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Sunday 8 March 2015

Fake News Stories

Forteans who scour news media for unusual-sounding stories have always had to contend with deliberate fabrications. One of the earliest, now known as “The Balloon Hoax” (pictured above), was perpetrated by the great writer Edgar Allan Poe in 1844. It claimed that one Monck Mason had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a flying machine – a feat that was not accomplished in reality for another 75 years.

Since the advent of social media, however, fake news stories have become a real plague. Dozens of new ones are created every day by websites which exist solely for that purpose (World News Daily Report, Empire News, National Report and The Daily Currant are among the worst offenders). Ostensibly these sites describe themselves as “satire”, but their techniques (and their motivations, I suspect) are significantly different from those of traditional satirists. Take a story that did the rounds a few weeks ago about a Catholic Priest’s near-death experience in which he came face-to-face with God – only to find that the deity in question was female! That’s a timeless joke, which could easily have featured on a classic satire show such as That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s, or Not the Nine O’Clock News in the 1980s.

But there’s a difference. TV satires had laughter tracks, so the audience knew from the context that it was just a joke. TV shows make most of their money from advertising revenue on first airing, and people are far more likely to tune into a comedy show than a straight news program. But that business model simply won’t work with internet satire. Very few people knowingly visit satire sites just to check out the stories and click on the ads. They are more likely to be lured in unwittingly by an eyecatching link they saw on their Facebook feed – and that’s going to work far more effectively if they don’t realize it’s satire.

I wrote about the tendency for Facebook users to mistake satire for real news before, in Satire and the Internet. At the time I assumed this was because they were stupid, but now I think there are other factors at play as well. I found an article on Wikipedia recently about Poe’s Law, which isn’t named after the aforementioned great writer but some nobody named Nathan Poe. What he said is highly relevant, though: “Without a blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.” The same is true of any satire: without that laughter track, how can you tell whether it’s meant to be taken seriously or not?

“Because satire is funny,” you might reply. But that brings us to the other really important new trend in internet satire – most of it isn’t funny at all. It’s cynically tailored to make people click on it because it sounds like it’s true. Often it concerns the sudden death of a popular celebrity, or an arrogant right-wing politician making an arrogant right-wing statement – things that might be true, but just happen not to be. It doesn’t have to be true, though, and it doesn’t have to be funny, when the sole aim is to make the story go viral on Facebook so the hosting site gets plenty of advertising clicks.

Since the whole purpose of fake news stories is to get as many people as possible to social-share them, they don’t often deal with Fortean subjects which usually only have a minority appeal. But there was an exception a few months ago, when a story went viral about Buzz Aldrin finally admitting that the Moon landings were a hoax (“I am ashamed to say this but I cannot hide it any more... we decided to fake the moon landings of Apollo 11 to say we were greater than the Soviets”). That story came from a site called Huzlers, which even has a convenient “submit” form so that anyone in the world can create their own fake news story!

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