The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Amplification, or Why the Internet Is a Terrifying Thing

This just in: Some guy says that London hospitals are like war zones!


About a month ago, Breitbart ran a story ("Khan's London: Lead Surgeon Says Hospital Like Afghan War Zone, Two More Killed Overnight") about the recent upsurge in knifings in London. It quoted Dr. Mark Griffiths, the lead surgeon at a trauma center (Barts Health NHS Trust) in East London, as saying "Some of my military colleagues have described their practice here as similar to being at [Camp] Bastion" [in the Afghan war zone].

During his speech at the NRA Convention in Dallas last week, President Trump, apparently referring to the Breitbart story, said:

"I recently read a story that, in London, which has unbelievably tough gun laws, a once very prestigious hospital, right in the middle, is like a war zone for horrible stabbing wounds…. Yes, that's right, they don't have guns, they have knives, and instead there's blood all over the floors of this hospital. They say it's as bad a military war zone hospital."

Needless to say, that got a fair bit of attention on various Internet sites (search results here).

It's a nice illustration, I think, of Internet amplification. To begin with, it's quadruple hearsay: Trump says that Breitbart says that some guy in London says that his colleagues say that … it's like a warzone. But then, almost instantaneously, it has been repeated and repeated, over and over, hundreds of thousands or millions of times.

That has nothing to do, of course, with whether or not it's actually true. It's still just some guy in London who reported on what some of his colleagues said. It's as though my barber tells me that he heard some guy say that property taxes in Prince Georges County were going through the roof. That's not evidence that taxes in PG County are going through the roof. It's just some guy saying that they are. And even if the story is picked up by someone at Breitbart (or Huffpost, or, or any place)—"Taxes in PG County Skyrocketing"—and even if the President repeats it, that doesn't change what it is—some guy's opinion about things.