You check your favourite social media site and you read “MILLIONS DYING.” Your heart palpitates for an instant and you can feel the hackles on the back of your neck rising. You scroll down a couple more lines to see what disaster is about to threaten our world and you read the rest of the headline “to learn the secret to weight loss.”
This is the kind of garbage that now dominates our world of misinformation and fake news. It’s really not a novel phenomenon. In the years before the rise of the internet, many will remember standing in the queue at the local supermarket checkout while being affronted by headlines from the various junk tabloids like National Enquirer or The Globe. These paper rags would scream out stories such as “ELVIS FOUND ALIVE IN MELTING ICEBERG” or “PRESIDENT KENNEDY AND MARILYN MONROE DISCOVERED RUNNING SMALL DINER IN UTAH” or “103-YEAR-OLD MOTHER GIVES BIRTH TO TRIPLETS IN INDIA.”
Normally these shocking headlines would elicit groans from ordinary grocery shoppers. After all, you would have to find yourself somewhere on the stupid/ignorant spectrum to believe that any of these exposés was possibly true. In these modern times, however, with so many people getting their news through internet news feeds or social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, it is often difficult to screen out the fake from the real.
There is no lack of satirical news sites whose main purpose is to amuse and befuddle. Fark, for instance, prides itself on presenting funny, “true” stories like “The true story of Miracle Mike, the chicken that lived for 18 months without a head.” The Onion, which since 1996 has been circulating clever satires of the news, has presented us eye-watering tidbits such as “CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years.” The Borowitz Report, which was once named the #1 Twitter feed by Time Magazine, has given the world “Trump Furious At Iran For Distracting People From Impeachment For Just Two Days.” And News Mutiny, the site that bills itself with “satire for the wise, news for the dumb” has claimed responsibility for “Arizona Deports Thousands of Useless People.”
Much more insidious than the satirical sites are the ones that are fake but appear to be from reputable publications and broadcasters such as Time magazine or ABC news. According to a survey by BuzzFeed News, 75 per cent of adults are hoodwinked into believing that a story has to be true if it comes from a trustworthy source. For instance, the site ABCnews.com.co is completely bogus and has nothing to do with the actual broadcasting corporation, yet many would believe a story that came from this particular feed.
Sometimes the credible broadcasters themselves are tricked into reporting fake news. For instance, in 2019, ABC had to retract a story it ran on the weekend news showing a fierce battle between Syrian Kurds and Turkish forces. Although the video appeared to be authentic, the footage was actually from a night gun demonstration at the Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Kentucky.
How weird are these fake news stories? Of course, you can find hundreds of them espousing the verity of all kinds of conspiracy theories, white supremacy racist propaganda, gay bashing and evidence to support flat earth disciples. It’s almost impossible to believe that anyone who is not flat-lining on a brain scan could possibly accept this kind of balderdash for the truth, but it is happening all the time.
What are really freaky are news stories that used to be called “urban myths” before the advent of the internet age, but are now reposted and retweeted between both friends and strangers so often that their very ubiquity leads everyone to believe that there has got to be substance to their existence. Most of these are so ridiculous as to be beyond the realm of possibility, yet there must be something in our collective psyches that makes us want to accept them as the truth.
One of these fabricated news items that recently made the rounds contended that the county of Miami-Dade in Florida had created special “texting lanes” for drivers who could not help themselves from texting whilst behind the wheel. The sides of these lanes were lined with rubber bumpers to keep these vehicles safely away from normal traffic and minimize the damage they would suffer should they collide with each other.
Another one exposes a proposed secret American government policy that would require the poor and homeless to subject themselves to saliva tests in order to prove that they are truly hungry. Only if they pass these tests would they be eligible to receive food stamps.
People seem to want to believe stories involving irony, especially the ones where perpetrators earn their “just desserts.” An example of one of these is the item that tells of the terrorist who neglected to put enough stamps on a letter bomb. When it was returned to him for insufficient postage, he forgot what it was and opened it. You guessed it: KABOOM!
Another tale displaying irony involves the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. According to this story, the average cost of rehabilitating each seal that had been damaged by the crude was $80,000. Apparently, a few months later, two of the saved seals were released back into the wild in front of a celebratory crowd of conservationists and well-wishers. In full view of the horrified throng, both seals were immediately eaten by a killer whale.
My favourite fake news story is the one that tells about the hospital bed curse. It seems that every Sunday at exactly 11 o’clock in the morning, whoever was lying in a particular bed in a particular room in the intensive care unit of a certain hospital was found dead. It didn’t matter what condition or disease the victim was suffering from. Experts and specialists were called in and as they stood watching the next Sunday, the mystery was solved when Pookie Johnson, the part-time weekend cleaner entered the room, disconnected the life-support machine, and plugged in his vacuum cleaner.
Nobody asked me, but there’s never been a shortage of fake news right here on Salt Spring. Have you heard that the recent analysis of an artesian well discovered directly beneath Centennial Park has found that the source comes from the headwaters of the Ganges River in India? Pass it on.