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It’s getting harder to know what’s real or fake

We have come to a point where even things happening in real time have become suspect to our cynical eyes

josanne_cassar
Josanne Cassar
2 January 2017, 9:31am
It’s not just online news stories which are becoming much more difficult to gauge on the fake/real barometer
It’s not just online news stories which are becoming much more difficult to gauge on the fake/real barometer
You know that we are living in a world which has lost its way when the first reaction to the death of a celebrity is to assume that it’s a hoax and the knee-jerk reaction to what we are watching unfold before our eyes, is that it’s obviously “staged”.

As we close off 2016, perhaps one of the most profound lessons we have learned this year is that we cannot trust the news stories we read, and that we should not believe anyone or anything, especially that vague entity referred to as “the media” which are constantly being accused of having a very specific agenda to manipulate public opinion.  Disbelief and suspicion have become the default initial responses. But really, who can blame the average person for being so bewildered and distrustful? When the news broke that George Michael had died, the first thing I did was check the veracity of the story on reliable news websites because it is not the first time that a malicious rumour has been spread about a celebrity “dying”, only for it to be hoax. (Why anyone would want to spread such hurtful, false news is beyond me.)

Ironically, for a while one (very dubious) entertainment website www.en.mediamass.net kept insisting that it was a hoax, which added to the confusion, until it was being reported so widely by reputable news agencies that it could no longer be refuted and they had to change their story. Of course, it is this form of fake news click bait which has caused so much damage and ruined the credibility of bona fide news agencies because most people are not going to sit there and sift through all the news websites to check and re-check the veracity of breaking news items.  If one website is churning out fake news, then they must all be doing it, is the reasoning of the man-in-the-street.  

Things have become so bad that Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, compiled a list of websites that either purposely publish false information or are otherwise entirely unreliable, broken down by category. She also published a helpful list of tips for analysing news sources.

But it’s not just online news stories which are becoming much more difficult to gauge on the fake/real barometer. We have come to a point where even things happening in real time (or footage of real-life events) have become suspect to our cynical eyes.

Take the unfolding of the events which took place surrounding the hijack of the Libyan plane which was forced to land in Malta, which created a sense of excitement in some and a sense of impending dread in others (who could not help but remember the Egyptair hijack of 1985, which ended in massacre). 

When it all ended quietly, calmly and non-dramatically a few hours later, the disappointment in the (Facebook) air was palpable. Was that it? No storming of the plane? No dramatic shouting and screams with the hijackers being physically manhandled and thrown to the ground in a forceful headlock? What do you mean, it’s over? Is that really The End?

I think the problem with the dissatisfaction felt by so many people was that they have watched too many action films and were expecting (demanding?) a Rambo-type ending. The whole thing which was played out live on screen was similarly given a thumbs down. But did it ever occur to the viewers that real life does not come equipped with sharp, skilful editing but is a wide, single shot where you are just waiting for something to happen which you will (if you are lucky) manage to capture on screen?

Films give you only the exciting bits and create suspenseful tension, cutting from a close up of the hijackers’ faces to a close up of the soldiers, and the scene is shot from different angles for maximum effect. Our heightened sense of awareness and impatience which has been developed through watching countless action films has led to a situation where movies are perceived as “realistic”, while real life appears boringly mundane, and therefore “unrealistic”, in comparison. People were expecting high drama and all they got was a damp squib.

What really astonished me, however, was how easily the conspiracy theory swept through cyberspace that this was all a staged hijacking and an elaborate publicity stunt (with the Maltese government supposedly in cahoots to “make it look good”). By the evening of that same day, many were stoutly claiming this to be a “fact”, based purely on their own observations.  

This claim had a lot to do with the hijackers themselves who turned out to have fake guns and who, it seems, only wanted to make a political statement in favour of the erstwhile Gaddafi party. On top of all this there was a selfie of the smiling pilots and a video of the passengers singing and clapping, which were posted online and were supposedly taken during the actual hijacking. Some members of the media actually bothered to verify that both the selfie and video were unrelated to the hijacking, but by that time, it was too late. They had already gone viral, people believed them and one news organization even reported the video as fact. 

Of course, it must also be said that there is a reason why many people were willing to so readily believe the whole thing was stage-managed and set up, and that reason is that over the last year, Muscat has been caught several times not being entirely truthful with the electorate. Once you lose people’s trust in that way, they are ready to believe you are capable of anything, even to orchestrating a hijack attempt of a foreign airliner which would require incredible logistics (not to mention pure genius). The very idea is so far-fetched that it beggars belief – but it is precisely because it is so far-fetched that people were treating it as true. 

What does that say about us then? Is it that we are more likely to believe what is outlandish and false, rather than the truth? Or is it because after a year which saw the unthinkable (from Brexit to Trump) happen, we are now convinced that even the most bizarre turn of events could very likely, actually happen? 

josanne_cassar
Josanne Cassar's field is communications – and over the last 30 years she has worked in ...
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