Fact-checking as fake news goes viral

The BBC has put together a page fact-checking the latest coronavirus-related nonsense circulating on social media. Today’s crop includes disinfectant-spraying helicopters (nope), a memo from Bill Gates (fake), video showing Turkish food parcels (old) and the official-looking text messages you may be getting right now (criminals).

As ever, Snopes.com continues to bust bullshit (if you’re in the US, they’re hiring!). The top 50 currently includes everything from Nostradamus predicting Covid-19 (nope) to whether the virus is a distraction created so we don’t panic about the doomsday asteroid that’ll kill us all (oh, come on).

My favourite fake news story is the one about Russia releasing 500 lions into the streets to enforce its coronavirus lockdown (there isn’t a lockdown, and there aren’t any lions). As Snopes put it:

No, but we don’t doubt the effectiveness of such a strategy.

God doesn’t want you to die of stupidity

 

I’m normally a big fan of schadenfreude, the feeling of pleasure in others’ misfortunes. But so much of what I’m reading just now just makes me sad. For example, there’s no joy in seeing prime minister Boris Johnson admit to having coronavirus just days after boasting about shaking coronavirus patients’ hands; I’m just sad that he’s probably infected others who will in turn have passed the virus on. I feel sorry for his pregnant girlfriend, who must be terrified right now.

One of the saddest things I’m seeing right now is people dying from arrogance, from misinformation and from tribalism. In the US, you’re much less likely to take the virus seriously if you’re a Trump voter, very religious or both; the lines aren’t as dramatic here in the UK but there’s still social media activity indicating a similar split between Brexit leaver and remainer.

Viruses don’t care who you vote for or who you pray to.

There’s an old Russian sailor’s proverb (often attributed to the gonzo writer Hunter S Thompson, but it was around for hundreds of years before him):

Pray to God, but row away from the rocks.

Sadly some people would rather row straight into the rocks and take lots of others with them.

Here in Scotland, the evangelical politician John Mason initially refused to cancel his face-to-face surgeries and home visits to protect his constituents. When one church closed, he posted on Facebook:

Surely we should be bold, take risks, and trust in Jesus?

Trust in Jesus is not an effective anti-viral.

I detest Mason, but I feel sad that his dark-ages idiocy could have caused people to become infected. And he’s not the only one. The usual contrarian clowns have had their say, and Scotland’s Free Presbyterian Church, another bunch of yahoos I’d happily see cast into a lake of fire, initially refused to cancel church services because:

attending public worship is not a mere social activity or recreational pleasure

This idiocy is global. In the US, pastor Landon Spradlin died from coronavirus this week. His death has made him internet famous because before he contracted the virus he shared online posts suggesting the media was creating “mass hysteria” over coronavirus; he also approvingly shared a tale of a missionary who cared for Black Death victims and never contracted the disease because God would ensure that “no germ will attach itself to me.” God must have been looking elsewhere this week. She’s got a lot on her plate.

Spradlin had previously railed against helping poor and vulnerable people get healthcare; when he got sick, his family had to resort to a crowdfunding website “to help relieve them from the stress of the situation [and] medical bills.” Some people are finding schadenfreude in that, and some have gone as far as to abuse his grieving family on social media. I just feel sorry for their loss.

And I also feel sorry for the other families who’ll grieve. Politicians’ inaction and media misinformation – particularly noticeable in the US, where the virus will kill many more people than 9/11 did – will cost many lives. As of today, the US has more coronavirus cases than anywhere else in the world. The toll so far is 1,297 deaths. There will be many more.

You can sum up a lot of current events in a single story.

No matter what god you may pray to, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want you to go out like that.

“Lazy contrarians are putting everyone at risk”

Alex Andreou, writing for Politics.co.uk:

I fully support Peter Hitchens and Brendan O’Neill’s inalienable right to be infected with a deadly virus. If they existed in a vacuum, I might buy myself one of those big foam fingers and cheer them on, as they march to the extinction that is the destiny of every dinosaur.

But they don’t exist in a vacuum. They have no more a ‘right’ to keep congregating in pubs than they have a right to set fire to their flat on the ground floor of a skyscraper. Not following guidance, not distancing socially, doesn’t just imperil you. It is something that imperils my friends, my loved ones, everyone. Nobody has a right to put others at risk.

… the very talking heads who have been, for some years now, telling everyone else to rediscover the Spirit of the Blitz, were revealed to be the morons who refused to turn their light off during a blackout and endangered their entire neighbourhood.

