past few years describing the frequency of mass shootings.

2015

The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote on August 26, 2015, that “We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015.” The New York Times headlined on December 2, 2015, “How often do mass shootings occur? On average, every day, records show.”

The verdict: about one each day, or 365 per year.

2016

In 2016 The Economist, using information from Mother Jones, determined that there were fifty mass shootings through June 2016, which would come to about 100 for the year. Mark Hay, a writer for Vice.com, tracked American mass shootings for 2016 and concluded it was over three times as many, 370. (Note that the Pulse nightclub shooting, which occurred in 2016, is treated as a single mass shooting despite its then-unprecedented number of victims.)

The verdict: between one every third day to one each day, or 100 to 370 per year.

2017

mass shooting cbs headline

A CBS News headline from October 2, 2017, by Graham Kates stated “Report: U.S. averages nearly one mass shooting per day so far in 2017.” Newsweek’s John Haltiwanger echoed the statistic the same day with the headline “There’s a mass shooting almost every day in the U.S.”

mass shooting common

The verdict: about one each day, or 365 per year.

Which brings us to last year, when on November 29, Meghan Keneally of ABC News noted that “2018 has seen more than 1 mass shooting per month in the US.” This is of course startlingly good news. It means that mass shootings dropped by about 70 percent from the previous years, from about 365 per year to about thirteen per year.

Except that the numbers are misleading.

The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham, who had reported in 2015 that mass shootings were happening about once a day, revisited the subject the following year, taking a closer look at the numbers. He offered an insightful analysis:

On Thursday, a gunman shot and killed three people and injured 14 more in Hesston, Kan., before he was killed by police.

It was the 49th mass shooting of 2016.

No scratch that, it was the 33rd mass shooting.

Actually, wait: It was only the second mass shooting this year, and it barely made the cut.

It’s said that the Inuit people have 50 words for snow. Sometimes it seems like Americans have nearly as many definitions for “mass shooting.” Which definition is correct? They all are—it just depends on what you want to measure.

Limiting mass shootings in this way is useful because it tends to filter out all but the big, headline-grabbing incidents that most people think of when they think “mass shooting”: Kalamazoo, Charleston, Umpqua.

But the definition omits a number of shootings that many reasonable people would consider a mass shooting. The man who shot up a theater in Lafayette, La., last summer killed only two people and wounded nine others—not a mass shooting, per Mother Jones’ definition. The killing of three people and shooting of 16 others at Fort Hood in 2014 isn’t included because not enough people died. Ditto the rampage at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last year.

WP mass shooting count
Screen capture from Ingraham article

Vice’s Mark Hay agrees:

It seem that many mass shootings are an extension of other types of violence. Some of the bloodiest stem from domestic violence incidents, while some of the most common occur in the tight confines of nightclubs or just outside their doors. Many more stem from drive-bys or other street or home shootings, frequently pegged as gang related but often just interpersonal conflicts carried out on an opportunistic basis (often on holidays and weekends when people are out and about—and perhaps angry and liquored up) and made disproportionally deadly by the spray-and-pray style and culture of much of our gun violence. Only a few incidents fall under the indiscriminate rampage category, with which we often associate mass shootings in the US … Yet the only mass shootings that regularly grab our attention and drive national conversations are the indiscriminate public rampages. And when we talk about them, we focus on the perpetrators … This focus makes sense. Humans are drawn to the unusual—news isn’t news unless there’s something new about it, and common forms of gun violence don’t hack it compared to boogeymen we can project all our fears onto. However this focus has a nasty habit, in many jurisdictions, of increasing gun sales and loosening gun laws, and may in fact contribute to the ongoing increase in rampage shootings by giving perpetrators the infamy so many seem to be seeking.

Why Mass Shootings Seem More Common Than They Are

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. That explains, in part, why many people fear flying even though they know that statistically it’s one of the safest modes of transport. Though crashes are very rare, the vividness and emotion of seeing dramatic footage of crashed planes drowns out the rational knowledge of statistical safety.

As The New York Times reported:

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said his research showed the number of such shootings has roughly held steady in recent decades. He said that if analysts added a single year, 2014, and looked at four-year intervals instead of five-year intervals, the average number of annual mass shootings actually declined slightly from 2011 to 2014, compared with the previous four-year period. … While the numbers shift from year to year, there has been no discernible trend in the numbers or in the characteristics of the assailants, said Professor Fox, who is also a co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. “The only increase has been in fear, and in the perception of an increase,” he said. “A lot of that has been because of the nature of media coverage.”

School Shootings

Another aspect of the phenomenon is that people see (and share) misleading statistics. For example, a widely shared meme circulating in mid-February 2018 stated that there had been eighteen “school shootings” so far in 2018. This may help explain the sentiment that Americans have gotten used to these school shootings or have become “numb” to them. It’s easy to think that when you hear an alarming statistic like “a dozen school shootings already this year,” and you’re wondering why you didn’t hear about more of them or how so many shootings could have escaped your attention or not had more emotional impact on you.

