One of the goals of Houdini’s Revenge is to look critically at how we receive information and come to believe what it is we believe. Because of the way information is disseminated these days, we can no longer expect to read the news and know that we are reading the truth. But it’s worse than that because these days we can’t even be sure that media outlets are even making an attempt to investigate what they are reporting to the public. When dozens of websites republish the same initial report, if that initial report is completely wrong, by the time any errors are noted, the story is already all over the world and repeated without reflection.
On July 16, a friend on my Facebook left me a comment telling me that he had thought of me when he read Boing Boing! I have a lot of strange irons in busy fires, so I had to go comb the site to see what he meant. Within a minute, all was explained. Xeni Jardin had posted a blurb that referred to an AFP article about the French police arresting Varg Vikernes. This is the entire news blurb from Jacques Clement’s AFP article, link to article in quote:
Kristian Vikernes, a Norwegian neo-Nazi black metal musician and convicted killer who goes by the name of “Varg,” has been arrested in France over suspicions that he was planning a “major terrorist act.” He is reported to be linked to Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, and he once stabbed a fellow musician to death, and set fire to several churches in the early 1990s.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of Vikernes’ politics, social beliefs or his past, we should all be extremely concerned that this news blurb from AFP that became the backbone of dozens and dozens of articles that reported this story has two major problems in just two sentences. The first is that Varg Vikernes has not been known as “Kristian” in almost two decades. Calling him “Kristian Vikernes” and mentioning he goes by “Varg” is like writing an article about “Thomas Mapother IV” and mentioning he goes by Tom Cruise. I have no idea why AFP made the decision to make that strange distinction, but it set the tone for what was to come in the second sentence.
The second sentence is a hoot. Varg Vikernes was “reported to be linked to” Anders Behring Breivik? Ten minutes on Google would have made it impossible for any reporter worth a tinker’s damn to support such an accusation. If nothing else, it would have made for far better reporting to have at least investigated what Varg had said about Breivik before they had run articles about his arrest. Perhaps they could have added Varg’s own words from his websites as a counterpoint to the charges against him. Perhaps Clement could have, you know, reported instead of vomiting up the vomiting up some official reports and adding some sly insinuations to spice up his article.