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Fitting the narrative

One of my occasional hobbies is social media (usually Facebook) hoax-slaying. I think I'm pretty good at spotting hoaxes. You can usually recognise something in the wording that doesn't seem quite right. Maybe it's my auditing experience - professional scepticism and all that.

Usually these hoaxes are crime scare stories - marks on the pavement are signs left by dognappers, look out for axe-wielding maniacs who get into your car at petrol stations - or chain letters purporting to be from Microsoft or Apple. Today though, we've had a political one. It's this:

"The most perfect thing I have ever seen just happened on the replacement train bus service between Newport and Cwmbran:

White man sat in front of a mother and her son. Mother was wearing a niqab. After about 5 minutes of the mother talking to her son in another language the man, for whatever reason, feels the need to tell the woman "When you're in the UK you should really be speaking English."

At which point, an old woman in front of him turns around and says, "She's in Wales. And she's speaking Welsh."


I was suspicious of this straight away. I'm Welsh and I've got a pretty good idea of what kind of people in Wales speak Welsh as a preferred language and not English. It's a small minority of natives, perhaps about 12%. Those 12% are predominantly in the northwest of the principality, far away from Cwmbran and Newport, both of which are in the southeast, not far from the English border. And I wonder how many are fundamentalist muslims of the particular sect and subculture where the women wear a niqab? So the chances of there being a muslim welsh-speaker on a train in southeast Wales wearing a niqab seems pretty damn small to me. There are estimated to be only 1,000 niqab wearers in the whole of the UK, let alone in south Wales. Not absolutely impossible, but pretty damn unlikely. One of our more sceptical newspapers did a bit of fact-checking with the train company and found that there was no replacement bus service on that route.

The thing is though, this story serves two purposes for some people. Firstly, there's the confirmation bias angle. So many people - often quite sensible people - will share the most absurd articles and stories on social media if it fits their own narrative of how they think the world works. Then there's virtue-signalling. A certain type of person is very susceptible to this, and you probably don't need me to describe that type to you. "Racism is baaaaaaad, m'kay? So if I share this it will show that I don't like racism and so I must be good."

The mainstream media falls for this sort of hoax too. Google this story and you'll see it appearing on plenty of newspaper websites. (You might also see earlier versions of the same story, which replaces Welsh with Navajo.) With the media, virtue-signalling isn't that important (although signalling that they are like their readers absolutely is). However, they go in for a form of deliberate confirmation bias that is all about fitting the narrative they want to tell.

Take Brendan Cox for example. Brendan Cox is the widower of the MP who was shot dead by a nutter last week. Since we're all shocked by the hideous crime, the narrative for the widower is brave father, putting on a brave face for the sake of the children, advocating for the causes his late wife fought for with quiet nobility. BBC News this evening led with a schmaltzy interview that was all about fitting this narrative. A single perfect tear slowly rolling down his cheek, that sort of thing. To get this effect, it means that anything about Brendan Cox that doesn't fit this narrative has to be swept under the carpet. It certainly doesn't fit the narrative that Mr Cox was a 'charity fat cat' who earned an astonishing salary of £160,000 a year from a charity that fights against poverty. (Mayb he was worth it.) Nor does it fit the narrative that Mr Cox was partly responsible for that charity starting to criticise the government before the last election (something which I daresay didn't exactly hurt his wife's chances of being selected as a candidate for the opposition). And it certainly doesn't fit the narrative that the reason Mr Cox no longer works for that charity is because he was forced to resign after several complaints over his "inappropriate behaviour" towards female staff. I can't imagine his wife was too happy about this at the time, can you?


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 21st, 2016 08:45 pm (UTC)
I thought that story was probably made up, but it was still funny.

And as to Brendan Cox, I think those facts are not in the story, because the story is not about him. The story is about his murdered wife, and (to a small extent) his reaction to that. Other stuff about him is not news (and frankly, a bit icky to mention).

That seems very different to making up a funny story that never happened, to me.
Jun. 22nd, 2016 10:36 am (UTC)
Further to the niquab story, another friend shared : http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/what-story-niqab-wearing-welsh-speaker-tells-us-about-what-we-want-hear

I must admit, I don't like the idea that the story is designed to show off political opponents as idiotic and immoral, so I revise my view that it was just another mildly-funny Facebook tale, like the one with the swimming pool full of blue children, which admittedly did not have a political slant.
Jun. 21st, 2016 10:15 pm (UTC)
I noticed that many racial incidents on college campuses are fake. There's a list of them on fakehatecrimes (dot) org.

You're Welsh? I didn't know that! You must be pretty happy with Wales winning their group in the Euros! :)

Yeah, I was wanting to post this earlier, but the link was marked as spam. :/
Jun. 21st, 2016 10:54 pm (UTC)
My parents are English, so I was actually pretty pleased about England getting through to the second round too. And fingers crossed, but it looks like Northern Ireland might join them.
Jun. 21st, 2016 11:41 pm (UTC)
They did. :)
Jun. 21st, 2016 11:54 pm (UTC)
Jun. 22nd, 2016 08:02 am (UTC)
Incidentally, fakehatecrimes.org can go in the next Phligm Phlagm.
Jun. 22nd, 2016 11:22 am (UTC)
Sounds good!
Jun. 22nd, 2016 06:15 pm (UTC)
I am rubbish at spotting hoaxes, and this story fits my anti racism stance, however it did strike me as a fake. Why? Well Welsh sounds so Welsh, and not a bit like Arabic, or whatever, and anyone going to Newport would recognise that, even if they couldn't follow what they were saying.
And then it just didn't ring true...
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )