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16 April 2024

Joe Lycett’s self-serving fake news stunt

The comedian’s shallow, faux-educational prank merely bolsters his own brand.

By Sarah Manavis

How do you solve a problem like disinformation? With regulation? Education? As media literacy has failed to improve, public trust in journalism has evaporated and those spreading fake stories have become craftier at placing them. Fake news is responsible for some of our most insidious conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and has derailed conversations around important issues like vaccine uptake and climate change. Experts have suggested we address disinformation in several ways, from legislating tech companies to teaching children to spot fake stories. There is universal agreement that this problem is complex, multi-faceted and requires a robust and urgent response to begin reversing the already substantial damage disinformation has caused.

However, a novel solution to the fake news problem has been put forward by the comedian Joe Lycett: make more of it. In a video posted across his social media accounts at the start of April (promoting the second season of his Channel 4 show, Late Night Lycett), he told his fans: “I’ve got a game for you to play: the world’s been turned upside down by fake news and I hate it – unless I’m the one faking it.

“For the last month, me and my team have been planting stupid, silly fake news stories about things that never actually happened,” Lycett explained, “in the hope that they would take up space that more hateful or polarising fake news might otherwise have used.” He went on to say these stories appeared across the media – in the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Metro, even on the BBC – and encouraged people to, in the meantime, share what they think might have been fake stories using the hashtag #IsThisJoe. All would be revealed in the premiere episode of the new season which aired on Friday night.

A week-long frenzy of people sharing absurd recent stories – such as the viral Willy Wonka experience in Glasgow or a story about a poorly made sculpture of Paul McCartney – followed, as social media users speculated on whether Lycett’s team were behind it. Fans praised Lycett as a genius – thanks to him, everyone was questioning all the news they had seen! Others commended him for exposing the “useless” and “incompetent” media who let these stories slip by. On Friday night, the fake stories were revealed: a man who had a bruise that looked like Prince Harry; a Banksy that appeared in Lycett’s home town, Birmingham; and a study about men’s penis sizes in the same city. None of these made a particular splash, though the fourth, which claimed that the Welsh town of Cowbridge was putting up a statue of Ian “H” Watkins from Steps, had attracted more attention. Since this reveal, Lycett has been widely celebrated, and his stunt has been hailed as an illuminating, cunning success.

Lycett has certainly been effective in showing that fake stories can be nefariously planted into the mainstream press and fool journalists. But – if we think about it for more than half a second – what value is there to this gag, really, beyond boosting Lycett’s celebrity and Channel 4’s ratings? It’s not hard to argue that one of the biggest buzzwords of the past ten years – “fake news” – is something the general public cannot detect very well. But what does Lycett’s stunt teach us? That, uh, fake news… exists? That PRs can write convincing emails that are typically taken in good faith? His moral framing feels confused: is it really a good thing that a set of silly lies made it into the press, rather than the “hateful”, “polarising” stories Lycett tells us normally make headlines? This is a faux-educational, self-righteous prank that shouts about its own importance without saying anything at all.

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Despite his half-baked premise of highlighting a global problem, Lycett doesn’t teach us anything about how fake news usually proliferates (through hard-to-track social media posts, rather than mainstream, trusted news sources), and his ridicule of fake news fails to present it as a serious issue. Instead, this lauded “exposé” does little more than act as a dishonest, self-serving, self-congratulatory publicity stunt – one that only adds to the problem it claims to address. It undermines the severity of disinformation as a phenomenon by reducing it to a mere punchline (one that – even putting aside these problems – fails to be clever or funny).

The hoax’s shallowness makes us acknowledge a real problem without engaging with its causes. Newsrooms are desperately under-resourced. The people who published Lycett’s stories aren’t flashy presenters with inflated egos, or self-satisfied newspaper editors churning out punchy stories to turn a profit – they are likely inexperienced, exhausted journalists who published ten other articles that day just to take home less than the living wage. What we’re supposed to be laughing at isn’t especially clear.

In times where trust in the news is chillingly low, we need public figures to advocate for investment in our media outlets, so journalistic scrutiny can improve and regain public trust – not contribute to the vilification of journalists that the term “fake news” was infamously coined to incite. Lycett hasn’t exposed the problems in contemporary media – he has obscured them. The only thing he has drawn attention to is himself.

[See also: The fight to save the fractured Union]

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