Show Hide image

David Attenborough — not over, not out

At 84, Britain’s favourite naturalist says that, with BBC2’s First Life, he has made his last major TV series. Yet he shows no sign of losing his love for fossils . . . and life.

Picture the scene: it is the late 1950s, and in an English field a young David Attenborough and 16-year-old Richard Dawkins are hunting for tadpoles. "We had wellington boots on, and we had little fishing nets," says Dawkins, "and we spent the whole day tramping around through ponds and ditches." He had met Attenborough through his uncle and aunt, who encountered the presenter when he was making a programme in Sierra Leone.

It is easy to imagine the pair of them trawling through the mud, because that is how we have seen Attenborough on our screens for nearly 60 years: exploring and explaining the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat. He has become part of our collective imagination, his voice a soundtrack to British television. Yet Attenborough, when we meet, is wary of his public image. "If you appear on the box, people think you know what you are talking about, and it's patently not so," he says.

This is modesty; he reads all the latest zoological literature, and his documentaries, according to Dawkins, don't just show "things the world hasn't seen but that scientists haven't seen either. You can think of it as a very fertile part of scientific work, of scientific research." Attenborough, 84, won't have it, describing himself as simply "a chap from the television".

When I ask him if he ever regrets not becoming a scientist, he shrugs. "I am not a specialist, and I can't pretend to be a specialist." He is keen not to be cast as a figurehead, or a champion of a cause. Environmentalists often try to recruit him, and in films such as State of the Planet he has spoken out on the subject, yet he "fights against being put in that situation when people say, 'So, what's happening to the climate?' I say, 'I don't know. I'm just looking at the scientific world, and this is what the majority of scientists say. It's no use attacking me. I'm a reporter.'"

Perhaps it is understandable that a figure so widely celebrated should wish to underplay his achievements. He does this to an almost comical degree, improbably describing himself as someone who is "by nature rather idle, sitting in a bath chair watching it all going on around me". He avoids aligning with any political party (he votes, but "secretly"), saying carefully that he appreciates the progress all the parties have made in taking the environment seriously.

If he has a "cause", it is overpopulation, which he believes is "at the root of almost every affliction that the world faces today". He advocates female emancipation - where there is good education and free medical care for women, they choose to have fewer children. The Catholic Church, and its opposition to contraception, must anger him, I suggest. "You're telling me!" he says. "Yes, absolutely."

Religion carries no weight in Attenborough's life. Many believers write to him, criticising his failure in his films to acknowledge the role of a divine creator. "You're never going to silence them because the fundamental problem is accepting what evidence exists," he says. "They say, 'It's written down on this page and what is there is beyond argument and it was put there by God.' If you believe that, well, I'm awfully sorry, but there's no point in us discussing it."

This is the pragmatic and tough-minded side of Attenborough. He makes programmes because he thinks "the way a spider weaves its web is breathtaking" - but he has no desire to preach. As he says, "I have a certain compulsion to tell people stories, but I don't have a compulsion to persuade them. I'm not one of them."

Fossil fuelled

Attenborough's first love was the fossil. He was born in 1926 and brought up, together with his brothers Richard (the film director) and John on campus at the then University College, Leicester, where his father was principal. As a boy, he would spend hours searching Charnwood Forest for specimens. "They are just gorgeous, and so you become intoxicated by them," he says now. "You have to be pretty stolid and phlegmatic not to be thrilled by the perfection of the fossil."

That intoxication led him to Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences, specialising in zoology and geology. When he left, he joined the navy for his national service, hoping for adventure but ending up on a Reserve Fleet aircraft carrier in the Firth of Forth. The disappointment continued as he joined a London publishing house that produced science textbooks, a job he found so dull that he thought the clock on St Paul's Cathedral had stopped, because he checked it so often.

Attenborough wanted to be out in the world, bringing the facts to life, not limiting them to paper. So, in 1952, he applied for a training course at the BBC and joined the talks department, where he made his first natural history series, The Pattern of Animals. He was eager to show the animals - trapped and frozen in the bright studio lights used on the show - in their natural environment. That brought about Zoo Quest (1954), a colonial-style adventure with Attenborough, dressed in a safari suit, accompanying the curator Jack Lester on a mission to capture wild animals for London Zoo's collection.

