Fake News. Probably the most successful fiction there is

Did you know that during President Donald Trump’s campaign, he offered to pay for one-way plane tickets of anyone of African or Mexican descent wanting to leave America?

Well no, he didn’t. But this article by tmzhiphop.com got 802,000 reactions online. Why does fake news have such a readership? Why did an article in thevalleyreport.com entitled “Woman arrested for defecating on boss’ desk after winning the lottery” get 1,765,000 shares and reactions from readers on Facebook?

Fake news has a readership that some best selling authors would envy. It’s not an idle comparison; what is fake news other than fiction? It’s the dark side of popular fiction and whatever you may think of it, it’s an ugly beast worth examining. Because while we may be swept away with the magic of J.K. Rowling’s world, I don’t actually expect to get my letter to Hogwarts. Obviously, I’m too old.

There’s a simple and obvious explanation. J.K. Rowling’s work is fictional. It’s meant to entertain. However, we read the news with the expectation of fact. But that would mean that everyone who reads and believes these articles are gullible. I just don’t believe that.

Fake news is fiction which serves a myriad of purposes. When it’s created to sell things, it’s a commercial. When it’s perpetuated by governments, it’s propaganda. When it’s expounded by the cause driven, it’s fanaticism. When it’s dolled out purely for attention and to cause a reaction, it’s good old fashioned trolling.

For us, it’s the commercial side of fake news which is interesting. The best example would be Jestin Coler, the creator of the fake news website the “Denver Guardian” which raked in between $10,000 and $30,000 a month. This is the kind of money fiction writers of ‘Timmy Tucker and the Adventure of the Flying Engine’ type fiction will never see.

The Denver Guardian is the website which created the false headline “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.” This has been shared more than half a million times on Facebook. I also have to add that Jestin Colar’s company was called ‘Disinfomedia’ which I thought was a classy touch. 

Incidentally, faking news for profit goes all the way back to the newsboys yelling sensational, made up news to sell their papers faster. The image below is actually from an 1894 issue of Puck magazine from an illustration called The Fin de Siècle Newspaper Proprietor. It shows a member of the public holding the newspaper with words “Fake News”. They were selling papers, Jestin Colar and his ilk are selling advertising. No one is reinventing the wheel here.

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The Fin de Siècle Newspaper Proprietor from an 1894 issue of Puck magazine

As I said, Fake News is the dark side of fictional writing. What’s less explainable is why we read it. Why do we return to the same tainted well again and again? Even after discovering toenails in the drinking water?

Gruesome as it is, I want to return to the lucky lottery winner and her decision to celebrate in an unusual way. Why would that article be popular? Why do we read what we read?

Personally, I read a lot of fantasy. I like the escapism. I like how fantasy writers address big, complex issues and tie them up with magic and dragons to keep my attention. 

When you read about our fictional desk pooper, did you secretly think, ‘yeah, that’s what I’d do if I won the lottery’? If so, please don’t visit my place if you win. Were you disgusted, but vicariously satisfied? Who doesn’t want to win the millions and stick it to their boss in one afternoon? And it’s funny. Whether you look up to her, down on her, or just avoid eye contact, it’s a funny situation and the first thing people would have done is laugh and click ‘Share’.

The infamous 2016 alleged sex attacks in Cologne have been proven to be completely false. You can read about it here. This wasn’t as simple as an agenda driven outlet providing false news. It turns out the well-established ‘Bild’ – country’s biggest-selling newspaper – was not doing it’s due diligence and checking it’s facts. Why not? Because, on some level, the stories were confirming what they secretly (and entirely falsely) believed to be true. 

Liking and Sharing that article is the result of an emotional response more immediate than any other fiction reading. When you read a good book, you will almost inevitably pester your friends and family to read it too. But that’s a longer turn around than ‘sharing’ a fake news article. Less consideration time too. And therein lies the power of this twisted fiction.

PS Fact checking your news nowadays is so incredibly important. So I would thoroughly recommend Snopes which does an amazing job at tracking this all down.

Do you agree that fake news is the dark side of fiction, or something completely different? Is it dangerous, or just an element of media nd politics that have been around for ages? Share your thoughts!

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