Here’s another kind of Fake News – the kind put out by scammers and fraudsters. Here is where we willingly open ourselves up to propaganda, manipulation and deception by others. But why would we do this? Well, the short answer is that we have accepted someone else’s authority – we’ve been conned into thinking the other guy is legitimate. Online scammers and fraudsters do this every time they phish for information about you – they want you to think that the email you’ve just read is authoritative. It may be one apparently sent by your bank, asking for personal details like an account number (which, if it really was your bank, would never happen.)
Scammers and fraudsters know we’re susceptible to authority and its demands, so long as it seems genuine. (At one time in the past, all one needed to do was put on a white overall and one could walk unhampered through any public hospital – even into ‘staff only’ areas. You looked like you worked there, and thus, no one would question your presence.)
But our susceptibility and obedience to Authority can land us in trouble, too. Even when it’s clear we should disobey it! A good example comes from 1963, when a social psychologist from Yale University, Stanley Milgram, ran an experiment, to see if physical punishment could improve learning capacity. A test subject in a lab at Yale was empowered in the role of ‘teacher’, whilst another took on the role of ‘learner’, unseen in an adjacent room.
The latter would be tested on their power to recall certain words and with each wrong answer, the ‘teacher’ was told – to their amazement – to administer a brief electric shock to the ‘learner’. A ‘shock generator’ fitted with switches was connected to a cable that ran off into the next room, where the ‘learner’ was hooked up to a ‘shock device’. The more the ‘learner’ got it wrong, the more would the voltage from the shock-box increase.
All of this was overseen by a white-coated lab Experimenter instructing the ‘teacher’ on what to do next – such as when to increase the voltage for the next shock. Its impact was heard as the unseen ‘learner’, next door, cried out in pain. The voltage began at 15, and when the shock levels rose to 75 they could be heard to grunt, then protest at 120. When it reached 150, they had had enough! One might assume it would have ended there, but no. The voltage rose through to 285, when the ‘learner’ could actually be heard loudly screaming or complaining of heart pains! Worse, still, it would be administered at 330 volts when an eerie silence fell. Was the ‘learner’ OK? Were they dead by now?
The various switches used by the ‘teachers’ were labelled with macabre descriptions like Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock and Extreme Intensity Shock. The last two were labelled: ‘Danger: Severe Shock’, and, chillingly, “XXX.” Many of the ‘teachers’ were hesitant to increase the shock levels when the cries first rang out, but the Experimenter insisted they go on: “The experiment requires that you continue,” was the mantra they repeated. Reluctantly accepting the authority of the Experimenter, the ‘teacher’ pressed another switch. Another, more powerful electric shock, was given. Thankfully, the whole thing was a hoax …
The entire experiment was completely harmless – the ‘learner’ was a specially briefed actor, only feigning their agonies. But what it said about us as civilized humans was far from savoury. Milgram found that a disturbing two thirds of the ‘teachers’ were willing to increase the voltage up to the maximum 450. Their behaviour, when told to continue, ranged from nervous laughter, to sweating, to trembling, to an apparent cold determination to go on. Even when believing they’d already harmed the ‘learner’, some ‘teachers’ persisted. In one variation (when allowed to administer their own choice of shock level) 2.5 percent of them actually used the maximum 450 volts. (The average in this version of the trial was 83 volts.)
However, the overall conclusion was that, in spite of the apparent torture the ‘teachers’ were causing, when coerced by an authority figure, they were quite willing to obey. They can be divided into at least two psychological types.
1) Those who obeyed when they could shift responsibility for the act on to the Experimenter (with the feeling that they were simply taking part in an experiment ).
2) Those who felt some sense of responsibility and even a measure of guilt – and accordingly were uneasy about the whole thing. But obeyed nonetheless.
Those who refused to administer high level shocks were in the minority, and if the controversial experiment (since denounced as ‘unethical’) proved anything, it’s that too many of us are ready to submit to authority when coerced. Even against our obvious better judgement; when we know (or believe) we’re harming another human. Milgram realised all of this and said,
‘I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.’1
SCAMMERS AND FRAUDSTERS – A REAL LIFE EXAMPLE
In 2004, a branch of McDonalds in Mount Washington, Kentucky, saw an emotionally charged incident that wasn’t quite what it seemed. It was, however, the kind of scenario scammers and fraudsters dream of. The assistant manager at this branch, Donna Summers, took a phone call from a policeman calling himself “officer Scott.” The reason, he said, was that a member of Summers’ staff had stolen money from a customer, and even provided a description of an employee that seemed to fit one currently there. Scott also stated he’d already spoken to Summers’ superior (not present) and had his full co-operation.