Their first quest, in Sierra Leone, was for Picathartes gymnocephalus, the white-necked rockfowl. The programme was supposed to be presented by Lester, but he fell ill after the first transmission and Attenborough was drafted in to replace him. Zoo Quest was exceptional for the time: filming in the wild, the team travelled to seldom-visited parts of the world. Attenborough later led missions to South America searching for anteaters and anacondas, remote Indonesian islands for the Komodo dragon, New Guinea and Paraguay for birds of paradise and armadillos. Some were never caught. Others - parrots, monkeys, pythons and bushbabies - he brought back to live in his house in Richmond, Surrey (where he still lives), cared for by his wife, Jane, and studied in wonder by their two children, Robert and Susan.

To boldly go

Attenborough's success pushed him through the ranks of the BBC. In 1965, he became the first controller of BBC2 and in 1969 director of programmes across BBC TV. But he was trapped behind a desk again. As he says: "It was very nice for me running a network for a few years, in the sense that it was very flattering for one's ego. But it's not much fun." So he resigned in 1973 and took up programme-making again, starting with a series in south-east Asia and research for Life on Earth, the first of nine Life series for the BBC that would shape the next 30 years of his career.

Alastair Fothergill, the former head of the BBC's natural history unit, was a teenager when Life on Earth was broadcast in 1979. "It was like the most gripping drama; I just had to watch next week's episode. I absolutely remember deciding that was what I wanted to do." Fothergill went on to make Trials of Life and Life in the Freezer with Attenborough, as well as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth (both of which Attenborough narrated).

After nearly six decades inside and outside the BBC, Attenborough has a better sense of the organisation's trajectory than most. "I think the BBC has strayed from the straight and narrow on a number of courses at the moment," he says. "The sails need to be trimmed and [it] needs to be refocused." And, in a rare flash of indignation about the politics: "But it is crucially important in our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I'm appalled anybody thinks otherwise." His warning to the government is clear. "If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade, finished," he says. Still, when I ask what he would be doing if he were back behind a desk at the BBC today, he replies, half joking: "Resigning, I think."

As it is, he has never stopped working. In 1997, he was filming a series in New Zealand when he received a phone call telling him that Jane had suffered a brain haemorrhage. He returned to Britain and was with her in hospital when she died. As he reflected later in his memoir Life on Air, he felt the focus of his life was gone. Jane had looked after the children and the animals, had met every flight he took home. She had made his career possible: "Now, I was lost." Work steered him through grief, and he has immersed himself in new projects ever since.

A hallmark of his career has been his desire to push back the boundaries (he introduced colour television to Britain on BBC2 in 1967). Now he is experimenting with 3D. On Christmas Day he appeared in Sky's Flying Monsters, squashed into a hang-glider as an animated pterosaur - a giant winged lizard, 65 million years extinct - whirled around him. "I was thinking, 'Gosh, a national treasure's going up in a glider,'" says Anthony Geffen, the show's producer. "And the helicopter with the rig was flying literally within feet of the glider to get him to speak to camera. It was hair-raising." But Attenborough, says Geffen, is always game. "He just goes in and likes to think the best will happen, and that nothing bad will happen." That adventurous spirit has never been quelled, nor has his work ethic. "David is rigorous," Geffen says. "He wants to get it right and he will get it right . . . He doesn't suffer fools gladly. If you get it wrong, you'll certainly know about it."

Yet he is also fun. The pair recently worked together again on First Life, a series on fossils. At the end of a day's shooting the crew would return to the hotel assuming that the presenter would be tired and retreat to his room. Far from it, Geffen says. "When we get back he's fired up and wants to go out and talk and drink red wine - and we're up till pretty late and off again very early." Attenborough will talk about anything, Geffen says; he reads extensively. "He's a very good partner in Trivial Pursuit, because he answers everything."

Not long after I met Attenborough, I went to hear him speak at the Institute of Education in London. The hall was packed, and even though it was a cold Monday evening in November, in the middle of term, the rows were full of children shuffling in excitement. At the end of the talk, their hands shot up to ask questions. He has always had this effect on children, has never lost what Dawkins describes as his "boyish enthusiasm". Perhaps that is why people can be overcome with affection for him. He is a voice and a face from our earliest years, when we sat too close to the television as a grey-haired man crouched behind a bush and explained something extraordinary about nature.