Both USA Today and a researcher for the Snopes website investigated and debunked the claim of eighteen school shootings, noting that:

When we looked into it, we found that although all the incidents involved the firing of weapons on school grounds, some bore little resemblance to what most of us would think of when we hear that a school shooting has taken place. Two were solely suicides, for example (one of which Everytown retracted on 15 February after the Washington Post pointed out that it occurred at a school that had been closed for several months). Three involved the accidental firing of a weapon. Eight resulted in no injuries. Only seven were intentional shootings that occurred during normal school hours.

When we examine this feeling, however, the fact that such a meme can elicit this (intended) effect undermines the notion of our numbness: the meme’s message is startling—as it was designed to be—because viewers are alarmed when confronted with the fact that so many shootings escaped their notice. This meme would have no effect at all if, indeed, viewers did not care about shootings. It would be met with a shrug and scrolled past rather than induce self-reflection. Instead, the meme caused many to wonder how they missed so many important news events—but did they?

It’s important to understand that the number reflects a very broad definition of “school shooting.” When you look at the breakdown of “school shootings,” you realize that many were not incidents you’re likely to have heard about on national news or really cared about if you had: a suicide in a school parking lot, a gun that accidentally went off into a wall, a school bus window shot out with no injuries, etc. The phrase, as defined by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety—whose statistics are widely quoted—includes not only active shooters targeting students at school (i.e., what most people think of when they hear that phrase) but also accidents, suicides, events that didn’t happen at a school, non-injury incidents, and so on. People shouldn’t feel badly that they don’t remember details of events they likely never heard about.

Some have suggested that it doesn’t matter whether there were one, three, eleven, or twenty shootings at schools or cities over the first two months of 2018; “even one is too many.” This is a common retort, but it is misguided; quantifying a threat is important to understanding it. That’s the position that Trump has taken on many threats to make Americans fearful, including attacks by Muslim extremists, and that’s the basis for his statements such as Mexicans are “bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Framing the scenario dishonestly as “one Mexican rapist is too many” clouds the issue rather than clarifying it with reliable data (such as the fact that immigrants are far less likely to commit a serious crime than natural-born Americans). Putting threats in perspective is one role of journalists and skeptics. A first step in trying to address or solve a problem is determining its scope and nature.

In Part 2 of this series I will examine the different types of mass shootings and the demographics of mass shooters.

Aug 072019
 

I recently came across a blog by a fellow cryptozoology writer, Nick Redfern, which began with a well-deserved rant about armchair debunkers. The shabby state of research into Fortean topics is widely acknowledged by skeptics—and some “believers” (for lack of a better word).

In this particular case it was unnamed “debunkers” that he vented some spleen towards: “If there’s one thing, more than any other, that annoys me in the field of paranormal research, it’s an armchair researcher of the debunking kind. Time and time again I have heard the debunkers loudly assert (often in high-pitched, whiny voices, and with their arms firmly folded) that the chupacabra simply cannot, and does not, exist.”

I should note at this point that I may be one of the “debunkers” he’s referring to, as I spent five years investigating the chupacabra; the result was my 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, published by the University of New Mexico Press. (For the record, I have never claimed that the chupacabra cannot exist, merely that overwhelming evidence suggests it does not.)

As to these armchair debunkers, he asks: “How do they know? Well, actually, they don’t know. Have they personally visited Puerto Rico? For the most part, no, they have not. Have they sat down opposite a witness and actually spoken to them? Nope: Hardly more than the barest occasion. What they have done is to secure their data from that bastion of truth and reliability known as the Internet…. As to why the debunkers piss me off so much, it’s not just as a result of their lazy approach and attitude. It’s because by not actually visiting the places in question, and speaking with the people on the ground, they are missing out on a wealth of untapped data that simply cannot be found by just opening Google and typing in the words ‘Puerto Rico + chupacabra.’”

I, too, share his annoyance with armchair researchers (of all stripes, especially those who monger mysteries and can’t be bothered to check facts and do more than a superficial analysis). Field investigation is indeed important, and has helped me solve countless mysteries that I would not have been able to do via laptop or from the comfort of my armchair. That’s one reason why I traveled extensively for my chupacabra research, not only in New Mexico and Texas, but also as far as the jungles of Nicaragua. I also made multiple trips to Puerto Rico, interviewing dozens of first-hand eyewitnesses and experts, doing archival research, and so on.

 

He uses the following example: “A perfect case in point: if the chupacabra is a real creature, ask the naysayers, then why did it suddenly surface out of nowhere in 1995? Well, actually, it didn’t. Yes, it did, they reply; the Internet says so. Well, yes, the Internet does say that. But try speaking to the locals [who admit] that, yes, those emotive words—chupacabra and goat-sucker—were relatively new. No one disputed that. They added, however, that blood-sucking monstrosities of vampire-like proportions had been reported across the island not just for years but for decades; at least since the 1970s.”

