The story about an old woman warning of shopping centre bombings this Christmas is obviously made up

So why did people spread it?

christmas shopping shopping centre rumour

About a month ago, a friend of mine got a call from a friend of hers, and was told a story that freaked her out.

Her friend’s mum had been walking through a shopping centre when an old woman, of apparently Muslim appearance, dropped her shopping bags on the floor. The friend’s mum ran over and picked them up.

The old woman thanked the mum for helping her. And then, in gratitude for her minor act of assistance, she offered an ominous but useful tip: “Stay away from shopping centres this Christmas.” Apparently the old woman smiled as she imparted her sage advice.

My friend didn’t spell out what her friend had meant by that, but the inference was clear: Muslims are going to attempt a massive coordinated terrorist attack on British shopping centres this Christmas, and this old woman knows about it. “How creepy is that?” my friend said.

I laughed when I first heard the story, and didn’t think much more of it. It reminded me of that viral text message that went round London at the tail-end of last summer, warning commuters not to take the tube for similar reasons.

The text, which started with the words “Don’t travel on the tube tomorrow,” and alleged that off-duty Met officers were being called back to duty at 4am, was debunked as a hoax within hours, but that didn’t stop intelligent people I know leaving early to catch the bus the next day.

A day or two after I first heard the shopping centre story, I was at a party – in the East Village of Manhattan, as it happens, more than 3,000 miles away from the supposed shopping centre in question – and I heard two other people, friends of the first one, mention the story. One of them said: “It’s really weird”.

It is definitely weird, though not in the way she meant. It’s weird that a story like this gets created. And it’s weird that intelligent people choose to spread it – uncritically and in the kind of hushed tones that lend it the drama it needs to spread virally.

My friend was sure the incident had happened, because her friend had told her. This week, to put my mind at ease before I headed to the Royal Victoria shopping centre in Tunbridge Wells to look for some trainers, I asked her to check the story with her friend. And it turns out that it hadn’t been her friend’s mum but her friend’s mum’s work colleague, and so it unravels.

A version of the story has been circulating in Belfast this week. My colleague Róisín Lanigan sent me a screenshot of one person sharing it on Facebook – in this version the threat is specifically about Belfast city centre, and the advice is delivered from a car window, but the basic plot is the same.

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The Belfast variation on the old woman story

Stories like this – and there have been plenty of similar ones – obviously don’t stand up to the most basic scrutiny. Why would an old woman in a shopping centre be up to date on a sensational suicide bombing whose successful execution would require almost total secrecy? Why, if she was for some reason in the loop, would she choose to reveal it, on an impulse, to a posh girl’s mum she had never met? Receiving assistance with some dropped shopping bags seems like a low bar for blowing the lid off a major international terror plot.

According to one classic definition, rumors are always  transmitted by word of mouth, provide topical information, and express and gratify “the emotional needs of the community.” One psychological study of rumours says they “occur when a group is attempting to make sense of ambiguous, uncertain, or confusing situations.” A study in the 1930s noted that rumors gain currency when they were consistent with local superstitions.

What struck me about the old lady tale was its unspoken note of prejudice. The premise of the story, a kindly Muslim woman suspending her tribal loyalty to pass on a dreadful community secret, is: “they know”. It seems to say: all Muslims know who is jumping on today’s flight to Turkey to join the mujahideen, and they know about terror attacks in advance, and if they were just a bit kinder, they would break their omerta and tell us.

It’s a conspiracy theory where the the theory has been replaced by a vague community suspicion.

Situations of collective fear are said to diminish critical ability, hence the proliferation of rumors of enemy atrocities and imminent attacks during wartime. I first heard the shopping centre tale about a week after the Paris attacks, around the time that Brussels was in lockdown, which may or may not be a coincidence.

Add the simple, easily memorable story to the “they know” subtext, to the tempting choice of venue (the biggest British terror plot foiled by security services since 9/11 was the so-called fertiliser plot to blow up Bluewater, not to mention major mall attacks overseas) and it was a potent tale.

It is of course possible that an old Muslim woman with a dark sense of humour once decided to freak out a credulous white woman for lols, or wanted to strike a blow against rampant festive consumerism by putting people off Westfields at the worst possible time.

But in tense times, maybe people should apply the same scepticism to stories of Muslim women predicting carnage in shopping centres as they do to other unlikely-sounding Christmas tales.

Like the Northern Irish guy, who replied under one of the posts: “Can someone explain to me why Isis would even bomb Belfast, there’s fuck all here.”