Earlier this week UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn was campaigning holding up the front page of a UK newspaper showing a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia pictured lying on a pile of coats, attached to a drip, there being no trolley, treatment room or bed available. The hospital apologised and said it had had its busiest week since 2016 but the row over the boy’s treatment had become a central part of the election campaign, with Boris Johnson being criticised for repeatedly refusing to look at the photograph on a journalist’s phone during an interview, eventually pocketing the handset and placing it in his pocket. The boy’s mother, who had taken the picture, told the newspaper that seeing the NHS crisis for herself meant she would vote Labour.
A few days later, at the height of the run-up to the election, claims rapidly spread across social media and messaging services that the photograph at Leeds General Infirmary (LGI) had been staged – it was a fraud and, potentially reached millions of people after being amplified by celebrities, journalists, and at least five Conservative candidates.
It turned out that this was fake news – not the boy lying on the floor but rather the claim that it was staged – which could have seriously impacted on the Labour vote. It caused an outcry but more than anything else shone a spotlight on the issue of fake news. And this was not the only such incident in this election. The Lib Dems were caught up in a row not of fake pics but of fake newspapers, after wooing voters with general election pamphlets disguised as local papers. The party was rebuked for distributing newsletters with titles including “Mid Hampshire Gazette” and “North West Leeds and Wharfedale News” to mislead voters think they were reading a local newspaper, not a party mouthpiece.
Fake news is a subject which gets a lot of attention today. Popularised by Donald Trump – mostly when he doesn’t like something – it was then claimed as local by our former president who said, “I want to tell Trump that in fact fake news was invented in Botswana by the local media”. This is not however a new phenomenon. In fact, that’s more fake news.
Nearly two hundred years ago on 21 August 1835, The New York Sun published a series of articles about the discovery of life on the moon. These were falsely attributed to a well-known astronomer of the time named Sir John Herschel. The article reported that Herschel had made these discoveries using new “hydro-oxygen magnifiers” and went on to describe in believable scientific detail, how the discovery was made of bizarre life forms inhabiting of the moon.
After accomplishing their goal of adding many new subscribers to their newspaper that August, the paper quietly announced in September that the story had been nothing more than a hoax. Even this was probably not the birth of fake news because fabricating stories has been around for as long as there has been print along with the old adage ‘don’t believe everything you read’.
In 1912, for example, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson presented what he claimed was a 500,000-year old skull to the Geographical Society in London, stating it was that of the missing link between ape and man. The skull, named Piltdown Man, was accepted by contemporary scientists and pronounced a great find. It wasn’t until 40 years later, with better dating tools, that the skull was discovered to be only 50,000 years old and furthermore two halves of different skulls, one man, one ape. Fake news!
Closer to home remember when international news was awash with the claim that 87 elephants had been killed here by poachers? This was a story which originated from Elephants Without Borders and received massive publicity. It became even higher profile as the then UK Prime Minister tweeted the story and a petition which called for wildlife guards to be re-armed surpassed 150,000 signatures.
The problem with fake news is that fake or not, damage can be done. How much publicity does the fake news get - Botswana enabling the slaughter of elephants, compared to the real story of disarming anti-poaching units? And what about ‘Butterfly’ charged with financing terrorism by moving money around linked to former spy chief, Isaac Kgosi and her P4.2 billion in her personal account, five different passports, one diplomatic, and, and, and.
It is not just what is written that we now need to worry about. The main risk today is the speed at which news can travel and how technology can be used to create stories so believable that we don’t stop to question it. In this age of Photoshop, filters and social media, we are used to seeing manipulated pictures, video and audio, made possible by advances in artificial intelligence and computer graphics, this allows people to fabricate footage of almost anything. We gather information from Wikipedia, the name implying it is an e-encyclopaedia, yet in reality, it is an open forum where any Tom, Dick or Harriet can input fiction and claim it as fact. Trump can send a Tweet around the globe to 67 million people in an instant and re-Tweets can disseminate it even further. And fan of his or not, being the President of the Free World adds Gravitas.
Unfortunately, it does not necessarily add Veritas!