Deception Day:Hoaxes, Lies and Fake News was an all day event held by the London Fortean Society in Conway Hall. I'd not attended one of their all dayers before. I'd been a bit worried it might drag on a bit and I'd get bored and just end up going down the pub. I needn't have worried. It was as fascinating as it was varied. The ever topical theme of untruth was lightly adhered to and both the morning and afternoon passed by most convivially.
I arrived a tad late, registered (!), and then took a pew under the legend "TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE". Luckily I hadn't missed much of Dr David Robert Grimes' talk Fake Cancer Cures and Anti-Vaccination Myths. I'd seen Dr Grimes speak before and found him to be an engaging and convincing speaker, as, it would be fair to say, was everyone on Deception Day. He listed a few things that had been erroneously reported as causing cancer (bras, cellphones, cake, aspartame, WiFi, and, get this, thoughts!) and another of things that had been erroneously reported as curing cancer (cabbages, baking soda, traditional Chinese medicine, apricots, shark cartilage, and homeopathy). Caffeine had been reported as both a cause and a cure which reminded me of the time Michael Douglas suggested cunnilingus had both caused, and would cure, his throat cancer. That must've been an interesting meet up with Catherine Zeta-Jones's parents.
The idea that aspartame causes cancer comes from a chain e-mail (remember them? the pre-social media way of spreading bullshit) originating from Nancy Markle. Nancy Markle is better known as Betty Martini (below) and is a known, and comprehensively debunked, health crank. Dr Grimes also reported that traditional Chinese medicine isn't a popular cancer 'cure' in China where they prefer proper medicine that actually works.
Steve Jobs opted for an alternative treatment for the preventable form of pancreatic cancer he had. He came to regret this. Not least when he died of it. Patrick Swayze, who also died of pancreatic cancer, remained sceptical of alternative cures up until the end. It may not have saved him but it may help others in the future. Dr Grimes said that the fallback on the part of the anti-big pharma campaigners is almost always to accuse the debunkers of being part of a huge conspiracy. He outlined how ridiculous this would be, how much this would cost, how many people would need to be in on it, and the chances of it remaining secret. Least of all if medical practitioners were hiding a cure to cancer why do medical practitioners still die of cancer in exactly the same way as everyone else? It doesn't make a lot of sense.
Jeanie (not Jamie as I'd written on Facebook) Finlay was up next with stories that did at least make sense. A huge Dolly Parton fan she's made films about such unlikely subjects as goths on a cruise and the last record shop in Teesside but she was with us today to talk about two music documentaries she'd created, both about artists who lived a lie and, to varying degrees, had success because of that lie.
The Great Hip Hop Hoax looked at Silibil'n'Brains. They sounded like Eminem fronting the early Beastie Boys on an episode of Jackass. But all the frat boy pranking and American accents were fake. They were Scottish and simply pretending to be from California. They'd tried to make it as Scottish accented rappers and been dismissed, laughed at even. That hadn't worked - but lying did.
They'd never even been to America but they'd seen Friends and Michael J Fox films. Their accents weren't particularly convincing but they fooled enough people and eventually they came to speak in them all the time - even, apparently, when wanking or having sex! They justified cheating on their girlfriends back in Scotland by considering themselves to actually be different people while they were living these fake lives. Their understanding of American geography was terrible. When asked what state they came from one of them replied Los Angeles. The other covered by explaining they had an "LA state of mind".
Sony signed them and they got a support at Brixton Academy with D12, a band they'd lied about 'coming up with'. That was embarrassing enough but they started to despise the characters they were playing. They imploded and eventually both Silibil and Brains became estranged from each other. That was how it was when Finlay made her film but, since then, they've, somewhat unbelievably, reformed and according, to Jeanie Finlay, are still completely full of bullshit.
Jimmy Ellis from Alabama was another singer who couldn't get arrested. He sounded like Elvis but he sounded so much like Elvis it was uncanny and put people off. He even released a single called 'I'm Not Trying To Sound Like Elvis' which, hilariously, sounded EXACTLY live Elvis.
