Why Fake News is Old News

As we approach the Silly Season for news it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ve been making up stories to shock, impress and entertain for hundreds of years.

It’s fast approaching the ‘silly season’ for news. Traditionally the Silly Season is the ‘slow’ summer news period when Parliament’s in recess, the Law Courts aren’t sitting and everyone worth gossiping about is on holiday. It’s at this time that frivolous stories appear, and sometimes downright lies.

When I was at secondary school it was around this time that a friend told me a shocking story about his Uncle. His uncle had been repairing some tiles on the roof and felt unsafe as the tiles were slippery.  He tied a rope around his waist and threw it over the crown of the roof with instructions to his wife to ‘tie it to something solid’. She tied it to the bumper of their daughter’s mini. At some point in the afternoon the daughter came out and, not seeing the rope, drove off in the mini. The Uncle survived but with many broken bones he said. He told the tale with relish and I was suitably shocked.

A few weeks later I was flicking through the Sunday paper and spotted a headline “Man dragged from roof by wife’s car”. Wow, I thought. There is my friend’s story in print. Problem was, this story allegedly took place in Cape Town, South Africa. ‘How can it be’, I was thinking when his ‘uncle’ supposedly lived in Birmingham. Was my friend lying to impress me? And how could a story like that then turn up as a real story in a real newspaper?

Reuters circulated this story in 1980. Yet a version of it has been appearing in print since the 1960’s.  Older still is a European Folk Tale about a farmer and his wife who swap tasks for the day. The farmer sets the cow to grazing the grass roof of their house. To keep the cow in place he ties a rope around its neck, drops it down the chimney and ties it round his waist. The cow slips, falls off the roof and you can guess the rest.

Without knowing it at the time I had been exposed to a classic ‘Urban Legend’. The alarm bells should have been ringing when I was told it was ‘a friend’s uncle’. The ‘FOAF’ or ‘Friend of a Friend’ is a classic way to start an urban legend.  This makes it sound like you are close enough to the teller for it to be credible. This story has an element of real-life slapstick to it, but other urban legends involve, narrow escapes from serial murderers, escaped convicts or wild animals on the loose.

Take for example another urban legend reported in the newspapers shortly after the 2001 Twin Tower atrocity. A man in Birmingham notices a man –variously ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Arabic looking’ dropping a wallet and rushes after him to return it.  The wallet dropper offers money as a reward, but the finder refuses. So the wallet dropper says: “OK. Let me do you a favour. Don’t be in the Birmingham Bull Ring Centre on the 12th July” ‘Because something big might happen” The implication is that some atrocity will be perpetrated in this location and date.  David Blunkett, when acting as home secretary heard a similar tale from a friend and was told the date was 11th November. He realized the date was Armistice day and was so perturbed he took it to PM of the time Tony Blair and a security warning was issued.

A version of this tale has been circulating about Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima. There are even older tales that bears an uncanny resemblance to this warning about medieval battles (including Agincourt).

Stories like this show our insatiable desire for a good tale, well spun, They reveal our fears of the time, Is it an Irish IRA man who drops the wallet? A Japanese Spy? A Middle East Terrorist or a French Fortune Teller? How close did they come to disaster?  Does the warning give us hope…by showing  some sense of goodwill in even the most evil of terrorist minds? These tales play on our greatest emotions and as such beg to be retold. Often the tales have a moral element to them. Don’t pick up hitchikers, or smooch with your boyfriend in the woods. In that sense they are the modern equivalent of fairy tales. Often there is an entertainment factor to them as well. Some like the roofer tale are a kind of slapstick. Others are pure horror and are the forerunner of the fright film. What is different today is that these ‘Urban folk tales’ can be disseminated almost instantaneously via the Internet. So compelling are they to circulate, that serious news outlets can be duped (or tempted) to relay them as actual news. As an antidote, sites like .com exist to sift out the truth from the modern myth. Perhaps what is comforting is that we are prone to the same fallibilities as our distant ancestors when it comes to falling for fake news.

Further Reading:

The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. Jan Harold Brunvand…(1983)

The classic introduction to Urban Legends and their deeper meaning by the folklorist who first introduced the term Urban Legend to the wider public.

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