Not long ago, Britain’s most trusted news source published a guide titled “Fake news in 2016: What it is, what it wasn’t, how to help.” Among the stories tut-tutted in the BBC piece was one about Denzel Washington’s alleged support for Donald Trump and another about a Malaysian fireman who had reportedly married a snake. By January, Auntie Beeb had made permanent a crack squad to tackle the problem, the so-called Reality Check team. Hooray!
Inevitably, there was a murky side to this crusade. The day before the outlet published its helpful guide, a tweet emanated from an apparent BBC account announcing that Queen Elizabeth II had died — which, not surprisingly, led to an outpouring of grief in 140 characters or less. The BBC Twitter account turned out to be fake, and Her Majesty was later spotted sitting in the back of a car wearing a blue hat — a little peaky, perhaps, but patently not dead.
So, vivat regina and all that. But the problem now is: If a seemingly airtight piece of news can be fake, then surely the reverse is possible. Who can say with absolute certainty that the Malaysian fireman and his snake bride aren’t enjoying the first blush of a happy marriage? Who knows what’s going on in Denzel Washington’s mind? And who’s to say the blue-hatted lady in the back of that car was really Britain’s reigning monarch? #impostor?
Fake news would be a lot more enjoyable if it confined itself to the comical suffering of strangers. Like any right-minded person, I’m more than happy to read headlines like “Cinnamon Roll Can Explodes Inside Shoplifter’s Trousers,” but I get a headache the instant a public figure calls fakies on one of the major news organizations. It gets to the point where the frivolous and the frightening become a blur: Someone’s pants exploded during secret negotiations with the Russians, creating a delicious scent of cinnamon and plunging the world into a geopolitical crisis.
And I say this as someone with experience in the field. One of my earliest childhood memories is telling our entire London neighborhood that my younger brother had passed wind — or “done a poopsle” — on a plate of sandwiches that he subsequently ate. My weeping brother denied the accusation, of course, but it stuck. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this fake report is on the same level as William Shakespeare’s takedown of Richard III, but it was pretty impressive for a 5-year-old.
A recent BuzzFeed report announced that Britain doesn’t have a problem with fake news, since our traditional media “are already incredibly adept at filling the market with highly partisan news stories that stretch the truth to its limits.” But the fact is we have a long and illustrious tradition of fake news. We just call it by a different name: The Pub. It is here, down at the Fish & Pickle, that Barry and Gary and Les and Des debate the great issues of the day — immigration, the economy, terrorism, Arsenal’s defensive problems. And it is here that the seeds of conspiracy theories are sown: Angela Merkel used to be an exotic dancer, chicken Kiev causes radiation sickness, Toy Story is a coded endorsement of homosexuality. If you can shout it, you can prove it.
Certainly, the most meaningful debate over Brexit — Britain’s decision to excuse itself from the European Union — was not conducted in Parliament but in the Duck & Stump. The referendum was decided through sprays of pork scratchings, the arguments made above the sounds of slopping ale. Not only did the Eurocrats want to ban the sale of “bendy bananas” and regulate the reveal of barmaid cleavage — as certain publications had informed us — they also seemed like they wanted to turn swaths of East London into “Little Mosul.” It had to be stopped. Say yes to Bennifer! I mean Brexit! Whatever!
Social media has provided the bar-stool brain trusts with an unexpected boon, bringing their shout-y theories to millions of like-minded idiots, and their voices are also making their way into specialist publications, which might as well have names like The Daily Prevaricator and The Fabulist Times. And it gets worse. We now have Nigel Farage, a right-wing populist politician who likes to pose with a pint in his hand and who makes the clientele of the Sock & Squirrel sound knowledgeable. And then there’s your guy over there in the States, what’s his name, who cries “Fake news!” with one side of his mouth and delivers it with the other. It’s a mess.
Mindless populism is nothing new, of course. James Madison warned about it back in the 1780s. But in those days, shouting your head off on a street corner, ankle-deep in manure, you’d be lucky if you got a few dozen “Likes.” Some say it’s the advent of printing that blurred the line between horse-muck hollering and conventional wisdom, but I’d argue that it started with the tankard of ale. And our current situation bears witness to this fact: An even louder version of those blathery pubgoers currently occupies the most powerful political office on earth.
That said, America is a relative newcomer to the fake news phenomenon and might be able to learn a thing or two from the seasoned liars who occupy the snug at the Greasy Lapel. It is a waste of time to argue with these people, a waste of time to challenge beliefs that form a closed loop. What you do is shrug. You shrug and you get yourself another beer. And you hope that enough people will do the same.Chris Wright is a writer based in London. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @BostonGlobeMag.