Stars in his eyes

Dawkins says that Attenborough's longevity and undimmed energy have made him arguably the most respected person in Britain. He quite seriously imagines what would happen if we had to elect a monarch: "David Attenborough would be the one person the whole country would unite behind. Attenborough for king!" Not that the man would relish the adulation. Geffen had to persuade him, when they made First Life, that the public would enjoy an additional film about Attenborough's life ("He didn't really want to make it because he likes to concentrate on what he's filming").

Eventually he agreed, and they took an extra crew on location for First Life to shoot Attenborough's Journey, tracing his lifelong passion for fossils. At the end, the presenter sits on a beach in Australia and muses on the circularity of choosing the very earliest creatures as the subject of what he says will be his final big series. "In that curious way, the end - of making my last series like this - is my beginning."

As Geffen says, this was unusually introspective. "He doesn't sit there, reflecting like that in a sentimental way, very often. He's not fundamentally sentimental about himself. He is very, very modest . . . but it's a rare chink we got out of him and quite a big moment: the final element of the whole strand of programming he's made for years and years." That this was as difficult to capture on film as a snow leopard in the wild reflects Attenborough's lack of self-interest. (Fothergill notes that, in Attenborough's films, he never says "I" - "he is clear that the stars are the animals".)

His boundless curiosity is instinctive. "That's what being alive is about," Attenborough says. "I mean, it's the fun of it all, making sense of it, understanding it. There's a great pleasure in knowing why trees shed their leaves in winter. Everybody knows they do, but why? If you lose that, then you've lost pleasure."

He seems uncharacteristically sombre for a moment. Then he says: "I feel regret that there are some people who've never even savoured it. It never occurs to people to wonder why a hummingbird and a hummingbird hawkmoth do the same things. It's a delight. So I suppose there are some people who don't do these things and are very happy and have perfectly happy lives. Who's to patronise them? But all I can say is that the pleasure of it all is not virtue, or high morality. It's just fun."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

Getty/New Statesman
Show Hide image

“Yes, it was entertaining”: A twisted tale of Twitter trolls and fake terror victims

Here’s what happened when I contacted people involved in the insidious new social media trend.

When I reach out to Sam to ask why she stole the image of a 19-year-old Minnesotan man to post on her Twitter account, the first thing she says is: “Am I getting paid?” The day after the Manchester Arena bombing, Sam took the profile picture of a man named Abdulfatah and posted it alongside a 137-character tweet. “Please retweet to help find Abdul,” she wrote. “He has chemo and we're very worried. We last heard from him before Ariana's concert”. She rounded it off with a hashtag. #PrayForManchester.

Abdulfatah was not a victim of the Manchester bombing and nor was he at Ariana’s concert, as he has been living in Cairo for the last year. Sam’s tweet was a lie that generated (at the time of writing) 1,280 retweets, mostly from people simply trying to help after a tragic terrorist attack. Over the last few years, trolls have responded to terrorism and other catastrophes by opportunistically pretending that their friends and family are among the victims of attacks. After the Manchester bombing, a handful of accounts continued this trend – for varied reasons.

“I had no aim,” is Sam’s simple response to being asked why she posted her tweet.

Sam explains that she wants me to pay her so she can “feed [her] team”, who she says are called the Halal Gang. After explaining that I cannot ethically pay for her interview, she concedes to speak when I say that I will link to her twitter account (@skrrtskrtt).

Born a male, 18-year-old Sam tells me she “prefers female pronouns” and immediately gives me her full name, town of residence, and the name of the English university where she studies civil engineering. When I ask for a form of ID to prove her identity, she claims she left her wallet on campus. When I ask her to simply email from her university email address, she says – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – “unfortunately i cannot provide u with evidence at this very moment”. For this reason, I will refer to her by her first name only. Her quotes are here copied verbatim from the messages she sent me online.

“I chose that mans image because he seemed like an easy target. I was quite intrigued by the huge number of retweets because i got the attention i never got at home. And yes i did him a favour by getting him clout. He's ugly so i guess I got him some girls. People who also made fake missing people are G's and i salute them.”

Why did you do it, I ask? The reply is one word. “Entertainment”.

***

Abdulfatah was casually scrolling through Twitter when he realised his profile picture had been stolen. “Honestly, it was horrific,” he tells me – again over Twitter’s messaging service – “I hope nobody has to go through what I did. Just imagine scrolling through Twitter only to find that some random person used your photo to claim you’ve gone missing in a bombing.”