It’s becoming very clear who the real “enemies of the people” are.

Bigots “not bigots”, say bigots

Are the Ku Klux Klan racist? According to the Klan, they are not. They just have reasonable concerns about white people’s rights. As they put it in their flyers:

“Why can’t pro-white rights organizations exist without being labeled racist?”

As the Anti-Defamation League explains, the flyers are part of a strategy to “normalise white supremacy”: members no longer wear their robes and hoods and they dissociate themselves from violence. They claim that the fact that their followers are viciously racist is just a coincidence and nothing to do with them. “Members want to be able to express their white pride without being branded white supremacists – members prefer the term white separatists.” They argue that the rights of “other races” negatively affect theirs.

What the KKK is trying to do is to rebrand itself, and part of that is to attempt to redefine what racism means. In their definition, racism basically comes down to lynchings and burning crosses: if you’re not actively doing them, you can’t be a racist organisation.

That, of course, is  bullshit. And it’s why we don’t let white racists define what racism is or isn’t, because their definition excludes pretty much all forms of racism. Hate groups don’t get to define what is and isn’t hatred.

Let’s go back to that statement from the KKK flyer and change two words.

“Why can’t pro-women’s rights organizations exist without being labeled transphobic?”

All the anti-trans hate groups claim that they aren’t transphobic. And that’s true, if your definition of transphobia excludes almost every form of transphobia, including your own past actions.

In many cases, the high-profile anti-trans groups were co-founded by viciously transphobic people. Some now claim that their previously abusive anti-trans social media was run by the previous administration, with whom they now have no connection. Others pretend that their founding meetings featuring people calling trans women “parasites” and “bastards” who deserved violence and mocking trans women’s appearances never happened. And others’ bigoted founders – people who publicly called trans women “sick fucks” and claimed Jewish conspiracies – have conveniently died. They no longer wear their robes and hoods and they dissociate themselves from violence. The fact that many of their followers are abusive on social media is just a coincidence and nothing to do with them.

The one thing that really annoys hate groups is when people rightly call them hate groups. And as the UnCommon Sense blog explains in detail, many of these groups clearly function as hate groups.

A hate group is:

“…an organisation that – based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities – has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

As Buzzfeed’s Patrick Strudwick put it, these groups are telling us:

We’re not transphobic, we just think you’re a danger to children, women, society, lesbians, gay men, feminism, yourselves, and should be excluded from everywhere we decide you shouldn’t be, and should be denied treatment, demonised, pathologised, ridiculed and debated endlessly.

What’s hateful about that, apart from all of it?

Some accident

[Content note: slurs]

The Morning Star has decided to prove once again that you don’t have to be right-wing to be hateful towards trans people. This is from the print edition:

There’s a sour joke among trans people that anti-trans bigots have one joke, which is “I identify as / I’m transitioning to X”. But it isn’t usually portrayed in quite such a vicious manner as it is here.

NW Durham constituency Labour Party:

we can’t believe an allegedly socialist newspaper would publish something as vile as this.

LGBTQ Bristol Labour:

It heavily borrows from racist propaganda you see in a history book and hope never to see in real life. On a paper funded by unions. We condemn this completely.

Guardian writer Owen Jones:

This, in a supposedly leftwing newspaper, is absolutely twisted. The vicious, obsessive and unrelenting campaign against trans people is sadly far from confined to the right.

This particular publication has been publishing virulently anti-trans stuff for several years now, but what’s different this time is it has apologised. From the website:

The Morning Star apologises unreservedly for the publication last Tuesday of a cartoon which was offensive to trans people.

The cartoon had not been authorised for publication and its appearance in the print edition represents a failure to follow our own procedures for approving submissions.

Maybe it’s true and editorial standards at the Morning Star are so lax that cartoons can just leap into the pages without anybody knowing. But Occam’s razor suggests that what really happened here is that the publication simply didn’t expect a backlash from any cisgender people after several years of running articles saying pretty much the same thing as the cartoon.

The myth that being trans is a lifestyle choice, that basic rights for trans people put other people in danger, is entirely invented. Here in the real world, being trans makes you a target. This was published this week too:

BBC: A man has been jailed for setting fire to the home of a transgender woman after saying: “Anyone who is a tranny offends me”.

Lee Harrison, 43, set light to the front door of her flat after trying to pour petrol through the letterbox.

