Suddenly everyone’s talking about it, but in reality the fake news concept is old hat - as old as the classic trilby and Press card combo seen in vintage films of yore.
The difference today is that alternative facts themselves are making the headlines and mainstream media have a convenient whipping boy in social media. According to them, it’s all a by-product of proliferating DIY social media with every man and his Youtube star dog posting made-up garbage on Facebook and Twitter. Just look at the creepy killer clown craze that swept through America last year.
And then there’s the Trump administration’s 'alternative facts' like Kellyanne Conway’s now famous 'misspeaking' about the Bowling Green Massacre that never happened.
Suddenly fake news is serious stuff. Only last week, two boys and their mum were taken to task by the mainstream media for peddling a bunch of lies on the internet. Phew, another shock fake attack foiled!
Wait, why not blame it on our favourite bête noir, the Russian bear? Yes, make it all president Putin’s fault. Reports abound about how advertisers are pulling out from Russian channel RT which they see as peddling Putin propaganda and fake news. We hate to break it to you but fake news isn’t confined to Russia.
Meanwhile, the mainstream Western media desperately tries to distance itself from the phenomenon by raging hysterically about an epidemic. Channel 4 has devoted an entire week to fake news as it might report on an Ebola outbreak - as if the very fakery of it threatens to infect and destroy us all.
Down at the BBC managers have been shaken into action. They’ve introduced a crack fake news task force to fact check all stories. Slashed budgets had killed off much of the BBC’s investigative reporting but now the money has magically materialised to pay journalists to investigate and check the facts in all the PR releases received by the army of underpaid hot-deskers floating about under Auntie’s wing.
As the media continues to fan the flames of this false facts furore, let’s step away from the heat and take a reality check. Fake news has been part of mainstream media since the birth of mainstream media. It’s all about manipulation and it's nothing new.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that Bell Pottinger received a USD 540m PR contract from the Pentagon during President Obama’s administration, allegedly to create fake al-Qaeda videos which could track the people watching them. Just imagine the thickness of the NDA Bell Pottinger had to sign for that assignment.
The PR industry has long resembled a Carry On film of fakery for vested interests wanting to influence and control an unsuspecting public. That aspect of the business was depicted brilliantly in the 1997 film ‘Wag the Dog’ starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Its cynical swipe at PR was less fiction, more fly-on-the-wall documentary.
In a recent paper published in Europhysics News four respected physicists struggled to understand why and how the unprecedented structural failures of the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11 occurred other than through a controlled demolition. George Bush was facing an election. Subsequent fears for national security rallied support for the status quo and helped ensure victory. For an insight into how fear industries control and manage swathes of the population, watch the 2004 film ‘The Village’.
And yet rather than acknowledge how modern PR can work, the media denounces anyone questioning the authenticity of their version of news as a conspiracy theorist, a loony left peddler of lies, a fringe fanatic.
It has been suggested that perhaps the biggest fake marketing stunt of all time was the moon landing. Let’s look at the evidence. Teams of PRs and marketing people were hired by NASA for a national awareness campaign. On 20 July, 1969 at 20:18 UTC, 94% of all Americans turned on their TVs and were led to believe Apollo 11’s lunar module Eagle landed on the moon. Bill Clinton in his 2004 autobiography ‘My Life’ recounts how an old carpenter had told him he didn’t believe in the moon landing for a minute and that “them television fellers” could “make things look real that weren’t”. He said he wondered - once he’d been in power for eight years in Washington - whether the old man hadn’t been ahead of his time.
We’re supposed to believe that back in 1969 we could just pop out to the moon like popping round to the corner shop and yet, nearly 50 years later, Sir Richard Branson is still struggling with his childhood dream to take tourists into space. Or could it just have been a ‘Big Swinging Dick’ attempt - all orchestrated from a Hollywood sound stage - to outdo Russia at the height of the Cold War and convince America that spending four per cent of the national budget on NASA’s space programme was a good idea?
Today the likes of Wikileaks and the internet ensure that nothing is ever covered up for long. Big data is now free to access for anyone who cares to look.
We believe the key these days is to question everything - but the truth is a lonely place. People prefer to pull the wool over their own eyes, lapping up stories that support their own prejudices and feed their fears.
Titillation, novelty, fakery, manufactured dissent and the culture of distraction reign supreme and are rampant within the PR industry, but let’s not confuse fake news and outright lies with spin.
To our mind, spin is an exaggeration of the truth or perhaps bias by omission. With spin, the truth is always in there.
Follow the pair on Twitter @octopustv @andreweborn @6Hillgrove