Can we just stop fak­ing it

The Citizen (KZN) - - OPINION - Bren­dan Seery

‘Fake news” is not some­thing new, some­thing which just ar­rived with the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia. One of our read­ers re­minded me re­cently of what is still re­garded as one of the most fa­mous ex­am­ples of fic­tion mas­querad­ing as fact ... and the wide­spread panic it sewed as a re­sult.

Just over 80 years ago, in Oc­to­ber 1938, ac­tor Or­son Welles, who went on to be­come a fa­mous film maker, got be­hind a mi­cro­phone in the CBS net­work ra­dio stu­dios to nar­rate a drama­tised ver­sion of HG Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, which has Mar­tians in­vad­ing Earth and tak­ing over New York City.

Al­though there was a short an­nounce­ment that the up­com­ing pro­gramme was fic­tion, many peo­ple missed that warn­ing and so re­al­is­tic was the script – in­clud­ing phone-in re­ports from the “scene” – that many cit­i­zens on the US East Coast pan­icked.

As the show was wrap­ping up, CBS was field­ing calls from news­pa­per re­porters and ac­cused of be­ing reck­less. One of the points which made crit­ics an­gry was the fact that Welles had pack­aged ev­ery­thing in news bul­letin for­mat, which added to the re­al­ism ... and panic.

Late last year, a sim­i­lar pub­lic­ity stunt – the launch of a “drive-through pub” in Four­ways in Johannesburg – suck­ered many, not only on so­cial me­dia, but also in the main­stream. It was a few days be­fore the real in­tent be­came known – but not be­fore the Joburg Metro cops said they would raid the place and close it down.

The in­ten­tion was good – to fo­cus on drunken driv­ing – but it was just more fake news, at a time when South Africans are es­pe­cially gullible.

Last week, Drive Dry (a sim­i­lar anti-booz­ing cam­paign by al­co­hol gi­ant Di­a­geo) worked with Volk­swa­gen and No­muzi Mabena, who goes by the stage name Moozlie and claims to be a rap­per, to put out a sim­i­lar but far more dis­turb­ing piece of fake news on so­cial me­dia.

Moozlie posted videos of her­self hav­ing a good time over a cou­ple of hours, the booze flow­ing freely. She then climbed into a VW Golf GTI and was broad­cast­ing more videos to her fans as she drove, when there was a screech of brakes and crash­ing sounds, images of a shat­tered wind­screen ... and then noth­ing.

And that’s how it re­mained for al­most 24 hours as fans pan­icked about whether she was alive or dead. Time, of course, when the so­cial me­dia “en­gage­ment” num­bers spi­ralled. Which is what the mar­ket­ing clevers want.

When it was all re­vealed as a anti-drunk driv­ing stunt, there was a bit of a back­lash by peo­ple who felt they had been mis­led or even lied to.

Mar­ket­ing ex­pert Mike Stop­forth tweeted: “In a uni­verse of poor aware­ness ideas, this was an ex­traor­di­nar­ily poor one. Es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing fans were left a whole night to won­der what had hap­pened.”

Some did ac­knowl­edge the “gut punch” na­ture of the stunt, say­ing it con­veyed graph­i­cally the dan­ger of booz­ing and driv­ing.

The prob­lem is, though, that this fake news is merely “cry­ing wolf”. The next time some­one wants to do an “ef­fec­tive” piece of pub­lic ser­vice stunt­ing, it will have to be even more shock­ing. What will they do? Live “ex­e­cu­tions” on Face­book?

Some might say that the end jus­ti­fies the means – but be­ing de­lib­er­ately men­da­cious is not some­thing which is good for a brand.

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