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The internet is full of fictional and tendentious stories posing as real news: the trouble is, many of us are only too willing to believe them

Are we all getting just a little gullible?

By on Monday, 17 October 2011

A little moderate scepticism helps when reading stories online

A little moderate scepticism helps when reading stories online

I begin with a splendid little joke played on his congregation by our parish priest over a year ago. In the notices on the weekly sheet (proper Mass readings and prayers on the obverse side) an announcement appeared to the effect that, unfortunately, because of new health and safety regulations, the burning of votive candles before the church’s various shrines would shortly be illegal, and that the Swedish firm of Arvin Olaf would therefore shortly be installing tasteful electric candles, which would light up when a coin was placed in the appropriate slot.

This notice naturally produced an apoplectic response in most members of the congregation who read it (including myself, I have to admit), and after Mass we all descended in our rage on Fr Daniel, the then newly appointed parish priest, who was incomprehensibly (he is a very serious and clearly prayerful young man) highly delighted by our response, which he greeted with ill-contained laughter. Is it true, we spluttered? And what’s so funny about it? Well, he replied, look again at the name of the Swedish electric candle firm. What? Arvin Olaf, he said. Think about it. Arvin Olaf. ’Avin a laugh? It was a tease. We, of course, responded with slightly shame-faced laughter, which became more uninhibited the more we thought about it. But what was he saying? Don’t believe everything you read, even in the parish notices? Or was it, don’t get so het up about unimportant things?

‘Elf and safety, political correctness, and a whole load of other issues, illegal immigrants on our benefits, the general moral collapse of our society and so on, are (some of them) serious enough: but maybe we need to think a bit more about what’s involved rather than simply relapsing into “disgusted, Tunbridge Wells” mode. I only suggest this because with advancing years I detect this tendency more and more in myself. The danger is that it induces a willingness to believe anything at all which feeds our prejudices.

To some extent, this is inevitable. Don’t we tend to read the newspaper least likely to outrage our prejudices and most likely to build them up? But a certain initial scepticism about such information is probably a good idea. Fortified by the Arvin Olaf incident, perhaps, I am glad to say that I was not taken in by the following “news item”, which we were sent by a relative now living permanently abroad, as an example of what has happened to this country (possibly in an unconscious justification for leaving it forever?)

In a run-down part of the East End of London a fire destroyed a dilapidated four-storey house that had been divided into four flats.

A Nigerian family of six internet con artists and full-time benefit cheats lived on the first floor… all six tragically perished in the fire.

A group of seven Islamic welfare cheats, all illegally in the country, lived on the second floor… they too, all perished in the fire.

Six Albanian, gang banger, ex-cons – all claiming political asylum and living off the state for free, occupied the 3rd floor… they too, died.

But the middle aged British white couple who lived on the top floor miraculously survived the fire. The Equal Opportunities Commission, Amnesty International, rights activists, black community leaders and the British Islamic Council were all furious at the apparent racial inequality of the situation.

Why was just the British white couple saved? It was monstrous, they claimed, and showed that systemic “racism” still existed in all areas of public service… A large motorcade of representatives from all five groups, together with the Home Secretary, drove to the area, having demanded a meeting with the local
chief fire officer….

On camera, they loudly demanded to know why the Africans, Black Muslims and Albanians all died in the fire and only the white couple lived.

One bemused chief fire officer quietly replied: “Because they were both at work.”

Well, there is something pretty obviously fishy about this story; for a start, where does it come from? It doesn’t read at all like a newspaper story in any identifiable English paper. It’s too long-winded for a tabloid, too crudely opinionated for a “quality” paper. But our ex-pat source did believe it: “this says a lot about England” was her view. “They had it coming, I suppose. Fruits of Empire. But very sad.”

Actually this particular spoof has appeared in many versions in more than one country. The following mutation is clearly meant to be believed, since it gives as its source the Los Angeles Times (I have not however, perhaps unsurprisingly, been able to confirm that any such article ever appeared in that highly respectable paper). This is the “Los Angeles” version:

A fire was reported in a three family house mid-morning Wednesday last week.

There were many fatalities.

On the first floor lived a black family – 6 fatalities.

On the second floor lived a Mexican family – 13 fatalities.

On the third floor lived a white family of 2 – no fatalities.

A reporter at the scene made headlines with this story. Immediately the fire chief and his department were attacked by NAACP, Jesse Jackson and other black rights groups, as well as the Mexican Consulate as being racist in their handling of the fire and loss of life issues.

There was some unsettling discomfort when questioned further the fire chief explained why the family on the third floor survived the fire and the others did not.

His only response was, “They were at work!”

Message: all immigrants are lazy spongers who are a drain on our resources: and those who seek to defend them against the racism of those who reject them absolutely are politically committed opportunists to be ignored.

Meanwhile, all attempts at considering such issues in a sane and balanced way become more and more difficult.

So what’s the solution? Firstly, perhaps, a little moderate scepticism; and second a little more cool thought about such facts as really can be established. Pretty obvious stuff, I know. But not necessarily the way we actually behave. So, when I find myself beginning to get cross about some aspect of our disintegrating culture, I here most solemnly resolve to remind myself of that indispensable Swede Arvin Olaf. And then to try to find out what is really going on.

  • Bob Hayes

    Thank you for a thoughtful piece Dr Oddie. A timely reminder of the dangers posed by what American journalist and historian, George Dangerfield, described as, ‘simple minds all waiting to be outraged’.

  • Brian A Cook

    An extreme example of what you rightly warn against might be those fear-mongering and even hate-mongering conspiracy theories floating around. 

  • Damo Lennon

    My old parish in Scotland actually DOES have a little light that comes on for a couple of hours when you drop your coin in!