The woman’s flatmate, who was in at the time, said she “truly believed she was going to die”.

Harrison, of Hallowmoor Road, Sheffield, was jailed for more than five years.

Prosecutor Robert Sandford said the attack on 15 August was born out of a “hostility based around the fact [the victim] was in the process of transitioning from the male to female gender”.

He said Harrison would call the victim “Steve” in the street and previously told her, “Anyone who is a tranny offends me; it’s a lifestyle choice.”

History lessons

The former deputy editor of the New Statesman, now of The Atlantic, posted this to Twitter:

There’s a lesson there, but it’s not the one Lewis thinks it is.

The reason the GRA wasn’t turned into “culture war fuel” wasn’t anything to do with the Blair government. It was because we didn’t have people spending the best part of two years writing endless articles and constantly going on BBC programmes to talk about how it would redefine the word woman, expose children to predators, force children into surgery and all the other nonsense that’s been flying around for the last couple of years.

That’s not to say people didn’t make those claims. They did. One of the most outspoken opponents was Norman Tebbit, who described gender reassignment surgery as a “practice of sexual mutilation” and tried to wreck the GRA in the House of Lords. Politicians raised concerns about redefining the very meaning of men and women, about trans women dominating women’s sport and about having trans women in female prisons. Tebbit even invoked the spectre of child killer Ian Huntley. Made-up stories about Huntley supposedly transitioning have been used to argue against GRA reform now. Politicians also claimed that trans people were merely suffering from “a serious psychological problem” and that the GRA would bring us into “a dark future of coerced totalitarian-style law making.”

What’s different today is the media. While the same things were said about the GRA then as about GRA reform now, they weren’t amplified and repeated by the press again and again over a period of years. We didn’t have social media and its troll armies, or publications more interested in garnering web traffic than accurate reporting, or current affairs programmes that considered their mission to deliver “a shot of adrenaline” instead of present facts. That’s the lesson.

The other point, that the Blair government deserves credit for its introduction, isn’t true either. The Blair government didn’t introduce the Gender Recognition Act because it wanted to. It did it because it had to, because it was breaking the law. In 2002, the European Court of Human rights ruled that refusing to change a trans person’s birth certificate was a breach of their rights under Article 8 and Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s defeat in Goodwin v UK was a key reason for the introduction of the Act.

Blair doesn’t deserve credit; trans people didn’t create or propagate this culture war.

Incidentally, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 effectively undid the damage caused by an older court case, Corbett v Corbett, in 1971. That set back trans rights a great deal because a millionaire, Arthur Corbett, wanted to divorce his wife, April Ashley, without giving her any of his money. By arguing successfully that Ashley, a successful female model, was not and could never be a woman – that penetrative vaginal sex with her didn’t count because her vagina wasn’t there at birth – Corbett was able to get the marriage annulled. Before Corbett v Corbett trans people’s birth certificates were generally changed on the quiet; afterwards, trans people could be and were outed by people in positions of authority, often with awful consequences for their lives and careers.

“Take a long hard look at your bullshit shock jokes”

[Content note: suicide]

Last night I stepped off a stage and ended up in 1971.

My brother and I were the featured act at an open mic night I’ve played at many times before, a mix of musicians and comedians. It’s fun, although inevitably you have to put up with the odd person whose pub pals have told him he’s hilarious and who really isn’t. Last night’s example of that was the old man who got up on stage after our (fantastic, if I say so myself) performance.

I’ve seen him before. He’s a peddler of seventies-variety “take my wife, please” jokes with a whiff of misogyny to them. Last night the whiff became a stench. His new material is about lap dancing, his horror of women who groom their pubic hair, and in a piece he’s clearly very proud of, a horrible nightmare in which a beautiful woman turns out to be “a ladyboy”.

He isn’t the only stand-up to decide trans jokes are where it’s at. Last night, popular US stand-up Dan Telfer wrote on Twitter:

I am so fucking sick of transphobic jokes at stand-up open mics. It is absolutely everywhere and comedians who pretend it‘s not are in denial. There is nothing awkward or yucky to joke about here, cis folks. Take a long hard look at your bullshit shock jokes, for fucking serious.

it clearly touched a nerve: the post has been liked by 31.4 thousand people so far. Lots of comedians are doing the same stale jokes like it’s 1971.

