FAKE NEWS INC.
It started small, nearly innocent, and quite by accident, far from what it eventually became - a quicksand of lies and secrets. And once in, there was no way out. Deeper and deeper I sank.
All began on the day my former school pal, Ashok, came to visit me. We chewed the fat for a while, talked about our childhood on the estate, about my computer science studies at the Uni but I noticed he was kind of down and when I asked him, he said that Prisha, his girlfriend of two years, had just dumped him.
Prisha was a dishy chick with doe-like eyes, pearly laughter, small pointy breasts, and a pert ass. I wouldn't have minded dating her myself, but she went out with Indian guys only and, apart from getting the occasional Saturday tikka masala with lemon rice and mango chutney, there's nothing Indian about me.
She was Manish Singh's daughter, one of the Manchester Indian Association leaders with a lot of clout in the local community. Ashok was in awe of him because one of his words could make or break an Indian Briton in the city. And one word from Prisha, the apple of his eyes, could make the old man jump off the roof of the Gandhi House without as much as asking one question. So Ashok had a lot to fear because Prisha dumped him because of his constant infidelities.
"She made a big deal out of it," he said.
"It was just some innocent arsing around, but she went ballistic and finally told me to sod off."
"Sod off, then" I answered. "Or are you so in love that you just can't let her go?"
"Nah, man. I'm in trouble – in shit up to my neck," he snorted with scorn.
"The problem is she said she'd tell the patriarch and then I'd be a rotten potato in Greater Manchester and twenty miles around. And if pop squeaks, I'm done sauce. No self-respecting Indian family will ever let me into their house, I'll stay celibate forever, there'll be no dowry and my mom will die of shame. I might just as well shoot myself."
"You've got no gun so you'd better jump off the Betham Tower," I tried to lighten the mood, but he waved his hand desolately and left shortly after.
The same evening, he whatsapped me a video. It was grainy and dark, and I could barely distinguish the back of a slim woman with black flowing hair, naked from the waist up, sitting on top of a nondescript guy, making a lot of grunting noises.
Ashok phoned a few minutes later.
"Listen, man. You study computers at that fancy university of yours. Could you just somehow fiddle with the video and make the man under the girl shout "Prisha". Like it is her and me and like I'm coming?"
"Why would I want to do it?"
"Because we are friends and because it would give me something to keep the broad at bay. If I have this video, she'll keep her gob shut. And then I can just put things behind and get on with my life. Water under the bridge."
I fell silent for a moment and thought that I actually owed him. Ten years ago, when we were kids living in Fallowfield, Ashok got me out of serious trouble after I'd been caught stealing beer at Wasim Choudhury's corner shop on Wilmslow Road. I could still remember the big man's tight grip on my left ear as he led me away to the police station with the evidence, a sixpack of Carlsberg, stashed in his bag. The thing is, it was the second time I had been caught so a youth court was inevitable. My desperation was so great I was prepared to lose my earlobe rather than my freedom. Eel-like, I twisted and turned and, with my ear still intact but red and swollen, I managed to break free and run away – straight to the doorstep of Ashok, my best buddy. And when the shopkeeper, accompanied by two cops, came knocking, Ashok, who'd given me a bag of frozen broccoli florets to bring down the swelling, swore I'd been with him the whole time. Choudhury, red with rage and impotence, promised he'd get me one day while I made faces at him and the cops over Ashok's shoulder.
For the next two years, every time I had passed his shop, I'd pick up a pebble and throw it at the window. I must confess that I'm a vindictive kind of guy and if it weren't for the bloody cameras that Choudhury had installed all over the place, I would have probably petrol-bombed the shop.
With time, my longing for revenge decreased a bit but never disappeared completely. And I always felt grateful to Ashok for having helped me avoid doing time for a juvenile misdemeanour.
As years went by, my teen delinquency was all but forgotten, I finished secondary school with top grades and got to study computer science at the Uni,
"I guess I could," I said now. "But it's not her, is it?"
"Of course not! She's not the kind of a girl who eats carrots. All she let me do was play with her tits through the T-shirt! Never managed to get her knickers off. But that's not the point, man. I just want something to keep the gobby bitch quiet and to stop her from being such a fuckin' obnoxion."
The video lasted about twelve seconds and in the eighth, Power Direct Pro 365, the software I use to manipulate videos, implanted an extra sound. Now amidst the grunting noises, the man lying quietly under the slim woman shouted a joyful: Prisha! It was truly a piece of cake.
I sent Ashok the video and the same afternoon it was uploaded to Twitter. In half an hour, it had hundreds of views and was re-tweeted over and over. I watched the little re-tweet rectangle go crazy and the comments underneath grew more and more vicious, both from the people who knew Prisha and those who didn't. By the end of the day, Prisha was a trending topic.
Was I surprised? Hell, no! Statistics say that fake news spreads six times faster than real information. I observed the process with a clinical interest because the phenomenon has always fascinated me.
By midnight, Prisha closed her Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. By dawn she was dead.
Ashok called me early in the morning, his voice breaking with panic.
"She killed herself, dude! She did, the daft cow! Can you believe it, man? She just went and killed herself!"
