When I read about the Facebook group '...It's funny how our flag offends you but our benefits don't!!!...' last week via good people like Anton at Enemies of Reason, MacGuffin at TabloidWatch, Carmen who gets around and Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy, I dreaded opening my own Facebook account. I just knew I'd see a load of family members joining.
The first time I logged in, one cousin had. I posted a couple of status updates with links first to the original story in the pub landlord's trade magazine, and then with the BBC story that included police forces calling the ban 'nonsense', hoping they and others would see it and think twice about joining groups like it.
By the evening, three more had joined and the groups 'We will wear our England shirts and fly our flags anywhere we want too', 'ill wear my shirt n wave my flag, it's ENGLAND dont like it FUCK OFF' and 'I will fly my England Flag High and Proud and F**k what others think' cropped up too. On Wednesday, the same cousin who had first joined the original group also joined 'WE WILL WEAR OUR ENGLAND SHIRTS REGARDLESS OF HOW MUCH IT UPSETS IMMIGRANTS'.
I've been puzzling over the reasons why this story and others like it spread, and why evidence debunking the original story is easily dismissed. Now you have to hear all about it. You poor, poor buggers.
Of course, the papers help create an environment where everyone thinks Political Correctness has gone stark staring bonkers. But the papers are only part of the equation. Stories like this one can spread quickly by word of mouth, and this one seems to have been covered in the Sun just once, months before the Facebook groups started exploding and with no mention of foreigners being offended. It's likely that a great number of people joining these groups either never read the original story or barely remember it.
This sort of story and other urban myths spread because for most people, anecdotal evidence is king. If a person trusts someone who tells them something, they'll more readily believe that than outside evidence. Here's an anecdote to show how that works. Oh, the irony.
My mum once told me about how my aunt knew a woman who'd been approached in a petrol station and sprayed by a man selling perfume. When the woman drove away she became terribly tired and had to pull over. she the passed out and was robbed. Standard urban legend. I told my mum that, but she was having none of it. I sent her a couple of links debunking the story, including one from the Telegraph. I asked her about them next time I spoke to her and she said, "I don't care. If my sister said that's what happened, then that's what happened."
With the story about England shirts being banned, there will be lots and lots of anecdotal evidence. Loads of bars will have dress codes that keep out people in football shirts to avoid trouble, and will have for years. I was made to turn a 1966 England shirt inside out before I was let into the Sports Cafe in Haymarket back in 1996. A sports bar that banned sports clothing.
Thousands of people will have had similar experiences. If most people hear a rumour that police are banning England shirts in pubs, they will be able to turn that sort of personal experience into evidence for the ban. A combination of trust in anecdotal evidence and the widespread belief in PC Gone Mad will take care of the motive for the ban.
Someone hears that the police are banning England shirts in pubs because foreign people. They'll remember the time when they, or their friend, or the bloke in front of them, were turned away from a pub for wearing an England shirt and put two and two together.
Links to evidence that debunk the story might or might not have an effect. The administrators of some of those Facebook groups seem to have left them because they realised they were wrong, with the groups either being taken over by people out to take the piss. But not everybody will be convinced by the evidence, and there are a few reasons why. Good old cognitive dissonance is only one of them.
It hasn't escaped many people that most of those who join these Facebook groups are working-class. Hence all the nastiness about chavs, which is so lovely. Given my own background, I can have a stab at explaining why working-class people join these groups, based on my experiences growing up or dealing with old friends and family members. I've tried to write this without sounding like a massive patronising ponce, but sorry if I fail. It's better than going 'CHAVS LOL!!!' though, huh?
The first thing to remember is that there's always a 'they', who are in charge of things. 'They're building a new Sainsbury's' can be said in the same breath as, 'they're closing down the library.' It doesn't matter that we're talking about different groups and organisations here - both are 'they'. 'They' are usually stupid and don't have a clue about the real world. 'They' include the PC Brigade, teachers, police, traffic wardens, people who work for the council, big corporations, scientists, social services, the government and on and on and on. 'They' means 'people in charge who are not us'.
It might seem like 'they' is used as a shorthand for a group you can't be bothered to name, but it isn't really. It really does cover anyone who might happen to be in charge of almost anything for any reason. So if someone believes that 'they' have banned England shirts in pubs because foreigners will get upset, it doesn't do much good to point them towards an artcile showing the police dismissing the rumour as nonsense. They probably know of bars that will ban foortball shirts, so 'they' have banned England shirts, whether it's got anything to do with the police or not.
'They' sometimes overlap with middle-class do-gooders, or people who have been to university or work in an office. These people have absolutely no idea of how things work in the real world, since they live a cosseted existence in their ivory towers.
I, from my new(ish) privileged position telling my cousins that Englad shirts aren't being banned in pubs, obviously don't know what I'm on about. My cousins probably know someone besides me who was turned away from a pub, so I must be wrong. I can't be arsed to look for it now, but one comment on the 'Funny how our flag offends you...' group wall says almost exactly this - pointing out that he had been turned away from a pub himself, and the ponce telling him there was no ban has probably never set foot in a pub in his life.
On top of the idea that anyone pointing at external evidence suggesting there is no ban has no idea how life works in the real world, those of us trying to debunk the myth can easily destroy our own argument.
If we respond to a story like this one saying, 'nobody wants to ban your England shirt or flag, do what you like,' we're only going to fail. People do want to stop England shirts being worn in pubs, or flags being flown in some instances. It will just be the odd pub landlord here and there, or a boss who doesn't want them in the workplace. We don't know anything about the real world.
Plus, talking about chavs, Jeremy Kyle and generally taking the piss helps.
Unfortunately, the tabloids are all too eager to exploit all this. Some of the Facebook groups also talk about bans on England flags as well as shirts.
Four years ago, the Sun greeted the World Cup with the front page headline, 'UP YOURS' and a story on the website headlined 'England expects flags'. The story listed various instances of workplaces and schools not allowing flags to be displayed for lots of different reasons.
The Sun, though, claimed throughout the story that they had been banned because of Muslims, even right next to explanations of the real reason. It also expertly weaved in possibly unrelated comments from Mulsims saying either that they didn't like the English flag, or they didn't mind it at all to add to the false impression that the 'bans' had anything to do with Muslims.
It topped that off by saying, 'Most of the country’s Muslims are happy to get behind the flag — although there are some who never will.' This is despite the fact that Muslims had nothing to do with any of the bans in the story.
Memories of this story and the controversy surrounding it may have helped alog the general idea that this sort of thing happens because of foreigners.
Newspapers are beginning to latch onto this new myth and exploit it in the way you'd expect. The Bournemouth Daily Echo printed the completely unsubstantiated '"Policeman told me not to wear England shirt", claims woman', and the Daily Mail has published the equally well backed up 'Driver orders toddler off bus for wearing 'offensive' England football shirt'. Neither story includes any corroborating evidence to back them up, and neither hack seems to have done even the most basic fact checking. Both have been comprehensively debunked by the police and by the bus company.
Whatever the reasons for these myths spreading without the aid of the tabloids, it'll be as interesting as it is depressing to watch this new myth develop over the summer with their aid.
Follow my Twitter stream during the World Cup to see if I've been bundled away from any pubs by SWAT teams in front of crowds of cheering foreigners for wearing an England shirt.