Jan 25 2021

Anomaly Hunting and Boris Johnson’s Phone Call

The latest internet conspiracy theory involves a phone call between President Biden and Boris Johnson’s. Johnson is the first world leader that Biden has called as president, and the moment has been captured in photographs. What I find most amazing about these pictures is that it is 2021 and the phone at No 10 still has a cord. Perhaps there is a security reason for this. But what “the internet” found most interesting was the lack of cord – in the reflected images in the mirror, that is. This observation even confused journalists:

Even ITV political editor Robert Peston admitted he was left bemused by the image.

He tweeted: “This is flipping weird. The phone cable should be visible in the mirror descending from Boris Johnson’s watch, in this official Downing St picture. It’s not. What is going on?”

This may become the latest blue dress – gold dress internet sensation. When I look at those pictures I absolutely see a phone cord, no problem. But – I can see how someone might, at first, be confused. There is a mild optical illusion created by the angle of the cord in the reflection vs the primary picture. While this is likely to blow over quickly as just a silly internet phenomenon, it does reflect (pun intended) a couple of phenomena worth pointing out.

One is anomaly hunting. This is the practice, most importantly by conspiracy theorists, of hunting for things that seem strange at first, and then parlaying them into alleged evidence for a conspiracy or cover-up. The logic is – something weird is going on, their must be a cover-up. This is a non-sequitur, however. The more valid conclusion would be – something weird is going on, but this could be because the complex world is full of quirky anomalies and coincidences. At the very least the latter must be ruled out before the former is taken seriously.

Another bit of illogic is basing a conclusion entirely on the inability to explain something, an argument from ignorance. This is the – I cannot identify that indistinct blob of light, therefore it is an alien spacecraft. Rather, the conclusion should be, therefore I have no idea what it is, and it really could be many things.

In this case the mundane explanation that should be entertained before concluding that the photo was manipulated is this is simply an optical illusion. Mentally flipping perspectives in a mirror is not easy. I can understand the initial reaction of – hey, where’s the phone cord in the mirror? But then look more closely. It is clearly there, and you can easily see how an illusion was created by the angle of the cord. Also, in the picture with Johnson seated, the cord could be mistaken for the front seam of his shirt.

There are countless similar illusions online – because there are so many billions of photos, and by chance alone strange color and angles will cause some people to mentally construct a picture in a weird or funny way. Here is one of my favorites. Look at the girls legs – they seem absurdly thin. Then look more closely – she is just holding a bag of popcorn, but your brain created a false continuity between the grass and the popcorn. This was not deliberate, but stuff like this happens all the time.

What is curious is how confident some people can be that they cracked a government conspiracy, because they noticed a mistake that, if real, would be extremely sloppy. There is something alluring about the notion that you have peaked behind the curtain. It might be difficult for some to give this up, just because it turned out to be a common optical illusion.

Finally, in such cases I invite people to consider the plausibility of the claim and to think it all the way through. This is also where conspiracy theories often fail – they notice the anomaly, draw the wrong conclusion from it, and then fail to carry through the logic to the end. That is because they don’t want to – they want the anomaly, not plausible answers.

But ask yourself – why photoshop an image of Johnson apparently on a phone call with Biden? Was the call itself faked? No – Biden and Johnson had a call. Johnson could not falsely claim he had a phone call with Biden, because then the Biden Administration would quickly put out a statement correcting the lie. Perhaps the call happened, but they could not get the photographer up to Johnson quickly enough to catch it, so they had to recreate it after. I have no reason to think this is what happened, but it is highly plausible. Photographers recreate pictures all the time, to get better lighting, or a better pose, for example. The famous raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima was a recreation.

If this were the case, however, why not just take a picture of Johnson posed on the phone as if he were talking to Biden? In what scenario does a photographer have to use photoshop to alter the image? There is nothing in the photo that dates it, or that shows that Biden is on the other end. I’m sure a generic picture of Johnson on the phone is available, or can easily be obtained without having to photoshop one. So what is the conspiracy here? It makes no sense.

But conspiracy theories don’t have to make sense. They are about mystery mongering – look at that anomaly – and then attach a sinister implication to the anomaly. Having a coherent logical explanation is not the MO. Conspiracy theorists do not have to prove their theory, they just have to create doubt in the official explanation so that they can fill the void with their musings.

Yes this “conspiracy” (what is it, exactly?) is silly, but it follows the pattern of more enduring ones.


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