An exciting story’s been doing the rounds. It’s a great narrative for a dissatisfied time, with a growing general awareness of the wild inequalities in our confused society brought on by the very public banking crisis. The narrative of the bankers enjoying bonuses and bailouts while pensioners freeze in grimy bedrooms is powerful and shocking and is feeding a certain revolutionary tinge in the air.
The news is filled with stories of bailouts, misdeeds, injustices. And then articles like this, apparently based on an Italian radio show, started to appear in the public consciousness. It and regurgitated versions of it quickly went astronomical, discussed in blogs, comments, coffee shops, art schools, on dirty sofas and office chairs and panel shows. The story has everything we’re looking for in these thirsty times; there’s the power wielded by ordinary people, there’s a newspaper cover-up, there’s a possibility for change so powerful that it must be hidden conspiracy-wise by the powers that be. Exciting times, my friends; first the whole NSA mess, and now the people are fighting the government/banks/the man and winning, and there’s so much danger of us doing the same that they’re having to stop us even finding out about it!
It sounds fantastic. But on the second read, the odd little hole starts to appear. In the first paragraph, the article states that “...Iceland literally went bankrupt. The reasons were mentioned only in passing, and since then, this little-known member of the European Union fell back into oblivion. “
Wait a second. Iceland is not a member of the EU. Even I know that. That might be nothing more than a lazy turn of phrase from a person to whom that distinction has never had a chance to be important, but that’s definitely going to be somebody writing from a different landmass altogether. That might also explain the erroneous statement that “Iceland literally went bankrupt”, which is literally untrue. The banks went down, the country didn’t. This could all be generously excused as a not very responsible shorthand but the next nasty error, stating that “In 2003 Iceland’s debt was equal to 200 times its GNP, but in 2007, it was 900 percent”, swerves into a new domain of inaccuracy; please note: 200 times its GNP (presumably this should be GDP?), compared with 900 percent. 200 times, 900 percent. That is just dishonest. It’s a blatant abuse of statistics, superficially similar numbers jammed together in such a way as to give the impression of a drastic increase to only the most casual of readers, the Tuesday afternoon whilst still at work facebook-shared blog-entry readers, those most likely to sneakily skim hidden behind work documents and share and raise eyebrows over coffees and pass on and propagate without through no fault of their overbusy own quite noticing that those numbers, taken at face value, represent an exponential decrease, even if they were accurate, which I can’t emphasise enough that they aren’t.
A very different statistical picture is given in this factual deconstruction of the article, turned up by a couple of minutes’ Googling, which deals very specifically with the facts and figures quoted to present a potent critique.
“These numbers are wildly inaccurate (and not to be too pedantic here, but sticking to a multiplier or percent would be helpful when making such a comparison). To set this straight, Iceland’s debt (as in The Central Bank) was equal to 57% of the GDP in 2003 and fell to 43% of the GDP in 2007, according to World Bank statistics. In 2009, that percentage reached 104%.”
This is just the beginning of a barrage of interesting corrections, addressing everything from the facts to the general mood of the piece (I’d strongly recommend reading both the article and the comments at the end). It gives a very different perspective on the whole thing, but though it is written by an Anna Anderson and is on a .is domain it would be dangerous to assume that makes it immune from bias or spin. The website is for the Reykjavic Grapvine, an Icelandic travel and lifestyle magazine; it’s possible that they have their own agenda to push, but at the very least it’s coming from the geographical source.
The thing is that this is only one of a great many such retellings. This article, though more controlled, is fairly representative; though a raft of falsehoods remain some of the facts are better, the misrepresentative rhetoric is only marginally toned down, and the rather exploitative false exemplification of what is wrongly termed a revolution is clearly a very close relative. The thrust of the article is that this hasn’t been reported in the press in some kind of cover-up. True, a lot of this stuff hasn’t been reported, but that could well be because it isn’t true – unfortunately in this case reality isn’t allowed to get in the way of a good story.
In fact, this narrative is wildly contradicted in this carefully sourced article on the Iceland “crowd-sourced constitution” story, which the author argues is a myth. Blogger Baldur Bjarnason carefully unpicks what the “crowd-sourced” metaphor meant in practical terms, characterising it as something closer to a badly-organised referendum, and then explains the series of events that he argues have neutralised its impact, justifying and citing sources that he apologises, though web translateable, are largely in Icelandic. He then gives a list of foreign media articles.