I’m not a fan of believing whatever “the internet” says, but in this case it’s not me believing the internet so much as the internet believing me. Tracking the Chupacabra was the first book to establish that the beast first appeared in 1995 (and why). I’m sure there are some whiny-voiced, arm-crossed pouty armchair debunkers who couldn’t find Puerto Rico on a map insisting that the chupacabra suddenly surfaced in 1995, but they’re referencing my work and conclusions, and I stand by them. There seems to be not a single printed reference to a vampiric “chupacabra” in Puerto Rico or anywhere else before 1995; the word was coined soon after the first sighting in August 1995. No one suggests that the chupacabra “surfaced out of nowhere,” as I make very clear in my research; it surfaced in that year due to several factors, most prominent among them the release of the sci-fi film Species; see chapter 7 in my book for a full explanation.

This is, however, a nuanced argument and I’m happy to explain and clarify. It’s not complicated, but does require taking a little deeper analysis.

Yes, Virginia, the Chupacabra Dates to 1995

No one disputes that vampire reports and legends are a global phenomenon; that’s why my book begins with a chapter on vampires around the world, ranging from ancient Mesopotamia to revenant vampires in Middle Ages Europe (the kind who were staked in their coffins by fearful villagers) to vampire varieties in Africa and South America. Those vampires had different characteristics and went by many different names.

These typically emerge from specific regions and locations (the likichiri in Bolivia, for example, is not the strigoi in Romania, and so on). They’re all subtypes of vampires, but they are separate and distinct; they are not the same thing, and we confuse them (or lump them together) at our peril. Thus we can accurately say that the chupacabra did indeed suddenly emerge in Puerto Rico in 1995; or, if you prefer a more technically accurate version, that “a type of vampire called the chupacabra, with several distinct characteristics associated with it, both at the time and later” was first reported in 1995.

Were there earlier (pre-1995) reports of vampires, both in Puerto Rico and around the world? Of course there were; everyone knows this. It’s not accurate to assert that because a vampire had been reported on the island before 1995, that the chupacabra, specifically, had been reported—or that they were (or must have been) the same thing. They were not.

The Vampire of Moca: Early Chupacabra?

Let us return to the example of the pre-chupacabra Puerto Rican vampire Redfern offers. The famous “vampire” cited as a predecessor to the chupacabra relates to attacks in the city of Moca in 1975 and references his time spent there with a TV crew. Redfern mentions a report of a woman clawed by “what she described as a fearful-looking beast covered in feathers,” and also “a huge, winged monster” that landed on a home’s roof. It’s all suitably dramatic, but a very different beast than the one that would be described and named some two decades later on the other side of the island—which was rarely, if ever, described as having a feather-covered body or wings (nor for that matter, was it “huge”). When I interviewed the original chupacabra eyewitness she described it as a small (three-foot) humanlike figure with long arms and legs and alienlike, wraparound eyes and spikes down its back (see illustration below); later incarnations after 2000 were canid (such as coyotes and foxes).

Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

A huge, feathered “chupacabra” does not match descriptions from 1995 (with the exception of spine spikes with featherlike striations). Plus the earlier creature already had a name: El Vampiro de Moca, the Moca Vampire. 

I had also visited Moca during my research, in the interest of leaving no vampire story unturned. There’s simply no clear link between the Vampire of Moca and the chupacabra. Not only are the descriptions different, but the Moca incident was not the first example of “mysterious” predation in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, if the Moca Vampire and the chupacabra are the same animal, then it is hard to understand the creature’s two-decade fast between meals. It makes no sense that a “goatsucker” would kill a handful of animals with perhaps a gallon of blood between them in 1975 and then vanish for twenty years before suddenly reappearing and deciding to resume its quest for blood. (As I note in Tracking the Chupacabra, a nearly identical “chupacabra-like” incidents occurred a year earlier, in 1974 Nebraska and South Dakota. Eyewitnesses reported seeing “a monster-thing,” presumably having attacked cattle and drained their blood.) He’s incorrectly lumping the two phenomenon into one.

Claiming that the chupacabra existed before 1995 merely because there were earlier vampire reports is like saying that the Fouke Monster existed before the 1950s (when it was first reported)—or that the Honey Island Swamp monster existed before 1963 (when it was first sighted)—because Bigfoot reports (allegedly) date back a century or so earlier.

This is not a pedantic “debunker” argument, but instead a key lesson in cryptozoology. In their book The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide, Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe lament a common mistake in cryptozoological research, a “lumping problem,” that is, that myriad sightings of different, distinct creatures are lumped together under more general names such as Bigfoot or Yeti. This, they write, is a problem because it “hides a larger truth, lumps considerable differences, and just plain confuses the picture.” Lumping the chupacabra with the Moca Vampire is precisely the fundamental error Coleman and Huyghe describe.

