Thursday, 30 January 2014

"Whale slaughter in Denmark" - how a lie can get halfway round the world before the truth has its boots on

The Faroe Islands' relationship
to Denmark in  the amazing
Scandinavia And The
World comic. Funny
and educational!
Okay so I'm writing about the Denmark whaling post that's going round. It's a week since I saw it being shared all over Facebook, and this girl has already written a post about it, but she missed some important points - mainly that this story has been around for a very long time.

So here's my analysis on the web page, the story, and a little digging I've done too.

The page is called "Please keep this going around the world" on Chinese social website*, containing photos of horrific slaughter of dolphins, or whales, or something, in the Faroe Islands, which is kind of Denmark but not really.

The photos, as you can see here, are mostly poor quality and some have (differing) text watermarks on them. The page says the "dolphins" are being killed purely as a rite of passage.

Emotive picture #1, dead
whales lined up in blood
The text is in both English and Simplified Chinese, which checks out with Google Translate (i.e. it does say roughly the same things in Chinese). This is relevant to the story re-appearing, which I'll come back to.

The main points are easy to work through, and Megan Stamper has already covered them in her Tumblr post:
  • "Calderon dolphins" are actually Pilot whales
  • They are not endangered and the slaughter is considered sustainable by the International Union for Converservation of Nature
  • The islands's law prevents unnecessary suffering of animals and death is achieved by cutting the spinal cord, occurring in "about 30 seconds or less"
  • The whales are not killed meaninglessly, with the meat being distributed to the local community
  • The Faroe Islands are a self-governing group of islands within the Danish Realm, not actually Denmark
Emotive picture #2, big scarlet spill
of blood in the sea
Personally I find it hard to believe it isn't "unnecessary suffering", and I doubt this custom is "necessary" as a source of food**, rather than about emotional issues on cultural heritage.

But as Stamper rightly points out, it's not very different from factory farming which provides huge amounts of meat in a very cruel way.

Online outrage at least 5 years old

Emotive pic #3, young people
hacking at whales with not-quite-
surgical equipment
That's all fine. But what Stamper and the millions sharing this post seemed to miss, is that it's been around since at least 2008 - starting out as a protest email, like so many posts of dubious origin which snowball into the internet.

Snopes collected the story in Nov 2009, while Hoax Slayer had it submitted in Nov 2008. Both show it originated as a campaign email with a vague target and few instructions, i.e. to force Denmark (as "owner" of the Faroes) to prevent the slaughter.

So why is the story back? Well, as with "New Trend In Portland", the post has all the right ingredients - shocking photos, a sense of outrage, re-posted in a unique way - making it seem new. Again, I'll come to this point later.

Emotive pic #4, gathered people on
shore and living/dying whales
Also, this was shared on a Chinese website with both Chinese and English language - allowing maximum social coverage across both those parts of the web. It's entirely possible this is the first time it's made it to a Chinese non-English-speaking audience.

Those photo watermarks

The watermarks are clever, because if the story goes viral with your name on it, that's a lot of brand recognition.***

Emotive pic #5, right up close
The first photo has "ABC media" and the QQ/WeChat logo, matched with a link to ABC above the picture (Javascript, seems broken).

But most of the others are "", which isn't a website (any more?), but redirects to, which is some kind of nonsense viral-sharing website in Arabic.

Writing "" into Google brings up the automatic suggestion " dolphin killing", which suggests people are searching this term a lot right now, for a website and post doesn't seem to exist.

Ironically, searching for it does bring up this inserbia.infro article from 2013 and this article from 2008, taken from a post which also doesn't exist any more.

The article seems new, and that's important

Emotive pic #6, dead whales
with guts cut open
When people blindly click "share" on these posts on social media, they may not think it's a new event - it's pretty clear the whaling has been going on for a long time - but the reason to click share is that the article is new, that it is a custom which has been newly discovered, which has not been talked about before.

