This urban legend is so old and has so many variations that it’s gotten a Wikipedia page in five languages. Snopes.com traces the earliest and most primitive version back as far as 1931, and just like Wikipedia it mentions the more elaborate 1995 Canadian version as the most common. The basic story is that a marconist warns a ship, redirecting it a few degrees to avoid collision. The captain angrily and arrogantly replies he won’t change course, and the marconist should change his ship’s course. The latter then reveals he’s not on a ship himself, but in a lighthouse, and he’s telling the ship to steer clear from the coast. However, a recent video shows a more sinister story.
A new version that went viral since posted on 17 August (almost a million views in 5 days) by the leftist Facebook page ‘Een beter Nederland’ (A better Netherlands), which is known for creating and spreading conspiracy theories about Big Pharma etc.. We see footage of a large US fleet and hear badly audible English and Spanish ‘radio transmissions’. Equally bad Dutch subtitles tell a story totally different from what the audio says (the Spanish audio seems to be a random radio excerpt), very similar to the Canadian version.
Added elements include the large opening title, saying: ‘The following is a real conversation recorded at sea – America vs. Spain’, that the fleet is heading to Iraq and that Spain as a NATO ally needs to comply with American commands, and that the description above the video comments that it is ‘About the arrogance of the American army’. It further adds that ‘[This story has been] circulating on the Internet for a while, now with Dutch subtitles and moving pictures’, which seems to indicate the latter two were added by ‘Een beter Nederland’ itself.
To their credit, by far most people commenting on the video are skeptical whether this event really happened, some of them critically analysing parts that seem fake, and some actually knowing it’s an old hoax, saying they’ve seen it before in different versions. However, these people are divived between those who think it’s a funny joke nonetheless, and those who criticise the claim that it’s a ‘real conversation’, the bad grammar in the subtitles, that also don’t reflect the audio and sometimes contradict the video (e.g. the number of ships in the fleet), and that the page should have critically examined the story before claiming it was true and spreading it.
A few people do fall for the video though, as their comments get either angry or amused when repeating the prejudice that indeed, the US Army or Americans in general are so arrogant and/or stupid. A tiny number even cite the video as ‘proof’ how wrong U.S. foreign policy is and that NATO members are mere American puppets. One can only hope that such far-reaching political views –which might be correct or incorrect– aren’t merely based on misinformation spread by, for example, hoax videos like this one. It is clear however that to those who believe them, fake stories like this create unfounded mistrust and strengthen existing prejudice towards a country and its people, which may go beyond the harmless joke it originally was.