Am I gunshy after "Balloon Boy" or are there legitimate reasons to question whether Jessica Watson is really sailing around the globe?
October 27, 2009 5:56 PM   Subscribe

Am I just gun-shy after the "Balloon Boy" hoax or are there legitimate reasons to question whether Jessica Watson is really sailing around the world? What evidence can you find to support the theory that this is another hoax and what evidence can you find that refutes that theory?

Over the past week I have been captivated by the Jessica Watson story. Ms. Watson is an Australian teenager attempting to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe on her sailboat, unassisted. I read her blog each day and I even purchased a world map so I could follow along on her journey. Things were going smoothly with my new hobby until she posted this blog entry about finding a bunch of squid on deck that morning. I was puzzled as to why she posted a "stock" photo of herself instead of pictures of the squid and began to wonder whether something was amiss.

My skepticism grew when I then read this article which noted that Ms. Watson has decided not to release her precise position information lest she be chased down by the media. I also learned that Ms. Watson plans on sailing nonstop and will not be stopping for media photos in port. This is unusual as young sailors typically make stops in ports when circumnavigating the globe: Zac Sunderland made loads of stops and Michael Perham took a Christmas break. The sailors give interviews at port and pose for media photos as they travel to foreign lands.

I want to continue to believe this terrific story and cheer on Ms. Watson, but I also want to be a savvy media consumer. How do you answer either one or both of my two questions?
posted by kellygreen to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know how she's connecting to the net? I know from my own research into satellite phones that data rates can be quite expensive. Perhaps she's only texting/emailing updates and the person running her blog posts the stock photos?

Did the other sailors you mentioned do lots of picture updates? I'm not familiar enough with their stories to compare.
posted by sharkfu at 6:03 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Looking through other blog posts, it looks like she is posting regular (non-stock) photos. Maybe got to work getting the squid off the deck before she thought to take photos of them then?

And the lack of location updates could be for her own safety, not just media considerations. Pirates hijacking yachts and all.
posted by sharkfu at 6:07 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the point is to do it non-stop to beat this guy's record, another Australian sailor who made the journey at age 18, non-stop, unassisted. There's been no doubt about whether he did it or not, but I suppose a hoax is possible.
posted by b33j at 6:13 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

You're making a rather extraordinary claim based on very flimsy half-evidence, and then you're saying, "Prove me wrong world!" This is essentially the domain of the conspiracy theorist.

It's clearly possible for a 16 or 17 year old to do it, since two have already done it this year so far. She's clearly capable of sailing a boat unassisted, since she ran into a freighter a while back and there was a government inquest. Posting a stock photo could certainly be considered equivalent to posting no photo, and there are plenty of other blog posts with no photo that didn't set off your radar. And the Australian press is mad in general and specifically about sailing so it's no wonder she wouldn't want to be harassed. If she was publishing live GPS, someone would probably pull up in a boat next to her to do an interview.
posted by smackfu at 6:23 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pictures of the boat look reasonable. The 'non-stop' trip is probably not much harder and possibly a bit safer that entering unfamiliar ports. If she has the endurance and is able to fix stuff that breaks. I remember mention of Ellen MacArthur climbing the mast mid-ocean and thinking she was a whole lot tougher that me. But, that was on a serious (read nutso-crazy) racing sailboat. The stable cruiser Watson is on is certainly rigged more conservatively. Now if she hit's 50' seas in the southern ocean, it will show her mettle!
posted by sammyo at 6:24 PM on October 27, 2009

Response by poster: I'd love to hear from people who are bothered by "Balloon Boy" and have thought about how to sift through and judge these types of media stories. What's your take on Jessica Watson? What's your evidence that the story is true or false? What do you believe and why?
posted by kellygreen at 6:30 PM on October 27, 2009

While her shore team is in contact with her and has precise position information, they have been reluctant to share it. Their motivation is to prevent news media from seeking out Ella's Pink Lady for photography or video enroute. "She just doesn't want to be annoyed with choppers and planes," he said.

Sounds reasonable to me.
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:38 PM on October 27, 2009

You're essentially asking us to provide you with a set of heuristics or rules to determine which media stories are valid and which are not.

The short answer to this is that one needs to develop and apply critical thinking skills to all the information to which one is exposed. I don't know how to tell you to develop and apply those skills given that I know nothing about you, and I doubt anyone else here will either.

If you are seriously trying to understand how to determine a hoax from a legitimate story, and not just here to troll, then perhaps reach out to those who know you in real life, and ask them how they think you should proceed.

From all indications, this story, such as it is, appears legitimate.
posted by dfriedman at 6:45 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you would like fodder for your hoax theory, there's the story of Donald Crowhurst. Just sayin'.
posted by secretseasons at 6:58 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow! Interesting links, secretseasons and sammyo!
posted by kellygreen at 7:03 PM on October 27, 2009

secretseasons: i just came in to mention Deep Water, a fantastic documentary about Donald Crowhurst featuring loads of original footage of his mysterious trip...
posted by Philby at 7:23 PM on October 27, 2009

yeah Donal Crowhurst is pretty much an amazing story. I can't imagine someone reading it and saying, hey, I could do that...but you never know.
posted by sully75 at 7:27 PM on October 27, 2009

oh, and also, being an Australian, i can tell you that Jessica Watson's tilt at circumnavigation has been all over the news (with varying degrees of admiration and outrage) for a few months now; the premier of Queensland even publicly went on record saying that she shouldn't be making the attempt at all. It would be a damn brazen act of sneakery to try to pull off such a scam after so much build up, seemingly legitmately so.

