Our story starts inauspiciously. A few years ago I was working at a tech firm in the no-man’s land between Warrington and Manchester, known as Birchwood. Little was expected of me and even less was required. Provided I attended the office on a semi regular basis I was left to my own devices. Basically, I had a lot of free time on my hands and, in order to pass that time, I would read whatever the Internet threw at me.
Lists of motivational techniques were common, as were ‘Things successful people do’ or ‘These 3 things will make you a genius every day’ – the whole productivity circle-jerk. As well as this, there were plenty of smaller articles, opinion pieces and bite sized ‘news’ segments. I still remember the ‘news’ segment that forever altered my point of view, and only in hindsight do I realise it’s importance.
It was an article on some nothing website, most likely lost in the depths of vague google searches and banished to the wasteland that is page two of the search results. An article on the arrest and subsequent incarceration of Jared Fogle, former Subway spokesperson, sentenced to 15 years in prison for sex with minors. This stood out to me because the link to Subway was something of a red faced moment for the branding of the company and they were quick to cut all ties. The fact the link had resurfaced made it worth me taking notice of it.
The article detailed the sentencing, the history of Jared as Subway Pitchman and the details of his crimes. Then, tucked at the bottom I saw it. The line essentially read “In jail he won’t be able to take advantage of the latest Subway offers” and proceeded to list the Subway offer prices. I checked and checked again hoping I’d been fooled. That this was some copied and pasted onion-style work that I’d overseen. That somehow the mistake was mine. I could find no evidence of it then and I have been unable to ever since. Was it satire? Had I missed the point? Why was my news media selling me things?
The problem with stories like that is that they aren’t really stories, they’re advertisements, and the problem with advertisements masquerading as news items is that, while a mature audience who have seen the rise in this type of media can discern through experience what is real and fake, there is no disputing the fact that adverts like this are improving in their attempts to come across as authentic news stories. Those who cannot see the difference are simply criticised and blamed for their perceived lack of intelligence. They’re shouted down and condescendingly ‘advised’ to “read the source material” or “fact check their news media more thoroughly” by hypocrites who would never even dream of holding themselves to the same standard.
It is as if the heads of the world have fallen off, or at least the brains have fallen out. Parody and satire that prides itself in its authenticity is believed by the rest of the world with increasing regularity, and how is anyone meant to tell the difference? My moment of realisation, or the point at which the penny truly dropped, was Ed Miliband carving his election pledges into an enormous stone plinth; an idea that would have been thrown out by writers of ‘The Thick of It’ for being too implausible. The world seems to have rapidly gone downhill from there. In 2016, Trident, the UK’s £40 Billion nuclear missile investment, was justified, in part, by the notion of making a ‘positive’ impact on global security. A positive impact.
You see, as funny and tragic as it all is, I can’t help but think of my nieces aged thirteen and six growing up in a world where advertisements and news media are becoming indiscernible. What are they to do? Is it fair to blame them? They have the handicap of never knowing what it was like ‘before’ these stories were prevalent in mainstream media.
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Our exhibition How much of this is fiction, exploring the radical shift in the boundary between fiction and reality in a world increasingly governed by ‘post-truth’ politics, is showcased at FACT until 21 May 2017.