As a comparison, Bigfoot (generically, as an unknown, hairy, bipedal hominid) reports existed before the Bigfoot-like Honey Island Swamp Monster was first reported in 1963, but that doesn’t logically mean that Honey Island Swamp Monster was described (or existed as its own entity) before 1963. The Fouke Monster can fairly be said to have first appeared in the 1950s; Mothman can fairly be said to have first appeared in 1966, and so on. For the same reason, the chupacabra can fairly be said to have first appeared in 1995. It’s not complicated.

So when I (and the internet, when it quotes me) say that the chupacabra first appeared in 1995, that is completely accurate: The chupacabra—as a specific variety of vampire unique to Puerto Rico—was first seen, named, and described in 1995. Not 1994, not 1985, not 1870. The true story of the chupacabra story is fascinating enough—involving conspiracy theories, vampires, creationists, and science fiction thrillers—without adding on myths and misinformation.

Jul 252019
 
Speaking at the Center for Inquiry, Buffalo New York.

Corporate America is ripe for scams, half-baked twaddle masquerading as insightful business advice, and dressed-up children’s books about misplaced cheese. One needs only to peruse the Business section of a local bookstore to see the never-ending parade of schemes. It’s the economic version of the Self-Help section, and there’s no shortage of self-promoting business “mavericks” hawking their unique method to improve profits and climb the corporate ladder to success. Not all of them are scams, of course, but a healthy skepticism is especially important in the business world. (For an interesting look at business fads, see Joel Best’s book Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads.) 

Enter Personalysis, which “since 1975 has worked with progressive, leading, and emerging companies to develop leadership capacity, improve communication, and high performance teams” using “a powerful personality-profiling instrument that accurately captures and graphically illustrates the human assets of an organization. Personalysis takes the guesswork out of understanding people and why they do what they do. Using the data provided by our technology, people have a road map to accelerate teamwork.” 

All that sounds great (if a bit vague), but is there any substance behind the buzzwords and corporatespeak? There are a few impressed clients; the program is endorsed by Steven Sample, President of the University of Southern California: “Personalysis is a valuable tool that we have used in a variety of situations here at the University of Southern California. In 2000 we used Personalysis to help our five senior vice presidents and me better understand each other and form a more effective administrative team.” 

According to information provided by the Personalysis Corporation, the company was founded in 1975 by James R. Noland, who has “graduate degrees from Yale University and New York University [and] also worked with the New York Institute for Psychological Research.” He developed the program based largely on ideas of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow. From questionnaire responses, the program gives advice on communication, cooperation, expectations, and other measures important to the business world. One distinctive feature of the Personalysis report is the Colorgraph, a visual representation of personality traits that somewhat resembles the artwork of Piet Mondrian (see Figure 1). 

A close review of Mr. Vande Voorde’s” Personalysis Summary” reveals information that seems very much like astrology, depending on the “Barnum Effect” (using generalizations that seem specific but apply to everyone) to provide the illusion of personal validity. It includes such comments as, “You need freedom to explore ideas and act,” and “You are frustrated when having to deal with repetitious details or needless bureaucracy.” This is of course in stark contrast to the rest of us, who don’t need freedom to explore ideas, and who enjoy dealing with needless bureaucracy. 

Though the Personalysis literature is heavy on testimonials, it is light on studies supporting its efficacy. The only published review  I could find of Personalysis (Gebart-Eaglemont andLeung, 1995)is quite scathing, noting “there is no clear evidence that test items were generated in a systematic manner…test reports provide test takers with very specific comments about who they are, [yet] the empirical foundation of these specific comments is quite weak. There is no information on how items were developed, and how these items were written to reflect theoretical constructs upon which the test was anchored. Also, there is no information on whether a scientific process was involved in selecting test items, [and] no information given on the characteristics of norms. The technical manual was not comprehensive and informative… the sections on reliability and validity were not written in a clear and concise manner.” 

In other words, it’s not clear how Mr. Noland developed his “scientific management tool that provides a unique assessment” of one’s personality. It may have been created using cutting-edge behavioral science research. Or Noland may have just dreamed it up over a bottle of wine. Either way, it’s a money-maker. The Basic Personalysis workshop costs $6,000, and Advanced training is available for $3,000. For $400 per hour, you can consult with a Personalysis consultant via Web-based videoconferencing. 

The basis for Mr. Noland’s expertise is unclear. Curiously, the “New York Institute for Psychological Research” where Noland claimed to have worked doesn’t seem to exist, and when I contacted the Personalysis Corporation inquiring about Mr. Noland, no one there could provide any further information on his academic background, including the years he allegedly graduated from Yale and NYU. Noland has long since retired and is no longer with the company. A search of the medical literature turned up nothing published by Noland since the 1960s, and little or nothing on the topic of behavioral science, despite the fact that Noland is cited as a “behavioral scientist.” 

