Skeptics shouldn't have lined up with the Mail to call Psychic Sally a fraud

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell people the full story, or admit the things we don’t know. Otherwise, we’ve engaged in exactly the sort of sloppy, lazy, error-prone journalism we’d normally criticise.

The great pity about the legal battle between the Daily Mail and ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan was that somebody had to win. The Mail’s humiliating failure to outsmart a Come Dine With Me contestant who talks to dead people is delicious, but it's spoiled somewhat by a psychic’s ‘vindication’ in the courts, like biting into a Wagon Wheel and finding Bovril inside. What’s even more galling is that she deserved to win.

Before we go any further, one thing needs to be made crystal clear. Ben Goldacre claimed on Twitter yesterday that, “The libel lawyers of the UK have decided in their wisdom that psychic powers are real after all.” Ben, I love you, but this is complete nonsense. The case was not about whether Sally Morgan is a psychic.  Morgan sued for defamation because she felt the Mail’s article amounted to an accusation of fraud; that it suggested she deliberately misled the public by pretending to be a psychic. In particular, they accused her of using “a hidden earpiece in order to receive instructions from her team which she then repeated on stage as if she had received them from the spirit world.”

It sounds very plausible. Psychics and televangelists have used this technique in the past – Peter Popoff was famously exposed by James Randi, who used a radio scanner to intercept and expose radio communications between the performer and a backstage accomplice – his wife. She collected information from prayer cards filled out by audience members before the show, and then broadcast details to Popoff’s earpiece. To those in the theatre it seemed as if God Herself were channeling information to the performer (God’s contempt for personal privacy apparently exceeded the NSA’s by several orders of magnitude.). In reality, it was his wife: “Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can’t you’re in trouble . . .”

Exposing Popoff’s fraud was a great feat of investigative journalism and rational inquiry. In the case of Sally Morgan however, nobody – not journalists, bloggers or skeptics - bothered to step up to the plate. In a supreme fit of irony, rationalists accused her of fraud without bothering to collect the evidence they needed to substantiate the claim. She sued, she won, and she deserved to win.

The response has not been very constructive, as Hayley Stevens noted in a blog post last night: “I saw many other angry tweets about how Sally Morgan was an obvious fraud and that it was ridiculous the courts has sided with her. It made me chuckle because most of the people making these statements were self-proclaimed skeptics and rational thinkers who ought to know the importance of evidence and how evidence actually works.” 

This is just the most recent example of a much wider problem I have with people abusing terms like ‘fraud’, ‘scam’, or ‘liar’ when talking about quacks or charlatans. I’m not going to link to specific examples of this sort of defamation for obvious reasons, but you can easily see what I mean if you google, say, ‘homeopathy’ and ‘fraud’ – rationalists and skeptics merrily throwing around accusations of deliberate deception that they have absolutely no evidence for and no ability to stand up.  The only way a skeptic could possibly ‘know’ without evidence that Sally Morgan intended to deceive people would be if they could somehow see into her mind and read her thoughts, like some kind of psyc . . . oh.

For many, it’s enough that someone is ‘wrong’. Meeting the ‘enemy’ or conducting the careful detective work that exposed Popoff, is unnecessary when you can just slag people off in a blog post about some stuff you found on Google, calling them a ‘fraud’ or a ‘murderer’ in the process. The problem with this sort of attitude – which I’ve been guilty of plenty of times myself - is that it’s unconvincing, strewn with errors, and it fails to understand the people involved.

For example, a lot of people seem unable to accept that psychics using tricks like cold reading – or even an earpiece - may still genuinely believe they have a supernatural skill. To them I would strongly recommend Derren Brown’s fascinating uncut interview with Richard Dawkins which tackles exactly that question. Belief is far less binary than a lot of people . . . well, believe; and people are rarely simple.

I learned this lesson myself when I met Jeremy Sherr - a homeopath who claims to treat HIV patients – in Tanzania.  A number of people, myself included, had portrayed him as a sort of cartoon villain, laying waste to vast swathes of Africa. The reality on the ground was rather more complicated. Sherr is charismatic; a passionate true believer who makes real sacrifices to help African communities. He also does a hell of a lot of good beyond homeopathy – supporting victims of domestic violence, working to reduce Aids stigma, ensuring local children are fed and educated, and much more besides.

Of course I also believe that he’s profoundly and dangerously wrong, and that his activities may be putting lives at risk. Just how dangerous I can’t say, because like everyone else in the UK I simply don’t know. One of the big problems with homeopathy – and a lot of other interventions, bogus or otherwise – in Africa is that we just don’t have the data we need on what goes on there. There are no statistics, no monitoring agencies, and often no information at all beyond that supplied by aid workers themselves. It is impossible to quantify either the good or the harm that somebody like Jeremy Sherr does, and that in itself is a massive problem.