When Abdulfatah decided to confront his troll on Twitter, his tweet got 63,000 retweets and 98,000 likes. “i'm from Cairo and i don't have Chemo... who tf are you? how do you know me???” he wrote – and his response went on to be featured in articles by The Sun, Yahoo!, Mashable, and AOL.com. The tweet is part of a larger story that has spread over the last few days – of “sick Twitters trolls” targeting innocent people by pretending they are missing. 

My Twitter chat with Abdulfatah spans a few hours, and he hammers home how “vile and disgusting” he finds the act of spreading fake victims on social media. “I hope people come to their senses soon and stop this type of behaviour. It’s not funny at all.” Half an hour after we exchange goodbyes, he messages me to explain that there is something else he wants to say.

“I totally forgot to mention this,” he begins. “I couldn't have done this without this groupchat I'm in called ‘Halal Gang’.”

***

In their 2017 book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, authors Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner dedicate an entire chapter to “Identity Play” on the internet.

“Online and off, identity is a series of masks,” they write. “Whether online deceptions are harmless or targeted or somewhere in between, determining why anonymous or pseudonymous actors do the things they do can be very difficult.”

So why do people use the internet to deceive? The authors’ argue it is simple: “because they’re able to: because the contours of the space allow it.”

Creating a person online is incredibly simple. Believing that someone online is who they say they are is even easier. Many newspapers now create entire stories based around a single tweet – taking what is said and who said it as fact, and covering their backs with a few “appears to have” and “allegedly”s. By taking viral tweets at face value and crafting stories around them, media companies consistently break one of the internet’s oldest rules. Do not feed the trolls. 

***

Abdulfatah sent me a copy of his provisional driver’s license to prove to me that he is who he claims. After his announcement about the Halal Gang, I became suspicious that both the victim, Abdulfatah, and the perpetrator, Sam, were in fact working together to go viral. Why else would they both independently reference the same group? Instead of a random troll picking on a random person, was this the case of two friends working together to achieve social media fame?

“I have never met this person prior to this incident,” said Abdulfatah over Twitter, promising me that I could call him for clarification (at the time of writing, he has not answered his phone). “I feel offended that someone like that would ever try to claim to be a part of our group.” Abdulfatah was added to the Halal Gang (which is a Twitter group chat) in January, and says to me: “I promise you this isn't a troll.” It is worth noting that a Twitter search shows that Abdulfatah and Sam have never previously interacted publicly on the site.

From 19:43 to 20:30 on Wednesday night, I was added to the Halal Gang chat. The group describes themselves as a place for young people to “find peace and tranquillity” through the Islamic faith. The 12 members told me Sam was a “lost person” who used to be in the chat but was kicked out for inappropriate behaviour. Abdulfatah was her replacement (he says he didn’t know this) and thus Sam targeted him in her tweet after the Manchester attack. One member of the Halal Gang said that Sam was his ex and went on to send a sexually-suggestive picture of her in the chat.

“It wasn’t our intention to go viral, just to help out Abdul but I guess it was kind of cool to go viral lol,” said one member.

Rather than trolls targeting random people, this incident therefore seemed to be a case of personal rivalry and revenge. This goes some way to explaining the psychology behind, and the motivations of, people who claim to have missing friends and family after terrorist attacks. According to the Halal Gang, Sam was simply targeting her replacement, Abdulfatah, because she likes trolling.

But then, at midnight, I received another Twitter message, from a person wishing to remain strictly anonymous.

“This is a MAJOR conspiracy,” they wrote.

***

Most of the time people make up fake victims on social media, the motives are cut and dried.

Andrea Noel is a Mexican journalist whose picture was circulated after the Manchester bombing, in a collage purporting to show 20 missing people. She has been trolled extensively in the past after speaking on social media about her sexual assault, and believes some of the same “anti-feminist” trolls may have been at work.

“I started getting Facebook messages and Twitter messages from various people that I know… getting in touch with me to make sure I wasn’t in Manchester,” she tells me over the phone.

The collage Andrea appears in also includes photographs of YouTubers, and was featured on the Daily Mail’s Twitter and Fox News as a legitimate collage of missing people. According to Buzzfeed, 4Chan trolls may have been behind the picture, choosing people they disliked as their victims.

Yet when a handful of people create a fake image, it is thousands more who are responsible for its impact. In 2013, researchers found that 86 per cent of tweets spreading fake images after Hurricane Sandy were retweets, not original tweets.