As for the signature Colorgraph that is supposedly a visual representation of personality, the reviewers noted, “It is not clear why colors, instead of descriptors that might convey meanings, are used to denote personality traits.” The four-colored diagram seems more of a creative gimmick than anything based in science (“Look, that green rectangle represents my motivation to control things!”). 

The review concludes, “From a scientific perspective, Personalysis is not developed through a vigorous and systematic research process. As this point, there is not sufficient empirical evidence to support the reliability and validity of Personalysis. Test takers should use it cautiously and with reservations.” 

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! 

Jul 182019
 

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned unprecedented online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted about 276 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014.

Since that time about half have been recovered, and over 100 remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown—or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

Though the Chibok girls got international attention, they were not the only victims. As The New York Times Magazine described, many thousands of boys were also abducted and conscripted into Boko Haram’s ranks, forced to pillage, shoot innocent people, and at times behead their victims. Missing girls typically get more media attention than missing boys, and this was no exception.

Bringing Back Our Girls and Boys

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world for half a decade? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast—including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use—and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blamed Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. Celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper joined the campaign; Timberlake, for example, tweeted an image holding signs that said “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”—a well-intended effort based on the dubious premise that militant Muslim terrorists can be shamed into questioning their masculinity by wealthy American actors and pop stars.

First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren’t forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and months to years, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans—which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as “hostages” (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). Informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls’ return. Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including—and especially—an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. Abductions and attacks have continued; as a CNN timeline shows, the group’s power remains. The Obama administration was understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma that the Trump administration has shown no appetite for tackling. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don’t care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned.

You can see the original version of this article HERE.

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! 

Jul 162019
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is about organ theft urban legends, a favorite subject of mine.

Richard Saunders of The Skeptic Zone joins us to discuss organ theft tales! The notion of waking up one day without a few organs, the biological equivalent of being pick-pocketed, has been a pernicious and persistent rumor. In the 1990s, the idea of waking up in a bathtub full of ice with an ominous note did not seem so far-fetched, and notions of rich Westerners kidnapping children from developing countries to harvest them for spare parts fuels fear and hatred to this day. Ben brings his folklore knowledge to the topic and we discuss some pop culture and news stories that have to do with organ theft. We also look at some biological and medical limitations and examine how these theft legends differ from actual organ trafficking, which is a whole different can of kidneys.

You can listen to it HERE!

Jul 142019
 

In 2011 I had just written an article for Discovery News about a bogus psychic in Long Island when a young woman named Holly Bobo went missing in Tennessee. Her abduction made national news, and I decided to monitor psychic predictions and information about her disappearance in real time (instead of the more-common after-the-fact analysis). It was revealing research that provided fodder for another article–and prompted a legal threat from a psychic! You can hear the whole story exclusively on this episode of Squaring the Strange, out now at the link HERE!

Jul 072019
 

For those who didn’t see it, special guest SciBabe recently joined us to examine Multi Level Marketing (MLM) and pyramid schemes on the new episode of Squaring the Strange. MLM crap annoys us so Celestia spent plenty of time bleeping out choice curse words!

Ben and Celestia are joined by the SciBabe, Yvette d’Entremont, to discuss the scourge of MLMs (Multilevel Marketing) companies. These organizations, some of the bordering on pyramid schemes, have a long and storied history in America. Many target women, often seeming like a good option to stay-at-home mothers eager for income and independence. But the math doesn’t tell such an optimistic story, nor does the trail of shamed failed distributors, online rants, and FTC prosecutions. You can hear this delicious and informative, ear candy HERE!

Jul 032019
 

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned unprecedented online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted about 276 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014.

Since that time about half have been recovered, and over 100 remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown—or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

Though the Chibok girls got international attention, they were not the only victims. As The New York Times Magazine described, many thousands of boys were also abducted and conscripted into Boko Haram’s ranks, forced to pillage, shoot innocent people, and at times behead their victims. Missing girls typically get more media attention than missing boys, and this was no exception.

Bringing Back Our Girls and Boys

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world for half a decade? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast—including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use—and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blamed Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. Celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper joined the campaign; Timberlake, for example, tweeted an image holding signs that said “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”—a well-intended effort based on the dubious premise that militant Muslim terrorists can be shamed into questioning their masculinity by wealthy American actors and pop stars.

First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren’t forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and months to years, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans—which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as “hostages” (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). Informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls’ return. Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including—and especially—an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. Abductions and attacks have continued; as a CNN timeline shows, the group’s power remains. The Obama administration was understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma that the Trump administration has shown no appetite for tackling. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don’t care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned.

Jul 012019
 

Breathless headlines last month referred to the “FBI Investigating Bigfoot,” a clickbaity phrase if ever social media saw one, along with the promise that newly-declassified FBI files shed light on the mystery.

As intriguing and sensational as it sounds, it turns out to be much ado about nothing. I’ll summarize the story, but there’s not much to tell.

In 1976 prominent Bigfoot researcher Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition, wrote to the FBI asking if they would agree to analyze some material—specifically fifteen hairs of unknown origin, along with a bit of skin.

