“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 filmmaker, 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 that 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 an anti-drink-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 that is good for a brand.