Caroline Leo is a 16-year-old from Florida who gained over 15,000 retweets on her tweet of the collage. “I felt good about it because I was helping find so many people and my phone was literally freezing and I had to turn it off for a little while,” she tells me of the initial reaction to the tweet. Yet when multiple people contacted her to say it was fake, she decided not to delete it as some of those featured in the picture were actual missing people. “I was so happy to make their faces familiar to over one million people and I wanted to keep it up because I like Ariana so much and I wanted to help other people who love her just as much as I do,” she says.

Andrea understands Caroline’s motivations, but does think people need to be more careful about what they spread online. “If you realise that half of these people are YouTubers then just delete it, you know. Make a new one,” she says. “I understand that she’s trying to be sweet but after a couple of hours everyone knew this was fake… so, really just make a new one.”

Yet a big part of the reason people create fake images – or accidentally spread them believing them to be real and then don't want to delete them – is for the likes, retweets, and comments. The buzz that we feel from social media attention doesn’t go away just because of a tragedy, and Dr Linda Kaye, an expert in the psychological impacts of technology, explains social media interactions facilitate our “need satisfaction”.

“Humans are social animals and have a basic need for social belonging,” she says. “Perhaps these individuals who [use social media] in this way to gain ‘social approval’ are not having their social needs fulfilled by their existing relationships with friends and family. Adolescents may be particularly prone to this sort of behaviour, as this is a period of great change, in which peer relationships often become more fundamental to them than parental ones.”

John, a YouTuber who was also featured in the collage and in a separate tweet claiming he was missing, urges people to think before they act on social media. “If there is one thing I would like to say about this all... I understand that during events such as this, information can develop and spread very rapidly,” he tells me, “but it doesn't hurt to try to confirm information through a second source.

“For instance, say that a story on Yahoo is claiming that I was a victim - is the BBC reporting the same story? During a crisis situation, I feel that disseminating the correct information to the general public is absolutely crucial and potentially lifesaving.”

***

The Twitter user who contacted me about the Halal Gang “conspiracy” refused to speak when I said I would not transfer $10 to his PayPal account. “$10 is a steal for the info I have not gonna lie,” they said. When I refused, they sent me this offensive meme from the adult cartoon The Boondocks.

At 3:05am, another anonymous Twitter user messaged me. They claimed that the man in the Halal Gang who claimed to be Sam’s ex and had sent me a sexual picture of her, was in fact trying to humiliate his ex. “It’s embarrassing don’t use that picture in any articles,” they wrote.

As it stands, there is potential that the Halal Gang were working together to get multiple viral tweets. There is also potential that the man who asked me for $10 was also trolling in turn by trying to tell me the Halal Gang were acting like this when they are, in fact, innocent. Yet if not Abdulfatah, some members of the group seem to be corresponding with Sam, as she changed her story after I spoke with them. “I believe they kicked me way before the incident and I’ll be completely honest with you, I wanted to get them back, yes,” she says, despite moments earlier saying that they kicked her out after her Manchester attack tweet.

It is impossible to work out Sam’s true motivations for creating a fake victim, as she is hiding behind her online persona and simply answered “nope” when I asked if there was a number I could call her on. Her comments – that she lives in a foster home and is emotionally abused by her family, that she is “not dumb enough to go to an Ariana Grande concert”, and that people critical of her actions “need to move on init” – read as though she is simply trolling me, a journalist, in turn.

There is no real way for me to know who is who they say they are, and whether the Halal Gang are telling the truth that they didn't collaborate with Sam (they refuse to send over screenshots of her being kicked out from the groupchat, as the chat has a “no SS” rule). As Phillips and Milner note, even experts have great difficulty identifying people online. Either way, there is clearly more of connection between Sam and Abdulfatah than the two initial tweets made it seem. 

The reason why this matters is because this story isn’t really about Sam, nor is it about Abdulfatah. If two friends (or people involved in the same group) seek to get revenge or go viral by attacking each other on social media, it is not their actions that have wide-reaching ramifications. It is the actions of the hundreds of thousands of people who choose to Retweet uncorroborated claims, and the journalists who take tweets as gospel. Naturally, in the painful hours proceeding a terror attack, we all make mistakes about what we share on social media. But we can fix them and we can avoid making the mistakes again.

Before claiming she wanted revenge, Sam told me she was acting on a desire to be entertained. I check with her, after this revelation, whether she succeeded in this aim. “So did you find it entertaining?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “It was entertaining.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496