This got a December 15, 1976 response back from Jay Cochran, Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Scientific and Technical Services Division. He explained that the FBI typically only works on criminal cases, but that “Occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, in the interest of research and scientific inquiry, we make exceptions to this general policy. With this understanding, we will examine the hairs and tissue.” A follow up letter to Byrne’s colleague Howard Curtis (dated February 24, 1977) provided the results of the examination: “the hairs are of deer family origin.”

And… that’s about it.

The FBI did not “investigate Bigfoot.” It did not deem it credible or even worthy of investigation. It agreed to use its technical expertise to analyze some unknown hairs for a respected Bigfoot researcher, which turned out to be deer.

Which, by the way, is fine with me. Though I prefer that public funds not be spent on Bigfoot research (at least until such time as more compelling evidence emerges), I have no objection to an ad hoc scientific analysis of possible Bigfoot hairs by the FBI or any crime lab. After all, that’s the only way that the creatures—if they’re real—will ever be verified. I understand that the Bigfoot believer community is desperate for scientific legitimacy, and has been for decades, but this recently-released FBI correspondence won’t provide it.

Jun 242019
 

I’ve been seeing links to this news story widely shared over the past few months, about the U.S. voting against a U.N. resolution condemning Nazis. It’s being shared as evidence of our current government supporting white supremacists– except that it happened in 2016 under Obama.

Media literacy tip: Recycling old news on social media is often misleading.

Jun 212019
 

Soon after a university cheating scandal recently broke, a meme declared that “White privilege is REAL,” and gave three examples presumably illustrating that premise. The first shows a photo of actress Felicity Huffman and states that “Feds will seek 4 months jail time for Felicity Huffman for bribing her daughter into college.” This is contrasted with two photos of African-American women, captioned with “Tanya McDowell got 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district,” and “Kelley Williams-Bolar got 3 years and $30K fine for sending her daughters to the wrong district.”

It seems to be a sobering and damning indictment of racism in the criminal justice system (leaving aside—as this meme does—the significant differences in the crimes the women are charged with, the laws and sentencing that vary by state, and so on). But is it true? To assess the accuracy of the claims, let’s take a closer look at the cases mentioned.

Kelley Williams-Bolar

In 2007 Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar wanted her daughters to enroll in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. The problem was that they lived in Akron, and her children were not eligible to attend school in Copley-Fairlawn. Still, the promise of a highly-ranked school district was strong, so she falsified her address on school documents so they could be enrolled.

When school officials confronted her about the discrepancy, she asked her father, who did live within the Copley-Fairlawn district, to file additional documents stating that her children lived with him. Because school districts are funded with money paid by taxpayers within each district for residents of that district, Williams-Bolar was accused of fraud and cheating the system—an accusation she did not deny.

When caught, school officials asked her to repay the district $30,000, the value of the back tuition that her daughters had unfairly received over the years. She refused, resulting in her arrest and two convictions for records tampering. Williams-Bolar did not “get three years and a $30,000 fine” for her actions; she was sentenced to ten days in county jail, and served nine of them.

Whatever one may think of Williams-Bolar’s motivations, it’s not clear why this would be an example to contrast with “white privilege.” Given the very real and rampant racism that exists against people of color, singling this case out as a textbook example of a black woman abused by the system is curious. This is not a case where the full force of the law came down on a hapless black woman who’d committed a minor infraction.

Local authorities gave her every opportunity to avoid trouble, and in fact Ohio governor John Kasich reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors specifically so that they would not jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching license—something rarely done for anyone, black or white. When asked whether she felt that she’d been treated differently by the school district or police because of her race, Williams-Bolar replied, “I cannot answer that. I just know that my situation happened for what I did…. I don’t think it happened because of the color of my skin.”

Tanya McDowell

Tanya McDowell, a 34-year-old Bridgeport, Connecticut woman, chose to send her five year old son to Brookside Elementary School despite the fact that he was ineligible to attend. McDowell was in fact sentenced to prison—but not specifically for sending her kid to the wrong school. She was charged with first-degree larceny and several counts of selling crack cocaine and marijuana. As the judge in her case noted, “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer. I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.” Thus McDowell did not in fact “get 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district.”

McDowell faced more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She was sentenced to twelve years on drug and larceny charges, which was suspended after she served five of them. She eventually served a total of three years after being released in 2017, two years early. The sentence was not imposed upon her by a judge or jury, but was instead the result of plea deal she and her lawyer agreed to.

As with Williams-Bolar, it’s hard to see McDowell’s case as an example of excessive and harsh penalties being levied on black women by a white-biased justice system whose only crime is wanting their children to get a good education. In both of these cases those in power demonstrated sympathy and compassion, and the women didn’t serve anywhere near what was claimed. One can argue that the sentences were too harsh to begin with, but Williams-Bolar serving nine days (instead of three years) and McDowell serving three years (of a twelve year sentence for charges including drug dealing)—don’t seem to clearly demonstrate black women being harshly penalized at every turn, nor ones that starkly contrast with Felicity Huffman’s white privilege.

