Internet Hoaxes

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Colman's Column3

Fear Psychosis and the Compulsion to Believe

Perhaps some of you reading this will, like me, have seen an alarming message forwarded from St Andrew’s Kirk. “Few weeks ago, in Majestic City (MC) film hall, a person felt something poking from her seat. When she got up to see what it was, she found a needle sticking out of the seat with a note attached saying ‘You have just been infected by HIV’. The Disease Control Center (in Colombo) reports many similar events in many other cities recently. All tested needles were HIV Positive”.

As I never go to the cinema in Sri Lanka, I was not too worried, but I do not get away that easily.  “The Center also reports that needles have been found in cash dispensers at public banking machines.”

It took me two seconds of Googling to confirm my suspicion that this was a hoax. Was St Andrew’s Kirk party to the hoax or was someone taking their name in vain? If the letter was circulated by St Andrew’s Kirk, why did they not perform the simple check that I undertook? Every time one sees a story like this, the first port of call should be the snopes website. There are many similar websites dedicated to exposing internet hoaxes and frauds.

I did a Google search for the person who, allegedly,  initially drafted the letter. His name was  Kithsiri Nandasena who claimed to be Director of Medical & Research Institute Sri Lanka. The Sunday Leader reported on this in 2005 and decided that Nandasena was bogus and the letter a hoax. The Medical Research Institute (MRI) is the premier centre in the country for bio-medical and applied health research. MRI is a major service provider for all hospitals in Sri Lanka with special and specific diagnostic laboratory tests. They told the Sunday Leader that they had never heard of Nandasena or of the incidents described in the letter. A search for “Disease Control Center (in Colombo)” did not find any such centre but did show another appearance of the Nandasena letter dated 2008.There is someone on Facebook with that name. He has no FB friends and “no activity to show”. I sent him a message asking him if he was the man named in the letter. He has not replied.

The US does have Centres for Disease Control.  CDC received inquiries about a variety of reports or warnings about used needles left by HIV-infected injection drug users in coin return slots of pay phones and movie theatre seats. Some reports indicated that CDC “confirmed” the presence of HIV in the needles. CDC has not tested such needles nor has CDC confirmed the presence or absence of HIV in any sample related to these rumors.

The snopes website provides examples of this particular hoax going back to 1998 and there are similar scares going back to the early 80s. Locations named include Bombay, Montreal, and Melbourne. One popular Toronto bar saw its business reduce by 50% because of this hoax. A similar thing happened to a bar in Santa Cruz.

A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood concocted to masquerade as truth. Who originates such hoaxes? What kind of satisfaction would anyone gain by starting such a thing? Why do people so eagerly pass them on when they scream “untrue” right off the page? There is a continuum between fun and cruelty, between lying and truth. Power and bullying are part of it too. I recall someone on the Open Salon blog, proudly revealing that she was writing under two different identities. This may seem trivial but many people were hurt because they had been taking her at her word and believing what she wrote about herself. Her revelation was a cry of triumph on her part. She felt superior to those she had “fooled”.

Philosopher Bernard Williams wrote perceptively about truth and lies. Williams sees any person lied to as a victim of an abuse of power placed in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage.  I find April Fool jokes in newspapers and other media tiresome. I read newspapers in the (foolish?) hope that I am reading the truth. I do not read a newspaper so that journalists can get amusement from getting the better of me. Comments threads on sites such as Colombo Telegraph are time-wasting because most of the participants are using pseudonyms and life is too short to work out who they “really” are.

There are instances where hoaxes overlap  with “practical joke” and “prank”, but “hoax” tends to indicate complex and large-scale fabrications and includes deceptions that go beyond the merely playful and cause material loss or harm. This AIDS needle kind of hoax comes within the category of “urban myth”, formerly called “urban belief tales”. That name captures an essence. Their tellers insist that they are true accounts and some recipients want them to be true. They have faith, blind faith in such things.

There is an element of sadism in hoaxing and practical jokes. Alfred Hitchcock admitted to Francois Truffaut in 1966 that, “I do have a weakness for practical jokes and have played quite a few in my time.” His pranks varied from harmless japes, through mind games, and on to sadistic humiliation.  He once made a bet with a film’s property man he would be too frightened to spend a whole night chained to a camera in a dark, deserted studio. Hitchcock locked the handcuffs, pocketed the key, and offered a generous beaker of brandy to help the man sleep. The next morning, they found the man angry, weeping, exhausted, and humiliated. Hitchcock put a strong laxative in the brandy and his victim had soiled himself. Hitchcock was a man who was fastidious about his own cleanliness. He claimed that he had never meant to “harm” or “denigrate” anyone, but his wife Alma admitted his practical jokes made her “apprehensive”.

During the “Grease Yaka” panic, villagers were roaming the roads around our house with sticks and knives and setting fire to the jungle to flush miscreants out. It did not seem that villagers suspected their own – the emphasis was on fear of strangers – but there was potential for the settling of old scores as in the Salem witch-hunts.

According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), a moral panic occurs when “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who are seen as  threatening the social order have been described as “folk devils”. The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, but In this case, the media has shown the AIDS needle story to be false. It still lives because people want to believe it.

The AIDS needle hoax is an example of generating a fear psychosis, a projection of our own worst fears. These chain messages often hinge on a fear of “the other”. Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its centre is taboo. One blogger believes  this particular hoax is directed at the Gay community. “Stop forwarding emails that have no basis. If the thrill lies in speaking of what others do not – then speak about what is real. Speak about us and our philandering moods. Speak about us and our ability to protect ourselves from HIV. Speak about us and how we love to be spoken about.”

What is the objective of a Christian church in circulating a lie that includes the words “Welcome to the World of HIV family”?…”God help! Just think about saving a life by forwarding this message. Please, take a seconds of your time to pass along…” These narratives construct and reinforce the worldview of the group within which they are told. Groups within which a given narrative circulates tend to react negatively to claims or demonstrations of non-factuality. In self-deception, there is a kind of conspiracy between deceivers and deceived; there can be such a thing as collective self-deception, wanting something to be true, wanting to be outraged, wanting to be afraid.

As is usually the case with these chain messages the reader is exhorted to “Please FWD to  everyone you know”. Please do not do that. Do not spread the fear of the other.