  • Anonymous

    There are many parishes that have made exactly the same announcement as the one in Dr Oddie’s parish bulletin, except they were being serious. Some priests use “health and safety” as an excuse because they do not want the bother of votive candles, which can be rather messy. The electric votive lights are also more profitable.

    As an example of a false internet story being picked up all over the world, Dr Oddie need have gone no further than the nonsense about the BBC banning BC/AD. Despite there being no truth in the story it got as far as the front page of L’Osservatore Romano.

  • Anonymous

    The moral here seems to be that we should keep a healthy, skeptical distance between ourselves and news as presented in the Internet so as to apply our critical faculties in separating fact from fiction.  News-gathering these days is not ideologically free and the printed, audio, televisual and Internet media outlets are not lacking in their own particular biases.  Dr William illustrates this reality nicely with a couple of invented satirical new-stories which more than likely will bring out our inherent prejudices rather than neutrality.  While acknowledging that we should regard news items with a dispassionate analysis, we should not overlook how some media organizations have either through company policy or programme-making, have managed to marginalize or distort religions and particularly Catholicism, because of a prevailing ideological bias.  We know who the usual suspects are in relation to this trend but we should be steadfast in our public witness of the gospel values regardless of the temporal values of society opinion formers or programme-makers.

  • Lefty048

    Mr. Oddie how come you have no thoughts about bishop Finn?

  • Anonymous

    “Are we all getting just a little gullible?”

    ## I doubt it.

    The Internet is so full of demonstrably false rubbish – in C.S. Lewis’ words, a “cataract of nonsense”,  that constant exposure to it makes one rather cynical.

    My favourite foolishness on the Net is the recycling in modern books of exploded 19th-century learning. Typically, an intelligent (but with hindsight, demonstrably groundless) 1830s hypothesis about pre-Christian Christs or the like will find its way into a book on Egyptology published in 1900, even though it has been demolished in the 1880s; and from the 1900 book it will find its way into something written in 2005 which presents the idea as Orl the On Werk of the author writing in 2005 (people of this kind are not good at giving references, unless to books that favour their ideas). And from the 2005 book, it will make its way onto the Net and become the latest Absolutely Final & Decisive Disproof of the existence of Jesus, because either he was Julius Caesar, or Mithras, or Buddha, or the god Horus, or Bilbo Baggins the silly hobbit – if not all of them.

    The Lilliputianising & nullification of Jesus in modern times would make an interesting study in itself. Someone somewhere has doubtless proved that He was from Atlantis – there are those who claim Atlantis is in the Bible. The next idiocy will doubtless be that Hogwarts’ is mentioned in the Bible. This is the Bible, not as Holy Writ, but as “Enquire Within (upon everything)”. To become a sci-fi novel, it needed only Hal Lindsey :(

  • Oconnordamien

    Be careful there. Bilbo may have been a bit silly and small townish at the start of the story, but by the end he was the wisest hobbit in The Shire. You don’t want to be blasphemous to the Tolkienites, I have it on good authority that many of them spend their weekends wearing cloaks and big swords looking for enemies to vanquish. Though you should be safe unless you live in an enchanted forest.

    Don’t get me started on the Hogwarts bunch. I’ve heard they gather on a certain half platform in a London train station.

  • Oconnordamien

    There are only two types of people who would consider that a news story, people who would know it untrue but it fit’s their agenda and the terminally stupid. It has a punchline for crying out loud. If I was sitting in the pub with a mate, well I’d be sceptical, then the last line would arrive and boom….. groans and giggles.

    OK I admit my mates aren’t PC when it comes to jokes.

  • Oconnordamien

    When I was a kid we used to go in, put our penny in the slot and take the candles to light our hideaways.
    Then we’d do a “Bless us Jaysus and Mary” as we lit them and planned who would next run full tilt through the allotments with a man chasing you with a spade.

    That was inner city Dublin in the 70′s! Now it seems more like an episode of the Little Rascals.

  • Anonymous

    I’m going by Bilbo’s self-description towards the end of “The Council of Elrond” :) – he should know his own character. I agree though – he was, arguably. If one worshipped Melkor or Sauron, that would be blasphemy – & it happens. Taking the name of the Lord of the West as a royal name is also accounted blasphemous. Speaking disrepectfully of a hobbit would not be on a par with that. I wouldn’t go as far as some Tolkiendili (as French Tolkienians call themselves); though whether Balrogs have wings, I don’t know. IMO, definitely. And I won’t mention the sauce of HP again.

    It’s only a matter of time – less than 200 years ? – before there are archaeological expeditions to find the remains of Isengard or retrieve the Seeing Stones. Why is Cape Wrath so called ? Simples – because it is near the site of the War of Wrath – which means that the coast of Scotland is near the North of Middle Earth as it was in the First Age. No one will be around to point out that the real location of all of this is in the imagination of a brilliant story-teller who had the knack of giving his fictions the consistency of reality. That is where Fundamentalists who seek for Noah’s Ark come adrift. A determined Tolkiendil could always claim that Genesis is based on the original Elvish texts, and that the Flood is a late Hebrew memory of events in the First or Second Age. The spirit in which people hunt for the Ark is not really so different from the spirit in which future generations may come to hunt for historical proof of the War of the Ring; and Tolkien’s  books do have something of the character of the Bible. They are subjected to almost Rabbinic scrutiny, and they have explanatory power, just as the Bible has. No wonder people are swallowed up in them.

  • Oconnordamien

    Holy crap I thought I was a nerd!!!

  • Jonathan West

    I’m not sure you want to be inveighing too much against credulity. After all, your readers might start wondering about the plausibility of certain rather older stories as well…