Nobody’s saying you can’t make trans jokes. I did last night, on the very same stage between songs, and got some big laughs. But if your punchline is “Ugh! Trans!” then you’re a hack.

Last night’s hack didn’t have any new spin to offer, no hilarious take: his joke was that he had a dream, there was a sexy woman in it, she was trans. The expectation was that the room would share his disgust, but it didn’t and he died on his arse. Judging by the daggers he was looking at me later, he blamed me for that.

Good. I usually hate seeing comics die on stage, no matter how bad they are, but this was thoroughly deserved. I had to sit ten feet away – our table was at the very front – from a man who hoped to mine laughs from sharing his horror of bodies like mine. Imagine how it feels to sit through that, to feel every pair of eyes in the room turn to look at you as it becomes clear what the punchline is going to be. Those feelings linger long after the hack has come off stage.

“Ugh, trans” isn’t a punchline. It’s a punch down. The idea of trans people deceiving straight men is so commonly used as an excuse for violence and sexual violence against us that there’s a name for it: the trans panic defence. The idea that trans people are disgusting, horrific, worthy of nothing but contempt – a trope that is still very common, especially in comedy – keeps many of us in the closet and continues to harm us when we’re out of it. If the world keeps telling you you’re a monster, it’s hard not to believe it.

When I got home from the gig last night, I read a long blog post by another Scottish trans woman, Becca, roughly the same age as me. “After six years of being on hormones and presenting completely female, I am still getting misgendered far too frequently and as the years have gone by, the sheer hopelessness of it all has finally sunk in,” she wrote. “I would honestly rather be dead than seen as a ‘man in a dress’.”

It was a scheduled post, timed to go live hours after it has been written. By the time it was published, Becca had stepped in front of a train.

The right to swing arms

There were two trans-related court verdicts yesterday, although only one of them has received significant coverage.

In the one you’ve probably read about, Harry Miller had a partial victory in his case against Humberside Police, who turned up at his work to quiz him about his anti-trans tweets.

The verdict chimes with what most people (cis and trans) I’ve seen discuss the case think: the police were too heavy-handed in dealing with someone who’s deeply unpleasant – as one learned commentator put it yesterday, “most people who test the limits of free speech are going to be wankers, but Harry Miller is really pushing it” – but who wasn’t committing a crime.

Fans of irony were amused by the post-verdict photo shoot where Miller was photographed with various odious supporters calling themselves free speech defenders. One of those supporters loves free speech so much that has spent the last week threatening to sue various people on Twitter for calling him names. A few days ago he threatened one legendary feminist with a defamation suit because she told him to “fuck off”.

What the verdict didn’t do was say it’s legal to abuse people on the internet, although that’s how many people have chosen to interpret it. What chance have we got when even the BBC can’t report it properly?

No they weren’t. The case wasn’t about the lawfulness of the “opaque, profane and unsophisticated” posts; it was about whether police correctly followed guidelines. 

Which leads us to the second case, which hasn’t attracted as much coverage (apart from a really nasty piece of victim-blaming by the Daily Mail; in one section, now removed, it accused the victim of “brandishing her GRC” as if a gender recognition certificate were some kind of weapon rather than a bit of official paperwork).

In the second case, Kate Scottow was found guilty of “persistently making use of a public communications network” by setting up multiple social media accounts to attack, defame and harass one person.

As her victim, Stephanie Hayden, said in a statement:

The media-led obsession and campaign of hate is encouraging people like Katherine Scottow to think they can target transgender people online with impunity.

And it continues to do so.

The law’s pretty clear on all of this. It’s perfectly legal to have racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-semitic or transphobic views, but it’s not legal to harass, abuse or assault people because of those views.

Unfortunately a lot of the reporting hasn’t quite grasped that, and journalist Jane Fae was quick to notice. As she writes on Twitter in a thread that’s well worth your time:

two different cases, two verdicts. In the first, dealing with the process of recording a hate incident, a court took issue with how the police had done it. In the second, hateful harassment was treated as a crime.

…This was crying out for analysis that juxtaposed the two cases. But most coverage,starting with the @bbcnews focussed on the hate incident case and just ignored the scottow one

As Fae notes, press reports claiming that the judge in the Miller case said it was legal to be nasty to trans people simply aren’t true. The case was about police procedures, not the content of messages. And the Scottow case was about a deliberate and sustained campaign of harassment, not the beliefs behind it.

