Strange comments appeared on social media last night. Apparently, without any evidence whatsoever, someone posted an absurd story on Twitter that Queen Elizabeth had died. Someone else seems to have been so convinced by this untrue statement that they posted a claim that the story must be true because there was a news blackout in England. Had they taken even a few seconds to look at any of the British media websites, they would have seen that all of the rolling news services were working as usual. Were they deliberately posting a story that they knew to be an obvious lie? Or are they now so caught up in the make-believe world of the conspiracy theorists that they would imagine a story of such significance would be made known to the world via someone’s Twitter account?
How credulous have people become that there are some who seem to unquestioningly accept whatever they might read on the screens of their laptops, tablets or smartphones?
There were complaints of fake news stories appearing during the United States’ presidential campaign, but such news stories could not have found an audience if there had not been a pervasive culture of untruth. Fake news stories were part of an online experience in which people had become accustomed to a succession of claims that they rarely attempted to verify. To show the inaccuracy of what had been seen or heard only invited the dislike of those who had an appetite for such material.
Queen Elizabeth, recovering from a cold, will have suffered no adverse effects from those stupid enough to repeat last night’s piece of nonsense, but for poor and vulnerable communities the fake news can bring scapegoating, prejudice and violence.
Prejudiced opinions have never needed evidence. An aunt, long dead, objected to “the Irish”, an uncle of a similar vintage objected to “the Asians.” Having a grandfather who suffered persecution at the hands of Mosley’s Blackshirts, I grew up with stories of those who objected to “the Jews”. Always there was some group upon which to pick, never mind that the speaker might confess that they knew not a single person from the group they hated, never mind that the chosen scapegoats were economically much poorer.
Social media now facilitate the repeating of untrue stories on a scale previously unimaginable. There seems now no sense of embarrassment in the expression of plain prejudice, no sense of embarrassment when one’s assertions are shown to be blatant lies.
Perhaps the best response to the untruths is not to attempt to correct them, for that only elicits suggestions of a “cover-up,” but to add to them, to embellish them with the absurd and the fantastic to the point where they become laughable. Sometimes, ridicule can serve the truth. Perhaps the Queen was abducted by aliens, perhaps she is being hidden in New Mexico. Perhaps she put up the Twitter post herself.