This doesn’t seem like a media whitewash, it seems like they’re jumping on the bandwagon. This guy is Icelandic but now living in Bristol, describing himself as a part of the post-crash diaspora. His presence in England and close contact with Iceland, for example his sister and collaborator who is still resident, is perhaps what has necessitated and facilitated this internationally-minded discussion. It’s amazing what a little researching can tell you about a person’s life online; it’s just harder to build a reliable narrative about anything bigger with so much information flying around.
That’s the terrifying thing about storytelling. This Guardian video about the British Army’s recruitment of 16-year-olds is an illustration of advertising spin this time highlighted by some candid comments from ex-copywriter Richard Pendleton who with his advertising agency worked to market army recruitment to a young audience. At 6 minutes exactly, the interviewer asks him how real some of the information in one of their recruitment brochures is; “That’s kind of the wrong question, because it’s not a question of reality. Everything in here is real. The thing that you want to be thinking about is the emphasis.”. With such a lot of information and comment all over the internet it’s possible to find ten sources to justify almost anything you like, so long as you aren’t too fussy about where they’re coming from.
Researching this article, I found myself becoming really quite angry. There’s the blatant hypocrisy of an article criticising the press for not reporting something that didn’t happen, with either no effort made to check the facts, or a deliberate choice NOT to comment on the prevalent criticism of this myth – though plenty of people have written about the facts and very different reality, these stories have not been shared or quoted around half as much. There’s the bandwagon-jumping, the temptation to believe anything so long as it criticises or undermines what we perceive as the establishment. But most of all there’s the sheer irresponsibility of lying to ourselves. In a debunking similar to my own, the Fightback blog writes that “although we certainly need inspiration, simplifying (or lying to ourselves) can be dangerous.” It can. It sets up false expectations, propagates myths and weakens the huge left-wing independent news source that the internet has given us.
Noam Chomsky is described by some as a “guardian of truth and provider of accurate information”, packing 850 references into the 342 pages of ‘World Orders Old and New’. In his own words, “What I’m trying to do is simply provide the service to popular dissident movements and scattered individuals that any person who has the resources, the privilege, the training etc. should perform, nothing beyond that”. He has his own biases and axes to grind, sure, and what he writes is inherently shaped by the kind of information that he is using. The important thing, however, is that he is always at least endeavouring to represent the situation as faithfully as possible.
It is somewhat encouraging that after its terrible clanger, the Daily Kos website published this article on the spread of the myth. Encouraging also that after this was posted Naomi Klein revised her position and began to write about the real situation in Iceland. If there’s any doubt left then this blog post, also from Baldur Bjarnason, with its extensive sources and systematic explanation of the real situation, should be enough to set anybody straight. I’ve done what I can to check it out and it all seems legit – it’s well worth a read. Sadly though I tend to think that this isn’t going to do much. It’s very tempting to stick to a seductive narrative, to favour gossip over truth, to keep a juicy story alive. I just can’t reconcile myself to the idea of abusing the stories of other people’s lives in order to tell lies to ourselves.
For me, this blogger’s response to a comment from the author of the first article mentioned sums it up quite nicely.
“Bob Cluness · Top Commenter
Morning Deena! thanks for coming on here. It’s to your credit that you’ve come on here to say your piece. altohugh you’ve received a fair bit of flak for your piece, i think for me this is classic issue of facts V “feeling” that occurs within the digital news media of today. indeed this was touched on by our veritable editor in his most recent editorial.For a lot of people in Iceland, the frustrating bit is that it’s not just the facts that are incorrect, but also the “message” about Iceland undergoing a “revolution” is pretty much false as well. But when you see the comments after your piece (and where it’s been syndicated) even when these errors have been pointed out (or as one of the previous posters bizarrely called it “journalistic boo hoos”!), people are still willing to go with the original version, as it bolsters their “worldview”, and will even discard retorts like this article as it would challenge their position and what they believe in. you see this on all sides of the political spectrum. It was good that when Naomi Klein read this, she was able to alter and challenge her perception of what she believed was going on here.
It is interesting to note that when this article was posted on the Daily Kos, intead of getting comments regarding the article and how it challenged their viewpoints, most of the comments simply went “oooh isn’t Iceland so beautiful! maybe we shoudl all move there!”I do think that john Stewart is right in that at least you should acknowedge these corrections. Perhaps write a follow piece on the pitfalls of trying to get verifibale objective truths in the digital news culture?”
By the way, I looked him up. He is Icelandic.