Here is where the bizarre turn of events began – Summers was told by the policeman that the suspect, Louise Ogborn, should be strip searched there and then since Scott couldn’t be present. Summers agreed and had Ogborn taken to another room, who was told to strip, though wore an apron to retain some modesty. As Summers needed to be elsewhere, she was substituted by someone else. Bizarrely, this turned out to be Summers’ fiancé – a certain Walter Nix who complied with Scott’s orders, and for the next two hours ‘searched’ a naked Ogborn, forcing her to jump up and down (ostensibly to dislodge money possibly secreted in her vagina). As if this wasn’t bad enough, Ogborn was told to search herself with her fingers, and to confirm no money was present by exposing the result. And yet it didn’t end here.
Scott, muttering imprecations to Ogborn, warning of the consequences if she didn’t comply, even devised a scenario where Ogborn would perform oral sex on Nix. He left shortly afterwards, visibly shaken, murmuring darkly about having ‘done something terribly bad.’ In reality, however, there was no suspicion of theft; there was indeed no ‘officer Scott’. The entire episode was a charade, what has since gone down in history as the Strip-Search Phone Call Scam. The prank has resonances with Milgram’s experiment, too: the self-abasement before the ‘voice of authority’ and total absence of any sense of moral ‘gumption’ that a human being might show. Hardly anyone was doing the right thing, in other words.
Not that everyone did comply – an early witness to the hoax was a cook, Jason Bradley, who gallantly refused to remove Louise’s apron. Similarly, a maintenance worker, Thomas Simms, was asked to keep an eye on Louise and defied Scott’s orders. Eventually, it dawned on Summers that something was amiss and she called her boss – who had definitely not talked to a police officer that day. Then the whole thing unravelled – Summers was fired, Nix pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and other crimes and got five years in jail. Louise Ogborn received therapy and medication to address post-traumatic stress disorder depression.
What beggars the imagination is that the above was no isolated incident, in fact, there had been at least five previous strip-search phone hoaxes, beginning in January 2003.2 Five times this bizarre scam had occurred, apparently without anyone wondering if a serial prankster was at work. Eventually, a certain David Richard Stewart was arrested and charged in connection with the Mount Washington incidents, but he was acquitted in October 2006.
A feature film was released in 2012, Compliance, documenting these goings on – with a few name changes by the producers. It makes for shocking viewing, the New York Times commenting that the incidents in the film raised troubling questions about human nature – how can people fail to notice when something is seriously wrong? 3 As I watched the film, I kept asking myself ‘why the hell can’t the Summers character just stop and think: maybe this guy on the phone isn’t all he seems!?’
This is the way it is with many of us – we often don’t stop to question whether what we’re being told is true. Even in a bizarre situation like the one above. Summers hadn’t even met the fake policeman – everything had been conducted by telephone. But one must obey the law, right? That’s what we’re told when we’re kids. Then again, what about asking questions, too? Question what you hear on the TV news, in the tabloids (and broadsheet newspapers), particularly where the supposed ‘authority’ (like a government) has something to gain by fabricating or distorting the truth. (As with most political media stories).
Scammers and fraudsters (who can certainly be found in the governments of just about any country) can only be successful if we let them. (Admittedly, in politics, we may have to wait for an election to get rid of them.) Generally, though, con artists we encounter will vanish as swiftly as a vampire in sunlight if we ask the right questions. There’s an old adage that says ‘if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is’. This even applies to men wearing white lab coats, and others claiming to be policemen.
Don’t be afraid to challenge others if you think an ‘authority’ might be wrong, and not just scammers and fraudsters. In our schools and universities, what if the teacher is actually wrong about certain things? The same goes for revered scientists, expert historians, His Holiness the Pope, and all manner of politicians and government figures. Maybe this was on Einstein’s mind when he said: ‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ And doesn’t this ‘unthinking respect for authority’ have more severe consequences, when war crimes are committed by ‘mere’ soldiers doing their duty for the government?
I end with the words of C.P. Snow who had it that: ‘When you think of the long and gloomy history of man you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.’
1. Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience,” Harper’s Magazine (1974).
4. Albert Einstein, in a letter to Jost Winteler, c.1901. Highfield, Roger; Carter, Paul (1994), “The Delicate Subject”, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein (1st United States ed.), St. Martin’s Press (Macmillan), pp. 78–79.