It’s tempting to say that he simply must be harming people, but that’s the opposite of rationalism. I’m not playing with scales of morality here, weighing up the good and the bad. Neither am I suggesting inaction. The bad is bad whatever the good, and it needs to be stopped if possible. (On that note, if you’re a skeptic and you want to help tackle homeopathy in Africa my advice would be to work with groups like INASP or SciDev. My point is that rationalists need to admit when we don’t know things. That, after all, is supposed to be the fundamental basis for rational inquiry.

We also need to be willing to trust people with the full story. Jeremy Sherr is a man with admirable qualities, who does a lot of good work.  Some people will be unhappy with me making that statement, but it’s true, and failing to acknowledge this can be catastrophic. I interviewed a science teacher and NGO founder in Tanzania who was had read a number of skeptical blogs and been persuaded by them . . . that Sherr was probably right. Our descriptions of Sherr and his operation  - some bloggers went so far as to imply he was a ‘murderer’ - were so comically cartoonish that they were easily dismissed. It was, if I’m honest, a humiliating lesson, one that made me question a lot of my previous writing.

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell people the full story, or admit the things we don’t know. If the facts are damning, we shouldn’t need to be spin them, leave bits out or exaggerate them. You don’t need to ignore the complex realities of Jeremy Sherr’s activities or imply that he’s a pantomime villain to highlight the very serious problems with his arrogant and dangerous behavior. You don’t need to call Psychic Sally a fraud to point out that it’s fundamentally sickening to see people pay money to a woman who claims to be able to speak to the dead.

When we go down that road, we make mistakes, we get sued, and it’s right that we get sued, because we’ve engaged in exactly the sort of sloppy, lazy, error-prone journalism we’d normally criticise. The irony hasn’t escaped me that I’m criticising an article in the Daily Mail, and I’m probably going to take a lot of flak for it.

A still from SallyMorgan.tv

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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"It's just a prank, bro": inside YouTube’s most twisted genre

Despite endless headlines and media scrutiny, catchphrases such as "it was a social experiment" and "block the haters" have allowed YouTube's dangerous pranking culture to continue unregulated. 

A year and five months after the worst prank video ever was uploaded to the internet, its crown has been usurped. In November 2015, YouTuber Sam Pepper made headlines after he filmed a video entitled “KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK”. In the video, Pepper kidnaps a man before forcing him to watch his friend be “murdered” by a masked figure. Rocking on the chair he has been tied to, the victim sobs and shouts: “We’re just kids”.

Last week, an actual child – aged nine – was victim to a similarly distressing “prank”. Michael and Heather Martin, of the YouTube channel DaddyOFive, poured disappearing ink on to their son Cody’s carpet before – in Heather’s words – “flipping out” on the child.

“What the fuck did you do,” yells Heather to summon Cody to his room. “I swear to God I didn’t do that,” screams and cries Cody as his parents verbally berate him. His face goes red; he falls to his knees.

You won’t find either of these videos on either of their creators’ channels today. After considerable backlash, Pepper deleted his video and DaddyOFive have now made all of their videos (bar one) private. The Martins have faced international scrutiny after being called out by prominent YouTuber Philip DeFranco, who collated a video of clips in which Cody is “pranked” by his family. In one, Cody appears to be pushed face-first into a bookcase by his father. In another, a visibly distressed Cody sobs while his father says: “It’s just a prank bro.”

These five words have been used to justify some of the most heinous pranks in YouTube history. Sam Pepper famously called a video in which he pinched the bottoms of unsuspecting women, a “social experiment”. Usually, though, creators’ excuses follow a pattern. “It was just a prank,” they say. Then, if the heat doesn't subside: “Actually, it was fake.”

Three months after his “KILLING BEST FRIEND” prank, Pepper claimed the video – and all of his other prank videos – were staged. In a video entitled “Family Destroyed Over False Aquisations [sic]” the Martins have now also claimed that their videos are scripted. “We act them out,” says Michael. It seems many on the internet remain sceptical. The Child Protection Services website for Maryland – where the Martins live – has crashed after Redditors encouraged one another to report the family. If the Martins’ videos are indeed staged, Cody is one of the shining child actors of our time.

Though the Martins might yet face severe consequences for their pranks, it wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t.  The “Just a prank”/“No it’s fake” cycle means that despite multiple headline-grabbing backlashes, YouTube pranking culture continues to thrive. Boyfriends pretend to throw their girlfriend’s cats out windows; fathers pretend to mothers that their sons have died. YouTubers deliberately step on strangers' feet in order to provoke fights. Sometimes, yes, pranksters are arrested for faking robberies, but in the meantime their subscribers continue to grow in their millions.

