EVEN though Sir Winston Churchill died long before the internet age, his observation that “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth has the chance to get its pants on” could have been made for it.
His words sprang to mind when the latest in an increasingly bizarre series of emails popped into my inbox last week. “Revealed,” it screamed, “Melania Trump using a body double for appearances”.
What a blockbuster of a story. Apparently, the First Lady of the United States isn’t accompanying her husband on official duties, but employing a lookalike, who wears a false nose and large sunglasses to masquerade as Mrs Trump.
Fact. The fake First Lady was rumbled as her husband addressed the media. Fact. A picture proves that below the false nose and shades, the lookalike’s mouth is different from Mrs Trump’s. Fact. The president’s wife is using a double because she cannot stand the strain of public appearances.
So far, so preposterous. A false nose? Surely nobody can take this sort of stuff seriously? A web of wild speculation woven around a single photograph caught in a fraction of a second, where perhaps because of the angle of her head or the momentary set of her lips, Mrs Trump appears subtly changed.
That’s human beings for you. Every individual looks different from moment to moment. The only indisputable fact about the assertions is they are utter codswallop.
But millions did take it seriously. It went viral on Twitter. Churchill was only partially right – the lie didn’t get halfway round the world, but circled the globe, even before the truth could reach for its pants, let alone get them on.
The inevitable blizzard of conspiracy theories concerning the fate of the real Mrs Trump followed, fuelled by the antipathy her husband arouses in many.
And for the so-called news site that has inexplicably added me to its mailing list, that means job done, another great day at the office. Mass exposure, lots of hits on its website and presumably a great deal of advertising revenue.
Welcome to the fake news phenomenon, where there is big money to be made from peddling lies. Absurd though the claims about Mrs Trump are, they have in the few days since being made acquired a spurious authority for conspiracy theorists because of their presence on the internet.
Poetic justice, some might argue, thanks to Donald Trump’s track record of deploying fake news for his own ends, like his claim that Barack Obama was not a US citizen and thus occupied the presidency illegally. The biter bit, by an attack on his wife.
It’s a lot more serious than tit-for-tat, though. To laugh out loud at the notion of somebody wearing a false nose to impersonate Melania Trump, as I, and I’m sure many others, did is to under-estimate the danger that fake news poses to democracy and the way that millions learn about the world.
News we can trust is part of the bedrock of a free society able to make informed choices over who governs and how.
Truth, impartiality and balanced arguments are being undermined by fake news, which is being lapped up by the gullible, especially with its seductive hint that they are being let in on the real story which others seek to keep hidden.
How serious a problem this has become was illustrated by the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. Wild accusations that the media were conspiring with that shadowy entity “The Establishment” to conceal the true scale of the tragedy gained worrying traction.
Suddenly, the label “mainstream media”, which has always meant those conscientious and diligent sources of news that can be relied on for accuracy, became a term of abuse.
It has been hurled by sections of the Labour Party angry at any questioning of Jeremy Corbyn’s fitness for high office. The animosity towards those seen as representing this hated cabal saw its most menacing manifestation in the need for BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg to be accompanied a bodyguard while covering the party’s annual conference in Brighton.
Fake news must be challenged and exposed as the cynical, money-making scam it is at every turn. The volume of it out there is staggering. An internet search for any news story immediately returns dozens of superficially credible sites full of unsubstantiated claims and assertions.
The young especially need to be guided away from this, or there is a very real risk that they will develop not a healthy, questioning attitude towards institutions and politics, but one that is paranoid and starts from the standpoint that the truth is being hidden from them.
Just as children have to be taught to keep themselves safe from online predators, so they now need to be helped to differentiate between news that can be trusted and lies which set out to warp their view of the world.