Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Tony Deyal | Fake news as four-letter words

Published:Saturday | April 29, 2017 | 4:00 AM

According to late-night comic Conan O'Brien, two-thirds of Americans think fake news causes confusion. The other one-third said, "Why are we talking about this when we're being invaded by killer dolphins?"

Conan also quipped, "A Trump administration official said that whenever the media criticise the president, they will call it 'fake news'. And whenever the media praise the president, they will call it 'Fox News'." Then THE WEEK came out with President Trump's fake news quiz. Question 1 or 9 is, "What sort of polls does Trump consider to be fake news? The options are "All polls not taken by Fox News", "All approval rating polls", "Polls that survey only a small group of Americans" and "Any negative polls". According to Donald Trump, reports that he refused to shake the hand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ties between his campaign and Russia, and despite being president he would continue to work on The Apprentice are all "Fake News."

So what is fake news? The digital editor of Canada's Globe and Mail, Evan Arnett, says that fake news is media that are custom-made to fool you: "During and after the 2016 US election, Americans learned the campaign had been a gold rush for hoaxsters catering to Trump supporters' tastes and beliefs. Some of the best-performing fake election stories outperformed stories by trusted major news outlets. For companies like Facebook and Google, it was a wake-up call to crack down on fraud; for Democrats, it suggested voters had been tricked and the election was a sham; and for President Donald Trump and his supporters, fake news became an epithet to use against journalists whose reporting they didn't like."

Fake news, however, did not start with the Trump campaign. Scientific American says "History is littered with examples where the facts were altered to suit a specific purpose." In the 8th century, the Catholic Church came up with 'The Donation of Constantine', which it claimed was proof that in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine had transferred vast tracts of land to Pope Sylvester 1 for curing him of leprosy. The Church was able to maintain this hoax until the 15th century.

In the 1140s, a group of besieged knights were surrounded by the troops of a Syrian warlord, Sultan Baibars. During a break in the fierce fighting, the sultan's men delivered a letter to the knights, purportedly from their Grandmaster, who gave them permission to surrender. This saved their lives but Sultan Baibars got the fort.

 

FRANKLIN'S PRANK

 

In terms of fake news in the US, Benjamin Franklin may have fathered more than the Declaration of Independence. In 1782, he created a fake issue of a Boston newspaper which claimed that American forces had discovered bags of money and goods that appeared bound for the king, but included among them the scalps of soldiers and civilians. The bag of scalps featured a letter addressed to the king asking him to accept the scalps as a token of friendship and loyalty. The public was outraged. In this case, Franklin's 'news' added to the animosity directed against Native Americans and helped establish them as non-Americans who could not be trusted nor should be accepted in the new republic.

MSN has identified about 21 more recent hoaxes, all of which have been duplicated, replicated, imitated, simulated and even computer-generated many times over in the US and other countries. The death hoax is one of the big ones. In 1966, it was announced that Beatle, Paul McCartney, was dead and replaced by a double. Then on June 13, 2001, a website falsely identifying itself as BBC News, reported the death of pop singer Britney Spears. Since that time, there have been many such false reports. Here in Trinidad, there was a recent Facebook post about Brian Lara being involved in a car accident that could turn out to be fatal.

MSN identified as some of the major frauds or sheer skulduggery over the years the Piltdown Skull, Cardiff Giant, Crop Circles, Howard Hughes Autobiography, Amityville Horror and a June 7, 2004, Salvador Dali 100-year Jubilee exhibition in Helsinki in which all the exhibits were forgeries. Given that we are fully in the era of fake breasts and other body parts, fake designer clothing and other Chinese-made products, including milk and (it is rumoured) rice, isn't fake news inevitable?

While it is, the fake that gets to me is the tendency of Trinidadian and regional politicians to try to use Trump's dismissal of everything as fake news for what is really disinformation for political gain. According to a Trinidad media report, "Angry Todd's Road residents staged a fiery protest on Monday morning. The issues they hope to have addressed were poor road conditions and an inconsistent and unreliable water supply. The local government representative for the area, Ryan Rampersad, said the weekly supply of pipe-borne water to the area is abysmal at best. He commended the efforts of MP for the area, Maxie Cuffie, who he says continues to represent the interests of residents in that regard." Despite the praise by Mr Rampersad of Mr Cuffie's efforts, Cuffie has called the protest 'fake'. Perhaps this is the new political Trump card in Caribbean politics.

- Tony Deyal was last seen repeating comic Jimmy Kimmel's very pointed reference to Trump, "We have no tolerance for fake news. Fake tans, we love."