Fake News in Salisbury
The situation in Salisbury continues, growing more and more surreal by the day.
At first, it was interesting and perhaps even titillating to be at the centre of an international incident. That was back in the days when we thought the police tape would be gone by the weekend.
The idea of fake news had always been something of an abstract concept for me; I thought it happened mostly in the US, with people reporting stuff like finding finger nails in burgers or something. This last couple of weeks though, the issue has really been brought home to me.
Twitter has always been one of my favourite places; I love chatting to people there and finding people with similar interests. Seeing some of the Tweets about Salisbury have been quite irritating and also quite weird though.
Case in point: Porton Down. For those who have not heard of it, Porton Down is a “science park” near the village of Porton, about 8 miles from Salisbury. It’s home to several organisations, but the one most of us mean when we say “Porton Down” is Dstl. The scientists who develop nasty stuff in test tubes (and probably do other stuff too).
Early this week, I started seeing Tweets about the “secret” government facility “just 5 miles from Salisbury.” Correct me if I am wrong, but secret places don’t tend to have a Wikipedia page. They also don’t invite BBC TV crews in to film documentaries. I had always assumed everyone knew about Porton Down – because of the reasons mentioned above and also because in 1976 a scientist famously accidentally gave himself Ebola there. It made the news. Porton Down is not exactly Area 51.
Locally of course, everyone knows about Porton Down and lots of local people either work there or know someone who does (remember I mentioned before that living here is like playing 6 Degrees of Separation?). Its existence is not a secret; some of the stuff the government scientists get up to in there is a secret – and rightly so. They can’t very well broadcast it every time they come up with a new weapon or it might slightly defeat the object.
One thing that really bothered me was the reporting of the distance between Porton Down and Salisbury. In the space of a couple of days, I saw it reported as fact that Porton Down was “just” three miles from Salisbury; five miles from Salisbury; six miles; seven miles; eight miles; nine miles and finally ten miles from Salisbury. Now, whilst this may seem like a minor detail to have got wrong, it’s not a difficult fact to find out. You can Google it. (in fact, I actually started sending that link in response to some of the Tweets)
The problem is that if a journalist (or rogue Tweeter, of which there are many – each with their very own unique conspiracy theory about this and everything else) cannot even manage to fact check the distance between two places, what does that say about the rest of their assertions – on this topic or any other?
Another question: while everyone is exclaiming about how close the site of this nerve agent attack is to Porton Down: exactly what do people think is the relevance of that point? My thinking is: yes, aren’t we lucky that the best scientists in the country – if not the world – were only down the road and able to help quickly. Some people do seem to think there’s something fishy about this though. I can think of two possible reasons it might be significant that Salisbury is close to Porton Down:
- Conspiracy theorists believe a scientist went rogue, smuggled some Novichok out of the lab and threw it at the first Russian person they saw.
- They believe the government deliberately put Skripal here in Salisbury so that they could, several years later, conveniently kill him off – making Salisbury a glorified holding ground for euthanising Russian ex-spies.
Which one is it? I have no idea. Both are about as realistic as some of the other theories being bandied about.
More evidence that some people seem completely unable to use Google to check basic facts: Salisbury is a city. It might be a small city; it might feel more like a village a lot of the time. But there is a whopping great cathedral; it has the tallest spire in the UK which literally towers over the entire city and can be seen from miles around. Even Theresa May seems not to have taken the time to have one of her minions Google it though; both the politicians and the national press seem intent on referring to Salisbury as a town. Again: not a major issue, but if they can’t even get that right…
Rather amusingly, another thing I’ve seen repeated several times is a question about a photo of people in protective suits and masks, with firemen standing a few feet away, wearing just their regular uniforms. I’ve seen more than one person exclaiming that the whole thing is a farce because the firemen are not wearing the hazmat suits and masks… Except that if you look closely at the photo (actually, not even that closely – I’m being generous here) the firemen are clearly standing outside of the police cordon. Or perhaps it’s a conspiracy. Who knows.
The problem is that in a situation like this, there are so many things being talked about and presented as fact, that quite often the random conspiracy theory put out there one minute, is being reported by a national news outlet as fact the next.