After Elvis died in 1977 Shelby Singleton, famed as the most sued man in Tennessee, bought Sun Records off Sam Phillips and dubbed Ellis's voice on to some old master tapes he came into ownership of. At the same time Gail Brewer-Giorgio wrote a book, Orion, which began the myth of Elvis faking his own death. The next brainwave? Jimmy Ellis could be Orion.
Ellis was reluctant at first but he wanted the fame so eventually his arm was twisted. He'd appear on stage singing like Elvis but with a mask (that he was contractually obliged to always wear in public). Rumours that he was wearing the mask to cover plastic surgery scars were allowed to flourish and people began to believe he was the real Elvis - despite being taller, younger, and having different colour eyes.
After five years of wearing the mask he ripped it off on stage one night during a New Year's Eve gig and, predictably, his career soon nosedived. Several attempts to reinvent himself with names like Mr E, Mr Excitement, Cadillac Man, and Ellis James all proved fruitless but there proved to be an eerie coda to this story when photos of Ellis proved that although he didn't look at all like Elvis he did look spookily similar to Elvis' father Vernon Presley who would've been enjoying a particularly carefree carousing period of his life when Jimmy was born. Could he have been Elvis' long lost brother? Who knows? Finlay herself ended up getting called a hoaxer by people who couldn't believe this story, or the one about Silibil'n'Brains, was true. Fake news folks!
Penny Rimbaud was the next speaker. He started off by describing Crass, the band, as being his biggest hoax ever and then began to tell some of their history leading up to the infamous Thatchergate Tapes. Crass used to actually play in Conway Hall itself. One gig saw an attack from a leftist group called Red Action (misreported by The Guardian as an attack by Nazi skinheads) who felt Crass had those same Nazi skinheads as fans. It was a horrible bloodbath and the misreporting of events led to Crass then becoming a target for, you guessed it, Nazi skinheads - notably in Reading, the big National Front centre of the time.
Crass would spend entire days responding personally to each piece of correspondence they received and one day they got a threatening letter from a disenfranchised working class bloke which Steve Ignorant (a disenfranchised working bloke with a chip on his shoulder himself) handled sensitively, disabusing the man of his hatred towards the band. More correspondence followed and eventually their former foe informed he was heading off to fight in the Falklands.
On his return he arranged a meeting with Penny in a café in Victoria station and told him the story of the sinking of the Belgrano, Prince Andrew's royal privilege during the conflict, and a potential mutiny that delayed the return of the task force. Also aggrieved by the way Margaret Thatcher had used the conflict to boost her popularity rating at a time she was polling badly Crass set about making the Thatchergate Tapes. A mocked up conversation between Thatcher and then US president Ronald Reagan discussing top secret information.
Eve Libertine from Crass did Thatcher's voice but no one could do Reagan (Silibil'n'Brains had yet to 'perfect' their American accents) so a member of the band spent six weeks cutting and splicing tapes of Reagan's speeches to get the words they needed. Cassetteboy could knock something like that out much quicker now but at the time the process was highly laborious.
These tapes led to Crass, pissed up on vodka at 10am, having to deal with spies on Cromwell Road. It led to prosecutions and MI5 and MI6 stepping up their interest in the band and their activism. Penny Rimbaud looks like Ian McKellen and talks like Michael Palin and the story he told was worthy of either of those men. An audience member in the Q&A pointed out that to tell the truth Crass had had to create a lie. That was a good point to end the morning session.
After a hearty lunch at the Fryer's Delight on Theobalds Road I missed some of Mark Pilkington's Magic, Deception and the Abuses of Enchantment speech for which I apologise. What I caught seemed interesting, touching on a Pakistani villager who thought US drone strikes were aliens feeding on 'women and children' (not sure why aliens don't like the taste of grown men - I suppose we are disgusting). Cargo cult stuff.
He also explored how folkloric phenomena could be, and has been, exploited for political and bellicose purposes. Tacitus was mentioned. As was Jesper Maskelyne's inflatable tanks used as decoys in World War II and how trickery was once used to give the illusion that the port of Alexandria had disappeared.
There was no trickery whatsoever in Ghostwatch but people still felt they'd been hoodwinked - and scared shitless too. Gregory Akerman (who himself had once provided such a memorable evening for the LFS) interviewed creator and writer Stephen Volk and director Lesley Manning. Braving a few early technical gremlins Volk talked about his inspirations and how he transferred that to a televisual format. Clips were shown and they're still terrifying now.
