The response of the established media to reports that the majority of stories shared on facebook during the US election were stonking great lies has been the predictable bellow of I told you so. According to the holier-than-thou op-eds this is clearly the fault of the news gathering public for shunning proper paywalled journalism. Yet this stern lecture from a dying breed misses a greater truth. The distinction between fact and fiction hasn’t so much blurred as morphed into one big post-truth blob that has long since gobbled up all news outlets- from the altar of the establishment to the alt-right of the fringe.
What does it mean to report facts in a world where elected officials denigrate the experts and presidential candidates broadcast knowingly spurious statements via their personal channels? It is true that many of those that, Dementor-like, suck up lies of Clinton as a deranged serial killer are the kind of souls who both disbelieve Darwin’s theory and are living refutations of it. But the established press are also implicated. The infamous Trump quote from the 80s where he says that if he were he to run for president it would be as a Republican because Republican voters are morons was widely reported in titles as esteemed at the Economist and New York Times. It seemed to capture the essence of Trump’s sheer contempt for democracy. Yet it was entirely made up. This category of fake news should get its own space between facts and lies- a ‘truthiness’ that just happens to have not actually happened.
Newspapers know all about truthiness. The stock in trade of tabloids –and their ancestors the Penny Dreadful and the yellow sheets- has been to stretch events to the point of breaking. PR has of course been a constant collaborator in this mass deception. Our own research has shown that 9/10 stories covered in the main UK red tops is PR influenced – not that you should believe the stat, just as long as it feels true. The great publicists of old emerged from the early Hollywood studio system, embedding within the industry’s DNA minimal reverence for the more prosaic facts of life. Publicists would openly pen adoring letters about their clients to fanmags without even the pretence of concealing their names. If there was more honesty to their trickery it was only because these were simpler times, without access to google.
Titans such as Harry Reichenbach had few moral qualms about letting truth get in the way of a good story. Stunts like the story of Tarzan being ‘discovered’ in New York’s Hotel Bellclair by a private detective worked because they tapped into a zeitgeist of a public that –still recovering from the Great war- craved escapism. Reichenbach’s work has a hokey charm in comparison to the stunts of movie PRs in later decades, which saw the Hudson polluted with countless heads (both fake and real), ‘discovered’ shortly after news of missing starlets.
While the latest incarnations of fake news may lack the class of Reichenbach they still come from a long and proud tradition. Technology has turbo-charged our exposure to them and raised the level of public alarm. Yet it would be wrong for facebook to follow through with the proposals of those who would like to see tighter editorial control over news appearing on social media. This would create a situation where posts would be policed by algorithms tone-deaf to irony, satire and whimsy. You would have thought the recent outrage surrounding facebook blocking posts featuring the iconic image of the ‘napalm girl’ would reveal the inadequacy of algorithmic differentiation.
In the end it is surely up to the news consumer whether or not to buy into a story. For the PR the challenge is to devise ingenious new ways of cutting through in an informational ecosystem that is fuelled by increasing levels of exaggeration and fictionalisation. God help us.