Everybody seems to be talking about Fake News nowadays. The latest example came just last weekend when President Trump talked about a terrorist attack in Sweden. This came as a bit of a shock to the people of Sweden given that no such attack had actually taken place. (Maybe Trump can’t tell the difference between IS and IKEA.)
Sadly, this is sadly not an isolated incident. In a TV interview earlier this month one of Trump’s aides justified the administration’s clampdown on immigration from Muslim countries by referencing the Bowling Green Massacre, an event which in reality never happened.
To some extent there is nothing new in this. Evelyn Waugh’s satirical 1938 novel Scoop tells of a legendary Fleet Street correspondent who is sent to cover a revolution in the Balkans. Arriving in the wrong city he nonetheless files a superbly written, but completely fictitious, report of bloody civil war. His report sparks a media frenzy which results in a real revolution in the previously peaceful nation.
More recently, Barry Levinson’s 1997 film Wag the Dog tells of a US President who deflects attention away from a White House sex scandal by inventing an imaginary war with Albania.
Those of us on this side of the Atlantic shouldn’t get complacent and think that this is a purely American problem. One of the most famous British newspaper headlines of all time was fake news. In 1986 The Sun famously carried the front page headline Freddie Starr ate my hamster. The story was complete fiction, made up by Starr’s agent Max Clifford as a means of boosting the comedian’s flagging career. The Sun’s editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, seems to have been content not to let the facts get in the way of the story.
There was also plenty of “fake news” in the UK in 2003 in the run up to Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Alastair Campbell’s now notorious Dodgy Dossier was just one of a number of falsehoods used by the Blair Government to justify their military intervention.
Spotting fake news is not always easy, especially when the Leader of the Free World has a fondness for alternative facts. You really couldn’t make this up. Or perhaps you could?