At present, there is no regulatory body that examines YouTube. Pranksters who break the law are arrested, but children whose daily lives are filmed for the site are not protected by the same regulations that safeguard child actors from being overworked or exploited. Though the communications authority Ofcom has guidelines about wind-up calls and consent, it does not regulate YouTube. The BBC were famously fined £150,000 by the body after Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross prank called Andrew Sachs, yet internet pranks remain out of its jurisdiction.

Though YouTube removes videos that breach its “Community Guidelines”, it seems illogical that we trust the service to police itself. Since the invention of the radio, we have assumed that independent bodies are needed to scrutinise the media – so why you should the largest video-sharing platform on the planet be exempt? No one is truly looking out for either the pranking victims or the children of YouTube. God forbid, like Cody, if you are both.

It is also arguable that YouTube pranks need more regulation than those broadcast on TV. Britain’s favourite pranking shows revolve around humiliating comedians themselves – Trigger Happy TV, Balls of Steel, Jackass – or are very soft (think a man pretending to be both a mime and a policeman) in nature. When someone is outright humiliated on TV, it’s because they are seen to be “fair game”, such as in Comedy Central’s Fameless Prankers, where people desperate to be famous are forced into increasingly humiliating situations. On YouTube, there are no consent forms or waivers to ensure filming remains ethical, and YouTube pranksters often target more vulnerable people.

“There’s an element of power here with the parents and it seems this is very top-down,” says Jonathan Wynn, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who has written on pranks in the past. Wynn explains that traditionally pranks mock status and hierarchy, such as when court jesters taunted kings. When pranks come from the top down, Wynn says they allow a group to bond emotionally – arguably something the Martins are attempting as a family. Nonetheless, Wynn notes this would work better if the children also pranked their parents equally. “In this case the status differential is quite high, when you have children and parents.”

Traditionally, the mainstream media has had little room for this type of content. In 2012, two radio DJs attempted to prank the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton by calling the hospital she was staying at, but instead tricked two nurses. When one of these nurses, Jacintha Saldanha, died by suicide days later, the episode seemed the ultimate illustration of the recklessness of pranks that “punch down”.

Conversely, status differentials are a large part of YouTube prank culture. Rather than attacking people in power, YouTube pranks are often played by those in power (the YouTube famous) on those who have lower social status. Frequently, boyfriends prank girlfriends, for example, and since 2014, white pranksters have filmed “in the hood” pranks provoking young black men. In “The N Word Prank!!” famous internet prankster Roman Atwood goes around saying “What’s up my neighbour” to people of colour, knowing that it will be misheard as a racial slur. In the context of this pranking culture, a parent pranking a child to the point of tears seems almost inevitable.

Perhaps, then, it is easy to understand why Michael and Heather Martin “prank” their children – it is harder to understand why anyone is watching. The DaddyOFive channel has over 750,000 subscribers, with over 7,000 of these subscribing after Philip DeFranco’s video accused the family of “abusing” their children. In order to defend themselves, the Martins initially employed another YouTube rhetoric, on top of “just a prank bro”. In a since deleted video, they invited their fans to “block the haters”.

This phrase is ingrained in online culture, and has allowed internet celebrities to dismiss criticism for years. By painting anyone who is critical as “jealous” or a “hater”, YouTubers can ensure their fans ignore their words and therefore stay loyal. In a video response to Philip DeFranco, the Martins riffed off a popular meme and placed spoons over their eyes to symbolise this mentality, and now fans as young as 12 are copying this action to show their support. When I search the hashtag used by the family’s supporters to see if anyone might be willing to explain why they still love the channel, I am faced with the reality that most of DaddyOFive’s fans are children. Though YouTube’s minimum sign-up age is 13, there is nothing really stopping children from watching – and normalising – harmful content, particularly when it is disguised as a “prank”.

In this context, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether a prank is faked. Sam Pepper might have asked his friend's permission before he fake-kidnapped him, and perhaps Michael Martin was only pretending when he pushed his son into a bookcase. Neither of these facts will prevent children – 19 percent of whom have a desire to be famous – from copying these actions in order to promote their own YouTube channels. Even if a YouTuber is punished for a dangerous pranking video, there are thousands of other pranksters ready and willing to take their place. 

It remains to be seen whether the Martins will continue with their YouTube channel. At the end of their now infamous invisible ink prank, Michael asks Cody to “do the outro” – the concluding section of a YouTube video. Wiping his nose and still red in the face, Cody rattles off his script at alarming speed.“Thank you guys for watching this video if you like this video and want to see more videos like this one leave a comment down the section below and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat… and don’t forget to… Like and Subscribe.” 

Since the backlash, Michael has added a new line into the “About” section of the DaddyOFive YouTube channel. After reiterating that the videos are fake, he writes: “no child was harmed in the making of our videos”. 

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

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