The age of ‘fake news’ has only just begun
On television news, looks can be deceptive – especially if they are designed to do that.
Confused about the recent surge in ratings for far-right news networks Newsmax and OANN, some critics insisted that viewers who delve into the absurdity on display may not be very smart.
But that rude judgment ignores a disturbing reality: These channels and others, sure to follow the post-Trump media universe, have worked hard to make their products look “real” on purpose. Viewers get carried away almost unconsciously because if it looks and sounds like news, then it has to be news.
There are reasons most mainstream television journalism looks similar: These production notes convey a message to the viewer beyond what the presenter is reporting. For example, the color blue dominates almost every news studio. Research shows that blue conveys trustworthiness and reliability for most of us. Some news broadcasts add a touch of red that we consider energetic and aggressive. Together, these colors send a message: Something urgent and important is happening (red), but don’t worry – you can trust our reporters to get it right (blue).
The anchors themselves are part of this message: they are usually not too old or too young. You dress seriously, not extravagantly. Unusual hairstyles are rare – no green dye or mohawk for these people. Your television picture, like the studio colors surrounding you, is reliable, reliable and right in the middle of it all.
Along with color, these anchors are also surrounded by information. Over the years, the cable news screen has become increasingly cluttered with data: stock market numbers or voting totals on the right side of your picture, a “news crawl” of headlines at the bottom, another bolder layer of headlines above. All of these graphics keep the viewer in suspense: if you’re not interested in what the reporter is saying, you can read the other material on your screen. But these info bits are also used to build your image: Take a look at how active we are in collecting all this news from all over the world for you. You can count on us.
The far-right channels take these proven images and transport them into a world of alternative facts and conspiracy theories. Years ago it was easy to spot extreme material – it looked out of the mainstream, often on purpose. Nobody confused the John Birch Society’s copied broadsides with their local newspaper; Counterculture media in the 1960s tried hard not to look like the establishment.
However, Newsmax and OANN understand that mimicking conventional programs helps make their horrific and drastic stories appear acceptable and reasonable. Greg Kelly, the rising star of Newsmax, was once a dependable, talkative personality himself on the mainstream morning news programs on local New York television.
And these relatively small businesses can look big on a budget. No more need for cheap mimeographs. Thanks to the digital revolution, it doesn’t cost much to set up a sophisticated news studio.
That’s a red flag for what might come. As more extreme sections of the post-Trump audience break off from media like Fox News in search of an information bubble better tailored to their needs, radical media can easily impersonate and attract them as reliable, researched, fact-based news.
Just go online and you can find free (or royalty-free) templates to create your own virtual message set in minutes. You can download free high tech news graphics along with the correct music score. There is even an instructional video on how to build all of this in your own basement.
The past four years have shown that it is very easy to distribute this type of material on social media – no full-fledged cable channel required. You can simply create short clips that look like they came from a big news campaign and broadcast them into the atmosphere of the internet. Algorithms do the rest, planting this product unsolicited on unsuspecting social media profiles.
In this potential future, it will take even more hard work for viewers to honestly understand what is being displayed to them on their Facebook page. You have to be very vigilant about images that signal truth, trust and authenticity – but deliver something completely different. They cannot accept the deception immediately, even if they want to.
When Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNewsom Touts Victory Over Recall As Rejection of “Trumpism” Newsom Slightly Roll Back Recall Efforts In California Second Senior Official To Leave DHS In A Week MORE leaves the White House in January, yes, a “fake news” megaphone will be gone. But given what is already happening, a much more intricate and insidious forgery may very well take its place.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media manager, producer, and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news manager for NBC, writer and producer for Dateline NBC, and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ ironworker1.