As of today Huffman has not been sentenced, but if she is indeed given four months of jail time (as the prosecutors recommended) then Huffman’s sentence would actually be twelve times longer than that of Williams-Bolar. Huffman’s wealthy white privilege is certainly real, but in this case it didn’t seem to have helped reduce her sentence as compared to the poorer African-American women listed. Also, it’s important to note the Huffman, like McDowell, negotiated and accepted her sentence in a plea deal, and thus would get a lighter sentence than Williams-Bolar—or one of Huffman’s wealthy white female peers who may yet be found guilty in a criminal trial, such as actress Lori Loughlin. As noted, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to begin with; it would be more informative to see a black woman in Huffman’s situation or a white woman in Williams-Bolar’s.

Mistake or Misinformation?

The fact that a widely-shared meme has factual errors is of course hardly surprising. Memes—especially ones with a political or social justice agenda—are often shared precisely because they generate outrage. The question is not whether white privilege is real; the question is whether the two specific examples given in this meme are valid examples by which to measure white privilege.

But even that is a red herring. Once we’ve established that the meme is false, a more interesting and important question becomes who created it in the first place, and why. After all, the false information contained in the meme was not merely a typographical error or a mistake in a date. Accurate information about both the cases of Williams-Bolar and McDowell are easy to find online; in order to get the correct spellings of the womens’ names, their photos, number and gender of children, the specific sentences and so on, it’s virtually certain that whoever created the meme saw the accurate information but intentionally chose to mischaracterize it, in not one but both cases. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentionally misleading information spread for a political purpose; in other words it’s propaganda.

The meme (at least in the versions I saw) was uncredited, as many memes are. It’s created to be indistinguishable from any number of similar social justice memes. (This could be avoided if social media platforms required that memes be identified, either in the image itself or via metadata, by who created them. People could still create anonymous memes, of course, but they could be prevented from being seen or shared.)

Of course few people bother to fact-check the information they see. That (often thankless) task is left to journalists, media literacy educators—and sometimes skeptics. As they say, a lie can go around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on, and nowhere is that truer than on social media. Clicking a Like or Share can take less than one second; researching and fact-checking can take hours. This is why critical thinking and media literacy are so important; they help us recognize when we are being manipulated and tricked into spreading misinformation.

One prime suspect in this case, in my opinion, is the Kremlin. It may be part of a widespread and sustained misinformation campaign to sow racial division and discord among Americans. This campaign is has been widely reported, and in 2017 I investigated a case where Russian disinformation campaigns and trolls specifically used racially charged news stories as a pretext to share misinformation and conspiracy theories (see my Special Report ‘How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’’).

Russia has been subtly manipulating well-intentioned social activists to share their viral outrage and anti-U.S. propaganda, and their attempts have become even more obvious recently. In fact such disinformation likely helped elect Trump: Part of Putin’s goal was to sow distrust of the Obama administration and outrage people into demanding a change in leadership. That Russia attempted, with varying degrees of success, to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is beyond dispute and widely accepted by the American intelligence community.

It is of course difficult for people to accept that they have embraced (and perpetuated) misinformation and manipulation—Mark Twain is said to have observed that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”—and that’s especially true for social justice activists sincerely trying to do good in the world by highlighting social, economic, and racial inequities. That’s one reason that Russian propaganda is so effective and insidious; it fits right in.

Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 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 represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she 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.” Of course white privilege is real, but misinformation is misinformation regardless of who shares it, or why. There are enough real examples that people don’t need to fabricate them by comparing Huffman, Williams-Bolar and McDowell.

Otherwise socially literate and ‘woke’ people give more thought to where their clothes are made and their coffee is sourced than to where the information they believe and share on social media comes from. Putin has many puppets, and only the highest-profile one inhabits the White House. The vast majority of the Russian disinformation army are Americans who eagerly share misleading and divisive misinformation in the guise of good.

Jun 052019
 

My new CFI blog is out! I take a brief look at the folklore behind the genie in ‘Aladdin,’ and explain how Disney’s “genies” came from Arabic “jinn.”

With the much-hyped release of the new version of Disney’s Aladdin, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief folkloric look at genies and jinn.

Jinn (or djinn) refers to creatures that appeared in medieval Arabic folklore; they were usually depicted as threatening and free-willed—so dangerous in fact that rituals and amulets are and were used to protect against them. Though belief in jinn predates the creation of Islam, the creatures are referenced in the Koran; Allah created three types of beings from three substances: humans (made of earth); angels (made of light); and jinn (made of smokeless fire). Many Muslims around the world today believe in the literal existence of these jinn, much as many Christians around the world believe in the literal existence of angels.

