Are we frogs in a boiling pot or a stressed but resilient nation trying to make sense of bizarre times? Are we being ruled by an African liberation movement or a fourteenth century Italian church? And why do SUV drivers look so confused?
Tom Eaton explores these and other questions about modern life in South Africa in Is It Me or Is It Getting Hot in Here? – Great Expectations And Boiling Frogs In South Africa, with the razor-sharp, laugh-out-loud style that has made him one of South Africa’s most beloved commentators. Tom Eaton is a Business Day and Times Select columnist and the author of the best-selling The De Villiers Code.
This excerpt is published by permission.
Hit them right in the childhood!
About ten years ago I was head writer of a website called Hayibo, or, as it proudly claimed, South Africa’s second-best source of made-up news after the SABC.
We called it satire but a lot of the time it wasn’t. Sometimes it was snark. Sometimes it was vaudeville. Sometimes it was just a mess. Some stories were playful and kind, a few were snide and bitter. But all, almost without exception, were very obviously not true. We broke the news that Liewe Heksie was emigrating to Perth and that excavations for the new Gautrain were wreaking havoc with Johannesburg’s communities of Gummi Bears. We quoted spokespeople with names like Poepies McFartface.
And yet, every few weeks one of our obviously impossible, eminently silly stories would be believed. When we wrote, for example, that Jeannie D had been arrested after trying to do a Top Billing insert at Nkandla, some of her fans were so alarmed that she had to tweet that it was just a silly fabrication. During the London riots of 2011, we wrote that the African Union was going to send peacekeeping troops, food aid and basic oral hygiene to the desperate people of Britain. A few days later, I found the story being discussed – and worried about – on a forum used by commodities traders: how, one of them wondered, would a sudden influx of AU millet affect prices in the UK?
Fake news had not yet been weaponised. We didn’t know the appalling damage it would do in the decade to come. There was no reason to be alarmed by these credulous responses to our obviously silly stories. And yet I started feeling increasingly unsettled by them. People sometimes asked me if I enjoyed ‘tricking’ readers. I absolutely did not, and the more it happened, the less I enjoyed it.
But it was only in Hayibo’s final months that I understood why my unease had turned into a kind of morbid despair.
I had started suspecting a horrible truth: that your website can be festooned with stories about a beached pod of SABC executives being euthanised or Schabir Shaik being rushed to the spa for an emergency massage, but if the website looks a bit like the BBC or CNN, has no-nonsense headlines and little rectangular photographs of people or places, and has quotation marks around words allegedly spoken by spokespeople, you can write literally anything and a stunning number of people will believe it.
I’m not even talking about the fake news that people believe because they want it to be true. That’s a different story. I’m talking about a much more instinctive response, which happens before the words even reach the brain and the brain starts imposing its prejudices on them.
My time with Hayibo.com showed me that the power of fake news isn’t about what the words say. It’s about how the words look.
Long before we can read, we have started figuring out what words look like, forming a visual relationship with them. For example, we know that large pages with a few words on them and lots of pictures are stories for children. Small pages with endless rectangles of small words on them, and no pictures, are stories for adults. Words of different sizes, printed on thin, crinkly paper, with photographs of smiling people, are magazines, which seem to be somewhere between stories for children and stories for adults. Tiny, endless words with numbers scattered between them, that get read by a man in a robe once a week, are special words, appearing in a holy book, which is a very long story but is also not a story because stories aren’t true except . . . well, we’ll figure it out later. And words that are printed on large sheets of very papery paper, in long columns, well, those words are news.
And news isn’t a story.
Because news is true.
I mean, it’s wearing a suit, right?
Unless we have been raised by a wild-eyed, gun-hoarding, tinfoil-hat-wearing, beard-scratching prepper in a homemade bunker, or a professor of media studies, which is pretty much the same thing, we begin our experience of reading steadfast in the knowledge that words that look like news – with a headline about current events, a picture depicting said events, and quotation marks around certain banal statements – are as true as everything Mom and the President says, as real as Santa Claus, and as trustworthy as the policeman and banker on the corner.
It’s why fake news has been a form of entertainment for well over a century.
The newspaper business was still relatively young when Mark Twain started sending it up. Newsreels, likewise, had only been around for 20 years when MGM produced its Wataphony Newsreel, pioneering the trope of deadpan, absurd commentary read over real footage. Thirty years later, the British ‘satire boom’ saw the likes of Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and David Frost turn fake news into an art form, while the Monty Python lads took it to its illogical conclusion, parodying the earnestness and comedic arbitrariness of journalistic tropes by having interviewers go off the rails, vox pops inserts in which idiots admired Hitler’s legs, and finally dragging a German newsreader into an Alpine lake as she continued, professionally but vainly, to read the day’s headlines.
It was funny, but only now, in our post-truth world, are we realising why.
It was funny because it was iconoclastic, and it was iconoclastic because an absolute truth was being teased and played with. We laughed because our deadly serious, entirely credulous inner five-year-old was being shocked and scandalised; and the wider its little eyes got, the more we laughed. Someone dressed as a newsreader, saying silly falsehoods to camera in an earnest, BBC voice? You might as well send up the New Testament. Which is, of course, what Monty Python did next.
In other words, I don’t believe that our relationship with news has anything to do with logic, reason, critical insight or even literacy. Instead, I believe it is an entirely emotional relationship, formed in early childhood. This makes it extremely volatile, and very easy to explode. In short, a perfect ingredient in your recipe.
All it takes is a few fake news stories, and one or two genuine screw-ups by legitimate news sources, and people will start reacting like hurt five-year olds whose trust has been destroyed. Instead of saying, ‘These stories aren’t true,’ they’ll blurt out, ‘No stories are true!’ Instead of saying, ‘It is possible to curate a selection of generally trustworthy news sources’, they’ll cry, ‘You can’t believe anything you read!’
Which means they are now primed and ready as you . . .