The Power of the Urban Legend – 500,000 Sign Petition Opposing a Rumour

The ever brilliant El Reg reports today that 500,000 people have signed a petition calling on the British Government to remove its ban on the Red Arrows flying at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012.  Great news, except that there is, and never was, any such ban.

That put me in mind of one of the great Irish urban legends, in which I played a small part.  Paul & Mick from P45 created a fake news story, which I and about ten others helped edit, claiming that Silvio Berlusconi, then and currently Italian Prime Minister, had demanded that Ireland hand back a Caravaggio painting, “The Taking of the Christ“, and, as I remember it, called us a “bunch of stupid potato heads” in the process.  The Irish Independent, that bastion of quality journalism, fell for it hook line and sinker, and published it splashed across the front page of the paper on July 31st 2003.  In the end, the Indo had to apologise.

The Taking of the Christ, Caravaggio

It just goes to show – if you put out a story that’s vaguely plausible, but not really verifiable, it can gain traction.  In both cases above, official denials (when sought) just reinforced people’s belief that the story was true.


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