Life is Complicated

A short-lived hoax made the rounds in the UK after the Gaza Freedom Marcher’s disastrous experiences in Egypt. It claimed that a newly created Jewish organization, Jews for Boycotting Egyptian Goods (or J-BEG) was being formed to serve up some BDS on Egypt’s behind in response to the Egyptian government’s decision to reign in the Freedom Marchers out of a completely unjustified fear of “hooliganism” (that was right before the Marchers managed to get an Egyptian cop killed at the Gaza-Egypt border).

As it turned out, the press release was fraudulent. J-BEG doesn’t exist, and the entire story was simply a parody of the countless press releases issued by “real” UK anti-Israel divestment organizations who love to include the word “Jewish” in their names. The hoax may have originated by a peculiar prankster/crankster named Charles Edgbaston, but this too seems to be just speculation.

The interesting point of the whole bizarre episode is just how easy it is to create fraudulent “news” in this Internet age, using techniques that were used again and again by the BDS “movement” itself throughout 2009. I’ve talked about the “Hampshire College Divested” hoax that broke in February, but smaller fictions regarding Motorola, TIAA-CREF and Blackrock Investments seemed to serve as the Alpha and Omega of divestment “successes” last year.

There’s no denying that there have been some wonderful benefits to the “Citizen Journalist” movement represented by, among other things, blogs that report on and analyze the day’s events without the financial or institutional overhead of TV networks and daily newspapers. As economist Arnold Kling has noted, the number of professional jobs in journalism (like the number of tenured college professorships) has always been much lower than the number of people qualified for those positions. So why should we be surprised that the Internet is full of stuff as good or better than what you find in the dailies?

At the same time, the Web provides a barrier-free mechanism to publish any fool thing you want regardless of whether or not it’s coherent, interesting or true. And given that the mainstream media struggled with double-checking facts on complex stories or stories on peripheral issues even before their budgets were slashed, the ability to get a newspaper to believe a fraudulent press release has never been higher. And once a hoax has been picked up by “the media,” new armies of partisan bloggers are waiting to pounce, pushing this now “verified” story in a hundred different places, all in an attempt to give the perception of fact to an accidental or intentional fiction.

In the case of the aforementioned BDS hoaxes (Hampshire, CREF and the like), the desire to push these stories as true seems to have welled up from (1) a desire to deceive the public that the stalled BDS movement was actually surging with momentum; and (2) a desire of BDS activists to deceive themselves that their activities were bearing fruit. In the case of Hampshire, where the behavior of student activists taught every college administrator the perils of giving BDS a hearing, the second desire (to feel politically potent) seems to have overwhelmed the need to do things that don’t sabotage your cause.

I thought about this while reading a friend’s piece on a recent decision by the Canadian government to deny a grant request by KAIROS, a political-religious organization that has been involved with BDS activities in the past. This story got picked up last month by people on both sides of the Arab-Israeli political divide, Palestinian supporters decrying the Canadian government’s “muzzling” of KAIROS, with Israel partisans celebrating Canada’s decision to stop providing taxpayer dollars to organizations that use the money to spread defamations of the Jewish state.

But once you engage with the details of the story, the situation becomes murkier. After all, KAIROS was not defunded, but simply had a grant application rejected (something that happens to most organizations that rely on grant-driven funding). And the reasons behind the decision may have had nothing to do with the Middle East, even if the Canadian government was aware of KAIROS’s activities in this area.

So here is a case involving no fraud, simply the tendency for partisan reaction to quickly take the place of reality. And if our blinders prevent us from understanding something as simple as the everyday rejection of a government grant request, it makes you wonder how much else we think we know that is actually not so.

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One Response to Life is Complicated

  1. ModernityBlog January 24, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    [Off topic, but I am sure you will appreciate the significance of this issue]

    A British blogger has been intimidated by the police. The Reverend Stephen Sizer didn’t like comments and criticism made on the Seismic Shock blog, so got the police to physically intimidate the blogger, to take down that mild criticism.

    This is a clear freedom of speech issue, the police should not be used to intimidate bloggers.

    I urge you to publicise this issue and support Seismic Shock, as “I too am Seismic Shock”

    For more information see http://modernityblog.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/reverend-stephen-sizer-uses-british-police-against-a-blogger/

    And http://engageonline.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/anglican-vicar-uses-police-to-intimidate-blogger/

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