It was always made very clear that the programme was fiction but self-delusion is the most powerful delusion. Even one of Volk's friends, who he'd told he'd written it, thought it was actually real and Volk had been lying. The continuity announcer who had to follow Ghostwatch was on his first day in the job and simply said "...and now Match of the Day".
Volk spoke of how Mike Smith muscling in on his partner Sarah Greene's gig was a stroke of luck. The personal connection just added to the drama and ramped up the tension. They were big kids TV stars at the time and, in the following week, schools stopped classes and had projects about the programme. A Falklands War veteran was so scared he literally shit his pants and his wife wrote to the BBC asking for compensation for a new pair of jeans (possibly a hoax in itself) and the British Medical Journal reported it was the first show ever to cause post-traumatic stress disorder in children, something Volk seemed pretty proud of. Pregnant women were reported to have gone into labour during the show and, just to remind us we're all getting on, those Ghostwatch kids will be 24 years old now.
The last part of the day was a panel discussion between Little Atoms' Padraig Reidy and James Ball from Buzzfeed simply titled Fake News. Ball began his dissection of post-truth by remembering being at a the official Remain party on the night of the Brexit vote. It wasn't much of a party but it did help Ball work out a distinction between bullshit and lying. A lie has some respect for the truth. Bullshit has none.
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson aren't liars. They're out and out bullshitters. They don't give a shit about the truth whatsoever. Writing for The Times in 1989 a young Boris was covering a story about the discovery of Edward II's palace. He wanted it as a scoop so he misquoted a historian, his own godfather in fact, on the front page of the paper. When it was discovered he simply made up an even bigger lie to cover it up. He was fired but now he's Foreign Secretary and partly responsible for the future of the UK economy for decades, possibly centuries, so who's the last laugh on? Us, of course. What a clown!
So legendary was his capacity for bullshit, and so much of it was he propagating, that the EU launched a Boris Johnson inspired fact checking service in 1992. It would almost explain why perhaps he wanted shot of that organisation.
Today's bullshitters can be found both on the right and the left in the form of Breitbart and the Canary. Different politics but similar approaches. I'm always slagging the right so let's take The Canary. Their trick is to spin non-stories into absolute outrages and then complain that the BBC/MSM (mainstream media) aren't covering them. Despite that, in the vast majority of cases, they've actually found these stories on the BBC/MSM. Every single story is a bombshell that should bring the government down and, when it doesn't, their readers, much like those of Breitbart, get more and more agitated and unable to reason with people who may have perfectly sensible reasons for thinking differently to them. Not everything's a conspiracy, some people do bad things in good faith, but the Canary pays its journalists by clicks which, unsurprisingly, leads to clickbait and encourages lazy, mock shock, features.
Little Atoms lengthy investigation into Hasbro games and its involvement in the Magdalen laundries in Ireland was picked up by some Canary style commenters whose Tories are evil, Blairites are evil, everyone who disagrees with me is evil, schtick creates an ever smaller circle of 'trustworthy' people and makes change ever more difficult.
Reidy and Ball also touched on Russia's weaponisation of fake news and the Macedonian fake news gold rush. There's serious money in this fake news malarkey and none whatsoever in writing blogs about it it seems. Ball suggested that even though shadowy Russian forces are behind many things we need to make sure we don't think they're responsible for everything. Some fake news is much more mundane and simply acts to attract traffic to online casinos etc; It's not all part of a geopolitical info war but some of it is. We need a way of knowing what's what and that's not that easy when so much bullshit is around.
It was good to end an illuminating and interesting day of deception, lies, and hoaxes on a great big whopper and Reidy asked Ball what his favourite fake news story of all was. He had to go for the one that some Trump supporters had spread that saw Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton owning a stockpile of 30,000 guillotines and a huge, secret, prison in Alaska that could house up to 2,000,000 inmates. These were obviously going to be used to execute and imprison American nationals as soon as Clinton was elected. Why Obama didn't use them during his eight years as president wasn't ever explained and there, in a nutshell, is the big problem. If people can believe things that patently aren't true because of a confirmation bias what hope that bullshit is ever eradicated?