NY Times x Fake News, a (soccer) match made in heaven

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If all you are saying is give peace a chance, you better do with style. It helps if you own a Rolls Royce. And it sure helps if you’re John Lennon. Last week, Rolls Royce announced that the famous Phantom V Lennon bought in 1967 will return to London for a Sgt. Pepper’s exhibition. For the last 110 years, Rolls Royce underwent a bumpy and interesting story, which, alas, I don’t have the knowledge or time to tell. Let’s just skip the financial collapse and the car division transfer to a new subsidiary episodes and get right to the point: Rolls Royce stronger segment — jet engines, nuclear propulsion and power systems development — remains solid enough so it can easily make it to the list of 20 companies profiting the most from the war industry these days.

There is nothing new about this. The beloved British manufacturer has been making a killing from the hackish events of life (and death) since World War I because, you know, every industry of chaos — it really doesn’t matter which kind of chaos — will always have its stealthy winners. The war industry is just the most obvious (and profitable) one. The companies of that top-20 list employ 1.5 million people and have been selling $240 billion in arms every year. Billion. Most of them — act surprised — born and raised in America. If you dig this kind of irony, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has a lot to share. My favorite: the United States is the main supplier of 23 of the 40 largest importers of major weapons in the world, from Israel to Afghanistan.

The ability to thrive in this, say, paradoxical circumstances can be noticed among other profitable “fields”: poverty, environmental destruction, obesity… Each one with its own problems and, therefore, its own kind of cashflow. Except for the late Y2K bug, responsible for a $300 billion crisis of overreaction, they’re all real issues which demand real action. The imbalance, as pretty much everything in life, emerges from the quirky combination of greed and shamelessness.

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NY Times ad published in its own homepage: subscribe-first model

Fake news, as you may have suspected, is the flavor of the month — the last 12 months. Donald Trump’s election wryly strengthened traditional media — largely newspapers — as the herald of independent press, and the dissemination of the symptoms caused by fake news reinforced this role. Guess who capitalized the most from this fake news bug? The Rolls Royce of print media, you answered correctly. The New York Times “continues to report strong growth in its digital subscriptions and profits, having added 276,000 subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2016 and another 308,000 in the first quarter of this year”, underlined Venture Beat in an article last week.

The NY Times, itself, is not exactly subtle when dealing with the subject. Like a yoga school schedule, the op-ed columnists take turns, twice or three times a week, to remind the (non-)readers what they’re missing out on. And every now and then the company selects a sniper to bang the drum on behalf of the business. Take Rory Smith’s The Original Fake News: Soccer Transfers for example. To make it short, Smith recalls the story of an Irish journalist that “invented a player” in 2008 as “a social experiment” to check if he could make it believable that soccer club Arsenal was willing to sign this fake athlete. “To see how far a phantom could travel”, Rory Smith describes.

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Smith’s intent was quite straightforward: this successful 2008 experiment could explain how players’ managers have been working on the sideline of sports coverage to boost their clients’ skills and, therefore, get better deals. The main premise: if you can make a couple of journalists believe a top club like Arsenal may actually sign an inexistent striker, anyone can shove any real player into some useful news headlines.

The theory is not completely wrong. The misleading information game has been a common practice for quite some time, and it got worse during the internet era due to that quirky combination of greed and shamelessness (aka pageviews and clickbaits, respectively) — I told you it suits almost everything in life. The problem is, soccer transfers rumors are far from being the only place where lobbyists try to push their personal interests. And, unlike what The New York Times’ article claims, they’re definitely not the original source of fake news.

Since this entire discussion became a thing, reminding everyone of the famous 1918 false armistice story got quite usual. You know: someone decided to “end” World War I before it actually ended, based on a fake intel, and American media was so desperate to believe it that they published the “news” anyway. But you don’t need to go back that far to realize the glitch. For the last 99 years, fake news, as the Times describes in that odd article, has been serving its purpose not only in sports universe: they’re in Politics, Business, World, Tech and Arts sections as well (just to list the New York Times’ sections I remember by rote). “History is littered with examples where the facts were altered to suit a specific purpose”, observed Scientific American last December.

The same traditional media that are posing as the medicine against fake news in 2017 have been fomenting this furtive practice for the last century — most of the time unintentionally. Newspapers tend to ignore it, and nobody’s gonna draw a mea culpa out of nowhere at this point, because it affects exactly the key players in this bluster: media themselves. If you dig this kind of irony too, I strongly recommend Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1962 book The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America.

This suit-a-specific-purpose type of fake news is so powerful (and it covers a really broad spectrum) that it doesn’t require being published. Three days before the soccer article, The New York Times teamed up with The Wall Street Journal and other beacons of traditional media to go against Google and Facebook and their allegedly “duopoly” in digital advertisement. Newspapers snubbed their cyber-brothers (such as BuzzFeed and Vox) and called the reinforcement of News Media Alliance (NMA) to get special permission from Congress to negotiate collectively with Facebook and Google over ad-revenue deals. “The only way publishers can address this inexorable threat is by banding together”, justified NMA CEO David Chavern, supported by empirical evidence, I hope.

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In theory, the newspapers are seeking a legal way to bypass some antitrust laws — “price fixing” and “agreements among competitors” would fall into this category. In practice they just want to pressure Google and Facebook so they can present their two-item list of demands: better exposure, and help with getting more subscribers. Don’t be fooled by appearances, newspapers already gave up this digital ad rush — they know it became impossible to win now they’re losing 99% x 1%. Not even with fake players (or fake matches).

There’s no discussion about the importance of fighting the fake news — which is different from unquestioningly supporting the other side of the fake news industry. But if all you are saying is give newspapers a chance, you better do with style. The next time the New York Times decides to invoke soccer to establish this parallel, it should relive a much better fake news fable: in 1996 — 12 years before that Arsenal chronicle — the Senegalese amateur player Ali Dia managed to actually play a Premier League match thanks to a prank call. An Ali Dia’s cousin called Southampton’s coach Graeme Souness saying he was George Weah (Fifa’s best player in 1995) and that he wanted Souness to give Dia an opportunity. Believing Dia was indeed Weah’s cousin, Southampton offered the fake player a 1-month trial, and not only was he selected to a Premier League match, he also entered that game for 53 minutes.

And that, my dear friends of the New York Times, is “how far a phantom can really travel”.

Written by

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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