Rob Bluey is vice president for communications at The Heritage Foundation and Founding Editor of Daily Signal. I mentioned in the interview an article that Rob wrote during the Obama administration criticizing the removal of a website about earmark reform, and contrasted it to the Trump cull of the EPA’s website.
Last month, a mob of more than 70 men, armed with baseball bats, knives, and rocks launched a series of vigilante attacks around the towns of Clichy-sous-Bois and Bobigny, about an hour east of Paris. French police arrested at least 20 of them.
The mob launched attacks against Roma, also known as Gypsies, living in the area, and the trigger for violence was a series of rumors spread online, along with photos or video of the incident, that the Roma had kidnapped a young French girl using a white van, intending to sell her into sex slavery. Or perhaps it was a red van. Or maybe yellow, and maybe it was a boy that was kidnapped, or maybe several children, and the intention was maybe to harvest their organs. Sometimes Roma are the culprits, sometimes Bulgarians, sometimes other types of outsiders.
The wandering details should tell you the same as it should have told the members of the mob. All the rumors were nonsense. French police confirmed that they had no reports of any abductions, and no reason to think that any of the rumors were true. In addition, reverse image searches of the supposed photographic evidence showed that it was from unrelated incidents, often years old, taken in distant locations, and showing incidents that are completely different to what the accompanying text claims.
French police were so frustrated with the persistence of these rumors that they issued a formal notice that they are false and instructed people to stop sharing them. One spokesman said of the people who believed and acted on the rumors that “a psychosis is starting to set in”.
That might sound strong, but the background to this is truly bizarre. Various versions of the story have been doing the round for at least a decade. It has shown up in places as far apart as Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Australia. There have been reports of, for example, parents being afraid to allow their children to play outside in areas of Australia where the rumor was circulating.
That is understandable, but it’s a whole lot different to gangs of dozens of men with improvised weapons setting out to attack an innocent group of people.
It is tempting to wonder who is the culprit, who put together the fake photos and video with a text that was clearly untrue. That might be an interesting question, but I think it’s not the most interesting one.
These stories could never gain traction if they didn’t appeal to fears that already run deep in people. Sure, some people believe these stories because they are a bit naïve and they were told it maybe by someone who swallowed it themselves, maybe they embellished it along the way, but given that the details wander quite a bit, but still retain the same basic elements, I think that it is unlikely that anyone consciously manufactured the entire story from scratch. I think it’s a very dangerous game of electronic Chinese whispers.
I think that the interesting question here why do these stories crop up, why do people believe them when they do? I think it’s a sign of a society under stress. Pogroms and riots against Jews in Tsarist Russia, were closely associated with bad harvests. The authorities even saw it as a good thing, let the masses blow off some steam.
France, in case you haven’t heard, has had months of violent anti-government protests every weekend. That sounds like a society under stress to me, and I don’t think that they are on their own.
Let’s not forget that Britain is tearing itself to shreds over Brexit, and American politics isn’t exactly covered in glory at the moment either, and everyone agrees it has a lot to do with fake news, even if they can’t agree which bits are fake.
I don’t know exactly what the moral of the story is, but I think that a collapse in the faith we have in authorities, police, media, politicians, a collapse in the faith we have in them might be justified, but it is still a dangerous thing.