17 May 2020

My Contribution to the Fake News Media

On this day 10 years ago we launched the worlds first fake news site!

OK, there is a lot untruthiness to that statement and like the site we created, it's a mix of fact and fiction. First of all, I don't have any evidence of it being the first fake news site, it probably wasn't the first per se, but was perhaps the first convincingly real one. Let me tell you why I believe that to be true.

After hearing me speak at an event where I described the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) and the Out of Box Experience (OOBE) we developed for VoodooPC, I was approached by best-selling thriller author, Jeff Buick.  He was inspired to do something new with the narrative of a thriller, a crossover with the faction genre, making the characters real and interactive, set in the real world. This set the stage for what became a very exciting project, called One Child - one that would evolve and end up consuming my life for the next few years.

As part of this One Child thriller project, my company, Francomedia, launched a fake news radio station called 'WKIO NEWS' as part of our story world and a touchpoint for the One Child canon. The idea for this came part way through development of what became the worlds first thriller novel using transmedia storytelling.

How could we make elements of our story seem real when the narrative setting is the real world and he real media isn't talking about it? Let's make our own media outlet!

Heck, I already had some experience in building a news site, the first company I ever founded took a Gay Magazine online in 1996 - no biggie today, but back then - wow. Transmedia storytelling was still very much nascent with a blue ocean of what was possible when combined with the emergence of social media and the advancement of new technologies making connectivity across platforms easier than ever.

My creative team had just come off doing an ARG for a gaming company and had been working on experience design projects for a number of years. This was a highly creative team, inventive, smart and with no fear in pushing boundaries of what what possible - which we did often and had the awards to prove it. I was fortunate to be surrounded by such an amazing team.

Going into details on the entire production could fill a book, so today, I will focus solely on the fake news site, it was truly a small piece of a much larger multi-platform project.

Most of the assets from the project - all part of the One Child story world, including 27 social media profiles, 9 web sites, 1 blog are dead but many live on in the world of the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive.

WKIO NEWS was created as a New York based news radio station to promote our project but also to disseminate elements of the story in a 'real news' format for the readers. We chose 510 AM as our home on the dial - a non-existent position given the AM frequency goes up from 535 with no stations below 540 - an obvious marker of it not being real. The name was chosen for a few reasons; WK indicates it's US based, but also we were big fans of WKRP, the IO was a nod to the technology making all of this possible (ones and zeros), at the time we created this handle, it was still available. In 2013 however, an already operational radio station changed its call sign to WKIO.

In the end, we wanted the experience to be as real as possible but with some obvious markers to ensure it wasn't 'too real' and we included a statement in all our assets that it was created as a work of fiction.

In 2010, most of the radio station web sites were still in their first rendition, developed in the late 1990's or early 2000's - tiled backgrounds, some still using html frames for navigation and lots of pages containing "useful links". Our news site utilized full size background images, an integrated media player and looked way more legit than the legit ones. Our site was convincingly real.

Here's an except from the About Us page on wkionews.com, our fake news site:
WKIO News 510AM started as one of the most popular “Top 40″ radio stations on the dial back in 1961. In 1987, the management team at WKIO News 510AM adopted the news/talk format, becoming one of the most listened to news/talk stations in America. In 2003, the market was changing and WKIO News 510AM changed its format to better suit the market, focusing just on news. Today, WKIO News 510AM is considered the news leader left of 540 on the AM dial. 
WKIO News 510AM continues to broadcast the spirit, energy, and excitement that is found in the greater New York area! With a 50,000 watt clear-channel signal, WKIO News 510AM can be heard in more than half the states and even in Canada! With the advent of internet technologies, WKIO News 510AM has found new fans and listeners from all over the globe.
By all accounts, what we created was a very real radio station. How real you ask? Well, right down to the station's backstory (above), it had a line up of on air personalities - one real, the others a complete fabrication. We had several station ID's created by Roberto Dorazio and voiced by Al Murdoch (the voice of EA Sports) which were used as bumpers on our news stories, news was read by real life radio jock, Murray Vair and we connected to RSS feeds and API's populating the site with news and information from legitimate news sources, including local weather and traffic.

Other than the text articles we posted relating to our story and the daily audio 'live' reports, it was a legit news site - we had contests running, gave away prizes and even had bumper stickers, heck, I still have one on my laptop today.

We released the story in a serial format, giving readers a few chapters per day.  For 30 consecutive days we provided a few chapters daily and at the start of each day's chapter was a link to a 'live' news report which contained actual news (fact) and elements of the story (fiction). Listen to this 'live' news report which mentions Platinus Investments, a fictitious company and part of the story. 

We did one text story, mixed in with the RSS feed and one 'live' news report (2 min audio) every day for 30 days. Both of these contained news of the day as well as elements of the story and had to be recorded and written the day of release - every day for 30 days. This may not sound like a lot, but it's a lot of content and all contributed to the narrative while playing into the story world we had created. 

Many readers believed a lot of the story to be real - some compared it to what it might have been like to experience the War of the Worlds famous broadcast. For it's time there was no other reading experience that even compared to what our team created.

Now, remember, this was 10 years a go and two months prior to the launch of our transmedia storytelling thriller novel, the first iPad was released by Apple. Our book was the first fully interactive novel to be released on the brand new Apple ebook store and intentionally designed to take full advantage of this new reading medium - the experience on the iPad was amazing - seamless transitions from book to audio clips, social media and embedded videos made it quite an immersive experience for the reader.

At the time, the transmedia work we were doing was experimental and 'bleeding edge', a lot of what we did 10 years ago is commonplace today. Creating our fake news site only took some imagination, for us it was really easy to do and the use of RSS feeds, good graphics and a little effort make it almost impossible to tell it from a legitimate news site. Fast forward 10 years and nearly every special interest group has created a site the same result with no 'obvious nod to fakeness' making it indistinguishable from fact.

So, were we the first fake news site? I doubt it. But, were we the most convincingly real fake news site - I believe so. And, if you say otherwise, I will just ignore the truth like the real fake news does now.