It’s perfectly legal to believe even the most horrible things. It’s not legal to act on those beliefs if doing so harms other people. That’s hardly a new concept. As US politician John B Finch said in 1882: “your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

Deception

The reaction to 57-year-old TV presenter Philip Schofield coming out as gay has been interesting. Interesting because it’s been a very different and much more positive reaction than the reaction to Jameela Jamil coming out as queer the day before, which says a lot about the racism, misogyny and intolerance queer women of colour have to endure.

And it’s interesting because despite the relative positivity there’s nevertheless been a really nasty outbreak of homophobia among some commentators and on social media.
Max Morgan puts it very well:

The main issue I want to address is the repeated portrayal of Schofield (and ergo other men who come out after years of marriage to a woman) as a liar and a deceiver, as someone who used his wife to cover his dirty little secret before ditching her when it was expedient for him to do so. I’m obviously not privy to the inner workings of the Schofields’ marriage, but I do know that in a great many cases this grubby insinuation couldn’t be further from the truth.
…For me, and so many others, the closet wasn’t a place where I said, “I’m gay, but I’m going to hide it in here,” it was a place in which I fought tooth and nail, at great psychological cost, to convince myself I wasn’t gay at all. I knew I liked boys when I was about 6 or 7. And I knew very shortly after that that a boy who likes other boys was the very worst thing you could possibly be. So I convinced myself I wasn’t that.

I’m older than Morgan and younger than Schofield, but we all grew up during a time when just to admit that LGBT+ people existed could cost people their jobs, when vicious homophobia was in the daily papers, when people like us were only ever portrayed as sick, perverted, predatory.

LGBT people who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s did so at a time where every aspect of the public discourse was awash with a particularly nasty and virulent brand of homophobia. The press, the media, even the government – fuck, especially the government – displayed an unflinching commitment to hammering home the message that being gay was wrong, shameful, disgusting.

We were perverts. We were predators. We were mentally ill. We were spreaders of disease. We were paedophiles, hell bent on corrupting children for our own nefarious ends. We were incapable of fidelity, or of love. We were a powerful lobby, to be feared and mistrusted. We were poofs, faggots and queers, dykes, rug-munchers and trannies. We were less than human and fair game for whatever violence came our way.

So many of us did exactly what the advocates of lethal conversion therapy want people like us to do: we tried with all our might not to be gay, or trans, or whichever part of the rainbow we are. We fought to try and make ourselves “normal”, to deny what our own brains and bodies were trying to tell us, to refuse to see any signs that we were who we were trying so hard not to be. Many of us managed to keep that fight going for decades.

I didn’t marry to deceive. I married because I was in love, and because I thought that love had cured me of my sadness. I genuinely believed that I could be Mr Right, and for a while I was.

Morgan:

I took those vows because I loved my wife, and that remains the case to this day. I would never knowingly have misled her, or undertaken any conscious act that would have hurt her in any way. Sure, there was a deception taking place, but it was a tangled and intricate web of self-deception, from which it would take me a further 13 years to extricate myself.

And the more people depend on you, the more awful the consequences of untangling that web.

I’m currently reading Stuck In The Middle With You, by Jennifer Finney Boylan – like me, a trans woman who came out after years of marriage and after becoming a parent. She writes:

I still believed, on some fundamental level, that love would cure me. That if only I were loved deeply by someone else, I would be content to stay a man… Of course, nobody really gets cured by love, but transsexuals are hardly the only people who believe romance will lead them outside of themselves. You can’t fault a person for hoping that love will make her into someone else, someone better. The world is full of false hopes, many of them dumber than the hope of being transformed by love.

But of course, understanding any of this requires compassion and empathy, something sorely lacking among the tedious contrarians and twitter trolls.

It’s no coincidence that many of the people condemning Schofield for his supposed “deception” are the same people calling Jameela Jamil a fake, a liar who‘s pretending to be queer in order to get “woke points”. As ever, the pejorative use of “woke” is the battle cry of the intolerant and privileged.

Many of them are also so-called “gender critical” activists who claim teenage trans kids aren’t old enough to know who they are (in many cases advocating dangerous and discredited conversion therapy, which converts many perfectly healthy LGBT kids into damaged or even dead ones) while telling trans women of my age that if we had really been suffering we’d have come out in our teens.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter to these people if we come out in our teens when we’re single, in our thirties when we’re in a relationship, or in married middle age. They don’t want us to come out at all. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.