Breaking down news: The great American faking show

Satire is simmered just right in a 2011 fake interview of Henry Kissinger, doing the rounds for the third time now; and how the NYT is getting up to speed to help its paywall rake it in.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published:June 17, 2017 2:20 am

The footer of The Daily Squib clearly states that it is a “curiously satirical publication and should, therefore, be taken ****ing seriously”. The world has taken it very literally, and a delightful fake interview of Henry Kissinger, originally published in November 2011, has been taken seriously for the third time. Imagine the Unabomber Manifesto turned into a movie with The Doors in Apocalypse Now providing background music, and you would get the picture.

Headlined ‘If You Can’t Hear the Drums of War You must be Deaf’, it’s running riot on the internet, now billed not as satire but as fact. Kissinger does some outrageously frank dealing, like, “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” Also, “If you are an ordinary person, then you can prepare yourself for war by moving to the countryside and building a farm, but you must take guns with you, as the hordes of starving will be roaming.” And the slightly more believable, “We told the military that we would have to take over seven Middle Eastern countries for their resources and they have nearly completed their job.”

While the survivalist stuff has an enthusiastic constituency in the US, the stuff about oil and the Middle East caught the fancy of Jordan’s Al Ghad newspaper, which translated and published the ‘interview’ some time ago. Partly, they were fooled because they apparently took the copy from the entirely legitimate entity Global Research (the name is unfortunately redolent of Beltway banditry, thought it’s located in Montreal).

Now the ‘interview’ is loose on the internet again, in its third wave. The time for disinformation is ripe, with the balance between the US and other big powers tilting every which way. In celebration of its success, The Daily Squib floated the canard that Kissinger has bid goodbye to diplomacy and signed on as a writer with the publication, whose staffers are apparently pondering how to deal with a bad-tempered old codger scooting about its offices in a wheelchair, with a regiment of life support staff in his wake.

This ‘interview’, which is self-declared fake, has been following the familiar pathways taken by fake news posing as authentic and is conning people as efficiently as the Nigerian scam. And to think that we pilloried Sambit Patra for falling for jihadi-generated fake news piped through a nationalist Pakistani website, which he probably took for a newspaper. He used that for a launch-pad for his one-man freedom of speech movement simultaneously on and against NDTV. Come on, it’s only Patra, and he only failed to detect a fake story. People much smarter than him are getting diddled by the most sublime avatar of fake news, satire from perfidious Albion, where the form has a long and hallowed history.

This week The New York Times, the leading purveyor of fake news in the world according to Trump, has started rolling out a sweeping internet redesign, which focuses on reader engagement and continuity of experience across devices. Ken Doctor’s Newsonomics reveals — unbelievable but true — that the Pulitzer magnet had been running on six separate platforms. It’s taken 18 months of work to fit it to a single platform. Earlier, if you wanted to make a change to the website, you would have to do it six times over. Now, you just make one change and it’s visible across devices and platforms. Just for perspective, that’s how any home-brewed website with a responsive theme on a free content management system is supposed to work, which means that the Gray Lady of American media has only just caught up.

Rather than tech upgrades, the significant change seems to lie in a reader-first approach. It is no longer sufficient to put up a paywall, hang out some teasers in front of it like bunting and stash the goodies behind it. Subscriptions turn sticky only with continuous reader engagement, and by making sure that the reader experience is similar across devices. It’s also interesting that the NYT is giving attention to the desktop version, instead of making the mobile app central. Is app bloat urging users back to the browser?

Indian publications have only begun experimenting with paywalls, but reader revenue does appear to be the way towards a genuinely free media. Traditionally, the price of an Indian newspaper has not even paid for the paper it’s printed on, and newspaper operations are hugely subsidised by advertising. This model is obviously broken, laying media open to market uncertainties and urging allegiances where none should exist. In the future, as the shift to the web and multimedia accelerates, reader revenue should become much more important than it is today.

In the wake of the farm loan waivers in Maharashtra and the firing in Mandsaur, that ticky-offy Bretton Woods argot which we have almost forgotten is back in the TV news. It’s amazing what degrees of fiscal prudence and belt-tightening you can prescribe to distant sufferers with a straight face. Doesn’t matter if they’re in sub-Saharan Africa or Maharashtra, so long as they’re far away.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

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