Of course most people sharing haven't seen the original email, and you might say hey, it's new to that person. But firstly, the spread relies upon people not looking it up; a 5-second web search would reveal this story has been around for years.

And here's the acid test: if it really mattered to people, they wouldn't just stop with sharing this post - which is exactly the last thing that most people (most, see postscript) will do on this "horrific" subject.

The camera never lies, but the meme does mutate

Non-watermarked 2005 photo from the
Wikipedia article on whale meat.
This is not from the email/shared post, and
you're unlikely to see it shared around.
Unlike many shock posts like "New Trend In Portland" which people share without thinking, the subject here is actually true - the Faroe Islands do actually hunt pilot whales, and they make a lot of mess doing it.

But what's interesting is the way these stories exist for a long time, spreading in fits and starts**** and mutating over time. And they often develop in a way that maximises their chance to be shared (like viruses) at the expense of the truth (like traditional tabloid journalism).

Did the person who posted this on cynically adapt an existing story, to get page clicks and views? Or did they simply re-post, in a new way, something they believed without checking? It doesn't matter. The story, the idea, the meme, develops a life and a career all of its own.

So there it is. By the way, the title quote is from Mark Twain, although I got it from Terry Pratchett, and you should definitely read and share both of them.

Postscript - Twitter, the tipping point, and evolution

I was about to click "publish", and did a quick search on Twitter to find some decent hashtags for sharing this, my own blog post. What I saw is that people are sharing this story every hour, promoting petitions and campaign sites like this and this and here and here, naturally alongside individual images and Facebook/Tumblr posts etc.

This rapid sharing is very probably a direct result of the Chinese page being shared on social media very recently. Why else would the petition, which is 3 years old or more, only have reached 15,000 signatures 5 days ago, on 25th Jan 2014?

So who knows what's next. Maybe these campaigns will hit mainstream media. Which would be funny, since mainstream media has already been talking about about this for years. And no-one on social media thought about mentioning it.

 * English-language equivalent is

** Slightly ironically, the Faroe Islands' Chief Medical Officer said in 2008 that the mercury level in the whales is too high for human consumption. And whales breaking into thermometers and drinking them is whole different issue.

*** In similar cynical fashion, I've uploaded those pics here myself, with file names of "faroewhaleslaughter1.jpg", which means search results will pick up this blog post and bring traffic here. Neat huh? That's how they work.

**** Much like the navy ship vs. lighthouse story/joke


  1. Thanks, Jez. I'm totally going to share this on Facebook -- and tag the friends who've been posting about it.

    Incidentally, I actually know someone from the Faroe Islands, and discussed this issue with him a couple of years ago. The Faroese do eat the whales.

  2. It seems a remarkable coincidence that this article went viral from QQ just days after international outcry about a very similar practice in Japan.

  3. Thank you for the thorough information. It served as a great launching place for my own research.

  4. it does not matter WHERE it took place or WHEN it took place, it matters that the disgusting events took place at all, the world is not ours to plunder and all life should be sacred .

    1. Actually as an internet phenomenon, it DOES matter where and when it took place. As I described, this blog post is not about the rights and wrongs of the whale hunt itself.

    2. then go after the vegitarians. agriculture is the most dameging thing anyone has done to this earth !

  5. Wow Anonymous. How about you look in a dictionary, you ignoramous

  6. This JUST happened again, July 24, 2015. I thought it was a hoax, but it is real.

    1. Thanks for the heads up, good to know. Good to see the Sea Shepherd guys working on it.
      As above though, the "whale" slaughter itself is real, but this blog post is mainly about how information and stories travel and mutate around the web.

  7. 2016 and it re-emerges again

  8. What a shame, after finding out about this slaughter I know that my views on this country have changed forever. I live in Europe and I know that all the animals that we eat go through hell before getting on our table. ... but this. I mean we kill the wild animals as if there's nothing else to eat. .. I don't understand it...