Boing Boing ran an interesting piece that highlights how eagerly some people follow the voice of authority — in these cases, managers of restaurants who were convinced to conduct strip searches of their employees (or in at least one case, a 14-year-old customer) by voices over the phone who claimed to be cops or higher-ups.
In a sane world, saying that you strip-searched an innocent 14-year-old girl because a voice on the phone claimed to be a cop and told you to do it wouldn’t get you much sympathy. But…
[M]ost of the duped managers were treated as victims — just like the people they searched and humiliated. They all “fell under the spell of a voice on the telephone,” wrote a judge in Zanesville, Ohio, in an order acquitting Scott Winsor, 35, who’d been charged with unlawfully restraining and imposing himself on two women who worked for him at a McDonald’s.
Chicago lawyer Craig Annunziata, who has defended 30 franchises sued after hoaxes, said every manager he interviewed genuinely believed they were helping police.
Pranksters, perverts, and pilferers know that pretending to be powerful gets you to your goal nine times out of ten, for instance:
- On an old episode of the television show Candid Camera, the crew put up official-looking signs on the sidewalk reading “Backward Zone” and sent confederates to walk up and down the street who would start walking backwards obediently when they entered the Zone. One great clip shows a woman and child entering the Zone — she sees one of the confederates turn around, then quickly turns around herself and then grabs the child’s shoulders and sternly spins him about as well.
- Wilhelm Voigt put on the uniform of a Prussian military officer in and used this ruse to gain the allegiance of a pack of soldiers, then raided the treasury of Köpenick on the pretense of investigating tax irregularities.
- Shizzy Joyce impersonated the President and CEO of the coffee chain Starbucks in emails to a new assistant in the company’s human resources department. After a few fairly generic welcome messages, the impostor managed to convince the newcomer to shave his beard, spy on his fellow employees, fire a random employee from a nearby franchise, and purchase and annotate a book on business ethics so the CEO could skim it to give a lecture on the subject.
And you may have noticed the latest internet worm in your email inbox:
The FBI is warning the public to avoid falling victim to an on-going mass e-mail scheme wherein computer users received unsolicited e-mails purportedly sent by the FBI. These scam e-mails tell the recipients that their Internet use has been monitored by the FBI and that they have accessed illegal web sites. The e-mails then direct recipients to open an attachment and answer questions.
The e-mail appears to be sent from the e-mail addresses of firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. There may be other similarly styled addresses. The recipient is enticed to open the zip attachment which contains a variant of the w32/sober virus. If the program within the zip attachment is executed then the virus is launched and may affect the user’s computer.
The more politically astute among us know that the differences between someone who pretends to be a political or legal authority and someone who “really is” a political or legal authority don’t amount to much on close examination.
And those who do not forget the past because they’d rather not have to repeat it may find they have strong motivations for convincing their fellow citizens not to do whatever the voice of authority tells them to do.
Impersonating the voice of authority may be the best way of discrediting it. You can plead with people to Question Authority, but they may never learn how to do so unless authority tells them to do something even more absurd than strip-searching a stranger.