In his book Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar researcher Robert Lebling notes that “jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world’s population…. They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible.” Jinn are sometimes blamed for unexplained minor health scares, accidents, and misfortune. Like spirits and demons, jinn are said to be able to possess humans and can be exorcised from the human body through rituals. Jinn are believed, like ghosts, to sometimes haunt buildings, homes, and other locations. They are associated with wind and fire.

Genies, on the other hand, are the Westernized, commercialized, and often sanitized versions of the jinn, such as the genie in Aladdin. Jinn are not particularly known for their Aladdin-like wish granting (though they can be commanded to carry out tasks by those schooled in the magical arts); that aspect is much more closely aligned with genies—perhaps best known to American audiences in I Dream of Jeannie and Aladdin.

You can read the rest of the article HERE.

And for much more listen to the episode of Squaring the Strange we did on the topic; it’s HERE!

Jun 042019
 

My new CFI media literacy article examines the demographics of American mass shooters. Many people believe that most mass shooters are white males, but in fact it varies by type of shooting; there is no single representative or predictive demographic, other than being male: “Singling out any specific race as being dangerous—or, worse yet, highlighting rare anecdotal violent incidents as representative of larger groups—is more likely to fuel racism than help the public.”

With the recent tragic attacks against Muslims in New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

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. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “’Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).

You can read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.

Apr 192019
 

This week we take a quick look at the Momo challenge’s resurgence and surprisingly mainstream fall; then for our main segment we dive back into the strange, sketchy world of Ed & Lorraine Warren. These opportunistic and not-exactly-truthful storytellers are a big reason the modern horror genre looks the way it does. Erik Kristopher Myers joins us once more to go through some of their biggest “cases”: The Demon Murder Case, Amityville, and the hauntings behind the more recent Conjuring movies.

We look at what writers and other investigators who have worked with the Warrens had to say, and we examine the fallout that real-life people end up having to deal with as a result of the sensationalized tales of hauntings.

You can listen to the whole delightful episode HERE!

Apr 192019
 

I saw this meme recently, it’s a Cuban art project about exploited children. However one of the photos, bottom left, is based on an urban legend.

The artist is trying to raise awareness of child organ trafficking, but it doesn’t actually happen. I’ve researched, written about, and debunked this myth. There are organ *sales* in some countries (e.g., India and Pakistan), but they are voluntarily sold by adults.

Children’s organs are unusable by adults, so there’s no real demand for them on the black market. The irony is that this myth has actually been used to increase fear and hatred of foreigners—it’s exactly the sort of conspiracy Trump would use. It’s an interesting piece but unfortunately perpetuates harmful myths.

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! 

Apr 182019
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed…

This week, Ben and Pascual dig into the legend of Kuchisake-Onna, aka the Slit-mouthed Woman. From the origins of her terrifying story to the modern day pop culture references, the guys explore every creepy detail.

Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of what makes something fictional “problematic” and just how serious the implications are. You can hear the episode HERE!

Apr 102019
 

Recent news reports claimed that most people intentionally disrespect transgendered individuals by calling them by something other than their preferred gender pronoun. For example one piece began: “Three in five people internationally report that they would intentionally misgender a transgender person, according to a recent survey. Ipsos found that only two out of five people in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States said they would call a trans man ‘he’ and a trans woman ‘she,’ instead of misgendering them.”

Written by Jeff Taylor for LGBTQ Nation, the article’s headline is “3 in 5 People Will Deliberately Misgender a Trans Person to Show Disrespect.”

Fortunately for trans people—though unfortunately for Taylor’s journalistic credibility—it’s not true.

For clarification we can go to the original study—the LGTBQ Nation article conspicuously did not provide a link—and look at what the questions and results were. We can begin by noting that the findings of the study bear little relation to the headline. In fact the study says nothing at all about the misgendering being either “deliberate” or intended to “show disrespect.”

The results vary slightly by country and whether the subject is a transgender man or transgender woman (see the graphs below), but for example we see that in the United States, the majority of Americans (38%, the single highest response) would refer to a trans man with a masculine pronoun, while about half that percentage, 21%, would refer to the person using a feminine pronoun. A slightly larger percentage, 23%, said they didn’t know how they would refer to the person, and a minority (18%) said they would refer to the person using a gender-neutral pronoun.

It doesn’t clarify whether any misgendering is intentional. It’s a subtle distinction, but the question doesn’t ask people what pronoun they would use when addressing a transgender person, but instead “when speaking about” him or her. Thus without context we cannot know whether that usage is motivated by intent to show disrespect or simply not knowing what the hypothetical trans person’s preference is. They may misgender people accidentally, or because they are unsure of the person’s preferred address, or out of hostility, or because they simply aren’t aware of the proper etiquette.

We cannot assume, as Taylor seems to, that any response other than the pronoun that aligns with how the persons lives and dresses—such as a neutral pronoun or “I don’t know”—necessarily indicates an attempt to deliberately misgender anyone. To do so is misleading at best and fearmongering at worst.

For more on this, see my CFI blog HERE.