Hello and welcome back, Fake News!
As someone who struck a blow against Fake News in 1993, I’m sorry to see that my attempt to alleviate this scourge has failed. Dismally, I might add.
The Associated Press now has a whole section devoted to stomping out these little zombies of the news business. Adding fuel to the fire, Sinclair network anchors read some copy decrying fake stories, apparently aiming at more mainstream news organizations. I won’t get into that because it is confusing as hell.
Stopping fake news? It’s like trying to kill cockroaches in a corner with square-toed boots.
At least my first attempt was relatively successful – for a while.
In case you don’t recall 1993, Garth Brooks was singing about having Friends in Low Places, Bill Clinton was strutting his stuff in the White House and dinosaurs roamed the movie screen in Jurassic Park. And one of the hottest technologies was the fax machine.
I was working at InfoWorld, a weekly computer publication that was reporting on something called the World Wide Web that we’ll come back to later. I was working in the Dallas office with another reporter Steve Pollili.
The fax machine was useful to us as that was how companies sent us press releases and we could send copy back and forth to our bosses in San Mateo, California. It worked fine, though we were beginning to use networks to transmit information from coast-to-coast.
As with most new technologies, along with useful functions came a bunch of crap, mostly sales crap. Coupons for Subway, discounts to bars and advertisements for … more often than not … fax paper. Plain paper fax machines were rare then, so you had to use fax paper, this big roll of paper that was heavy and full of ink. It was a mess.
Along with that stuff came what – in an earlier day – were called “chain letters.” A chain letter is a message that instructs the recipient to make a number of copies of the letter and then pass them on to a number of recipients, often saying that good luck has come to others who have followed the instructions. If that sounds familiar, it happens on Facebook about 10,000 times a second.
Aside from that colossal waste of time – and money, fax paper wasn’t cheap – there were several fax versions of urban legends and fake news – though we didn’t call it that at the time. I think we just called it “crap.”
One of the most popular was a dire warning about prospective new gang members being initiated by killing the drivers of cars who flash their headlights at them after the gang members drive down a dark road with their headlights off. There was a scheduled “initiation night” and the fax warned everyone not to flash their lights at any cars driving without their headlights after dark.
According to Snopes.com, which tracks and evaluates stories like this: “In August 1993, a major outbreak of this scare swept the United States as the legend spread quickly with the help of fax machines and e-mail forwards. The early fears were further intensified when a new round of faxes went out a few weeks later, these announcing a ‘Blood initiation weekend’ of September 25 and 26 of that year.”
Polilli and I were both former police reporters and the cynicism temperature gauge registered hot whenever we were in the room.
So when one of the sales guys with a whisk broom of a mustache – they always had a whisk broom of a mustache – rushed in to hand us this bulletin from the fax machine and warned us to be careful driving home tonight, we both roared with laughter.
He was puzzled. He was trying to help us, trying to save our lives, wasn’t he?
We told him we’d seen this before and it was a bunch of West Texas wet brown dirt. He argued with us and the secretary chimed in. It worried them. They both swore they’d seen cars driving down the road with their lights off that might – might – have been full of potential gang members. Besides, they said, the news release was from a police department in Massachusetts, so it must be true.
OK, we said. Let’s call that police department. And that’s what we did. We called the police chief of whatever town this was in Massachusetts. Eventually, he called us back.
“Oh God, that damn thing is going around again,” he said. He said no such thing had ever happened in his town and, besides, they misspelled his name.
The sales guy and secretary were nonplussed and dejected. No matter that this fax machine fable was proven false, they still weren’t going to flash their lights at any car with its lights off. They were going to believe the fax no matter that the police chief had told them in person it was fake.
No matter their attitude, I felt good. We had done our job. Surely if we could bust a false story with a simple phone call that bit of fax machine fakery would eventually disappear.
And that gang initiation “news” that once came over the fax machine? It died a few years after our triumph in the North Dallas office of InfoWorld.
A few years later, there was a website that dealt with false reports like that. Snopes.com is still going and, as far as I can tell, busier than ever. According to their catalog of the “blood initiation” ritual, even official government agencies have passed this particular bit of “fake news” along, giving the story the imprimatur of truth.
And the “blood initiation” news story? It continues to come back, like a zombie (the Faxing Dead?), in the days of email and social media. It looks like our work will never be done. That, unfortunately, is not fake news.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.