It was a big week in fake news.
On Monday, the English tabloid The Daily Mirror reported singer Robert Plant turned down $800 million for a 35-date Led Zeppelin reunion. You may have seen the headlines.
According to the story, which was quickly picked up by scores of other media outlets, the offer came from mega-millionaire Richard Branson. Plant took 48 hours to think it over, then tore up the offer, right front of the promoter.
Or rather, he didn’t do that at all, because the story was a hoax.
Those following the story knew it was a hoax within hours, when Plant’s publicist was contacted and called the story “rubbish.” But it was a day before the original story was removed from the Daily Mirror website.
Such is the world of “viral news,” an open market based on the consumption of mass amounts of information, regurgitated as quickly as possible (thanks Facebook and Twitter).
See also: “U2 singer Bono’s Ebola,” “Street artist Bansky arrested” and “Actor Macaulay Culkin dies” (again).
You can understand why these types of stories might get passed along as truth. A Led Zeppelin reunion would have fans — across generations — peeing their pants in anticipation. The band could reunite tomorrow and sell out tours for the next half-decade, easy. Less popular bands have done well reuniting for pennies on $800 million. So, an offer might make financial sense for both Branson (especially since he’s a Zeppelin fan, as the Daily Mirror story made sure to point out) and the band.
That Plant would say no is also within the realm of possibility (if not reason). He shared these thoughts about a reunion tour on the website NME in May: “You’re going back to the same old s---. A tour would have been an absolute menagerie of vested interests and the very essence of everything that’s s----y about big-time stadium rock. We were surrounded by a circus of people that would have had our souls on the fire. I’m not part of a jukebox. There’s always a possibility that they can exhume me and put me onstage in a coffin and play a tape.”
There was a time when these kind of stories would have died in their tracks. Editors at non-tabloid news sources would no doubt scoff at a story in which the sole source is identified as simply as “the source” (as was the case in Daily Mirror story). The power and danger of “viral news” lie in the fact that it exists outside the realms of “reputable” news sources. That the Zeppelin story was false is almost secondary at this point, given the worth of “trending stories.” Some topics are too big to be ignored, even if they are fake.
I’ll admit to being taken in by the Zeppelin story. I was halfway through posting on The Bee’s entertainment blog, www.fresnobeehive.com, when I realized the whole thing was most likely a hoax. I updated the post accordingly. Others did not. CNN’s website ran the story with the quote from Plant’s publicist tacked on to the lead graph: “Robert Plant has reportedly thrown a wrench in another ‘Celebration Day’ for Led Zeppelin fans — though his publicist said the report was ‘rubbish.’ ”
These kinds of stories actually make for a lucrative business model and the reason sites like the Daily Mirror exist at all. They also put at risk the credibility of the entire news industry and the complete alienation of readers, who must ready themselves for the day when every scrap of news (even silly stories on aging rock stars) must be vetted for authenticity.
The day might be closer than we think.