so as far as i can tell, there's nothing that suggests it's a ruse, and a lot that makes me think it must be the real thing.
posted by Philby at 7:30 PM on October 27, 2009

Best answer: The interesting question you raise is really the issue for all news stories: judgement is exceedingly risky in the absence of independent, second sources. In the balloon boy story, we had the word of the family but little else; in the Watson story, there seem to be no observers (at sea) to back up her blog account. Also in play is our era's relentless drive to get answers fast--driven by technologies that let us follow events in real time, and media sources who don't want to be seen as left out of the hot story. I doubt we will see any change in this, and it clearly can cause harm, when first, our passions and fears are manipulated by sensational events, and then when public trust is undermined when hoaxes are revealed.
In some ways, there's really nothing modern about this; it is why we humans have long known rumour and lying to be a danger--for at least as many millennia as we have also craved the news.
Today, although it often seems to take forever for events to unfold or be explained, I think that the real story tends to emerge pretty fast. The balloon hoax was revealed almost immediately, not just from statements of those involved, but from independent eyes, e.g, the scientists who disputed whether the flight could have happened as described.
There's a big difference between this and the Watson story. She seems to have sailed after preparations that involved a lot of people (and history shows that conspiracies break down in crowds). Her trip is of considerable duration, creating a longer time to "test" its reality. And note that even if her location is not public, there are almost certainly others monitoring her trip, including maritime officials in a number of places, and word inevitably leaks out when something's fishy (sorry).
One lesson perhaps is to keep our counsel as difficult events unfold--do our own search for sources that can illuminate what is happening--and consider the whole constellation of participants and interests.
Still, there are always going to be stories that can't be verified (e.g, early, "impossible" accounts of genocide), and we can't afford to close our minds. Just keep asking, I suppose.
posted by Bet Glenn at 7:44 PM on October 27, 2009

What Philby said.

I generally avoid human-interest news like the plague, but you can't get past this story. I can't really think of 100% doubt-free way to assure you it's not a hoax, but the waste of real-news time I saw on the telly the other night looked normal enough. Also, it would seem a lot of set-up for not much payoff. Balloon boy took hours, this has been on for months, and it's not really that interesting: "Middle-class child makes well-funded attempt to blog about herself" - yeah, whatever.

Also, given that she's already crashed the boat badly enough to have a preliminary Australian Transport Safety Bureau report released (precis: "I can't operate my very swanky radar."), some of the more concrete facts have been established.
posted by pompomtom at 7:51 PM on October 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

You can't hide an incredibly recognizable boat in your attic. If it's not at sea, it would have had to put in somewhere, and been pulled from the water, and unmasted, and wrapped — which would take a bunch of people, who would all have to be in on it and not talking about it, while it's a big story in Australia that everyone's talking about.

And, she's sponsored. So her sponsors would either have to be in on it, and taking a massive gamble with their brand images, or she's fooling her sponsors and risking legal action.

And, she'll be monitored by New Zealand's maritime agency while she's in their waters, which means until she's well into the south Pacific. Are they in on it?

how to sift through and judge these types of media stories

Probability of hoax = 1 ÷ ( number of people who would have to keep a secret × number of days since the story broke )
posted by nicwolff at 8:02 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know nicwolff, that boat looks photoshopped to me!

My point, of course, is how do you REALLY know I'm just some guy making smart-assed posts on metafilter? I could be a vast conspiracy that, uh, hold on, we'll think of, I mean I'll think of something. Just me. Myself.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:21 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The best way to avoid being taken in is to ignore "newstainment" sources that practice flimsy or no fact checking. 24-hour live news channels like FOX and CNN are the worst offenders -- they are under tremendous pressure to take a story and run with it in order to generate ratings. The big-3 American networks aren't much better.

Stories that have been in the news for days, weeks or months at a time are very, very unlikely to be hoaxes (not that it never happens). On this criterion alone, I'd be inclined to take Jessica Watson at her word.
posted by randomstriker at 10:22 PM on October 27, 2009

Best answer: With Balloon Boy there was just parts of the story that didn't make sense. The story we got about the older brother watching the younger get in and take off sounded as though he was a passive observer. He should have been freaking out jumping at the white ropes dangling from it, or running towards them. The father was said to have talked to the neighbors rather than the police. That they decided to build a weather balloon in an unusual shape when thoroughly tested designs are commonly available online. Then on top of that we added WifeSwap and the father's own TV show "in the can" but with no distribution. There was just a lot that didn't sound right or make sense.

I haven't followed Jessica's story at all but a stock photo doesn't surprise me. The only thing that peeked my curiosity was the videos both seemed to only show the port side, not starboard, but my sample size is two videos. Too small. She certainly sounded like she was out there. Surprised by how good she felt, completely preoccupied with the lack of wind and how calm the sea was. In her blog she's focused on the calls to others (lonely) and food (cheap morale boost - why the Navy has the best cooks, with the US at least). And she's planning ahead. Sounds like she's doing well, nothing suspicious.
posted by jwells at 5:43 AM on October 28, 2009

Response by poster: So many great answers. Thanks, people. I think the best advice here on how to sort the true stories from the fake stories is to look at the stories over time: stories that are in the news for weeks and weeks and are covered by respectable media outlets are unlikely to be hoaxes. I ordered Deep Water from Netflix and am going to continue to indulge my new hobby with new, reasonable certainty that my heart will not be broken at the end of the day by learning that I have been scammed.
posted by kellygreen at 4:26 PM on October 28, 2009

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