It was odd. Instead of the same panic that honed his voice to scalpel-like sharpness, I felt a strange stirring in my gut – like the sensation you get when your belly is full after you've eaten an extra-large portion of burger and chips and dream about touching Angelina Jolie's bajingo. In other words – Watermelon Sugar, as Harry Styles would say.
"Calm down, man. You didn't do anything wrong. It's not your fault," I said.
"I never wanted this to happen. I just wanted her to keep her gob shut, that's all. But if her old man thinks I had something to do with it…" Ashok was half crying half choking.
"Don't you do anything stupid, man. Erase the video, reformat your phone, or even better get rid of it. If someone asks, deny everything. You know nothing about it."
"But you do believe me, don't you? I never even sent it to her, and I didn't upload it either! Someone must have hacked my phone!"
I imagined him all wonky, sniffling, wallowing in self-pity instead of feeling sorry for the dead broad. And I did believe him because it was I who posted the video. But I said nothing. Instead, I tried to reassure him that everything would be fine.
"Calm down, bruv. It´ll blow over in a few days."
I was right. At the inquest, the coroner declared it was death by suicide and Prisha was cremated together with a ton of white calla lilies and with her reputation tarnished beyond repair. Old man Singh was tearing his beard out with shame while I felt nothing watching the funeral procession and the display of grief from a distant spot at the Blakley Crematorium.
That was the last I heard about it. Strangely, Ashok never got in touch with me again either to talk about the whole incident or about anything else. For him, the whole affair was indeed water under the bridge or rather "dead girl six feet under". And so was our friendship because I held the key to the closet where he kept his skeletons.
You could ask why the hell I posted the video. My answer would match George Mallory's when, in 1924, he had been asked about the reason for wanting to climb Everest. Because I could. Because it was there. Because I felt like it. Because it gave me a buzz. Mallory never made it to the summit and simply vanished in the blizzard. I, on the other hand, got a result beyond my wildest expectations. It was supposed to be an experiment. I was just dabbling in messing up someone's life and never expected Prisha to kobain herself. But it proved that fake news was a powerful tool, a kind of a virtual monkey wrench that I held and could use to my advantage and other people's harm. It fired me up, gave me a sky-high boomwha like no other thing I could think of, not even my wet dreams about Jolie's bajingo.
So what about my friend with Ashok? Screw it. I paid my debt to him and that´s that. In a way it was a new currency, not unlike a bitcoin or digicash because it was also electronic. I never thought Prisha would go and off herself. Collateral damage – both Prisha and my friendship with Ashok.
I wasn't after fame or newspaper headlines - instead, I liked the idea of being a master puppeteer, an éminence grise whose identity was known to no one but who pulled the strings from the shadows of the backstage.
From my gaming days, I remembered a quote in Utopia, a real-time strategy game, taken from "The Art of War" by an old Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu: "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate."
And that´s what I was - a modern-day Hitchcock who wrote the script for the slasher but who never got his hands dirty with blood. I remained forever formless, mysterious, and soundless, directing my opponent's life. And death.
After Prisha's kamikaze act I realized I could finally rekindle my all but forgotten revenge on Wasim Choudhury- rancor was still smoldering under the ashes of the past and all it needed was to poke a little at the embers.
Nothing occurred to me for a while. Choudhury was a quiet family man whose most serious transgression I'd ever seen was to spit-polish the occasional Granny Smith or handle crumpets and scones with dirty hands. When he was not selling Mars bars and Juicy Fruit, he'd sit in front of the shop and finger the 100-beaded Misbaha, mumbling God´s most beautiful names for hours on end. And he was social media illiterate, without an account on Twitter or Instagram. I checked.
But I didn't have to wait long for the opportunity to fall into my lap out of the blue in the unlikely figure of Ariana Grande. Or, rather, of Salman Abedi who detonated a homemade device at her concert in the Manchester Arena. The bomb killed twenty-two people, mainly kids, and youngsters, and injured more than five hundred. Abedi also blew himself up to high heavens and for his Intihar, he was rewarded with the company of seventy-two virgins who waited on him hand and foot (although I really doubt that they could find his hands and feet after the blast).
You might ask, what does it have to do with Wasim Choudhury? Everything. The moment I saw the headline "Manchester bomber carried bomb for hours in blue suitcase" under Abedi's picture, I knew I had Choudhury in my net (or Internet).
I told you that the shopkeeper was a family man. He was also a proud father of two strapping boys: 23-year-old Ahmed whom I vaguely knew from the Uni, and Hamza, a riotous teen who used to play football with my brother John.
It took me barely twenty minutes to hack Ahmed´'s Instagram and download a photo which I photoshopped adding a large blue suitcase, the exact replica of the one Abedi had lugged around the city for hours. Using a fake account, I posted it on Facebook and tagged quite a few people from the Uni and some neighbours from Fallowfield and then sat down with a beer and salt and vinegar flavoured crisps to wait for results.
Those of you who are of the Internet generation must be familiar with the expression "going viral". The photo not only went viral, but it spread like wildfire in the Australian bush. Before the afternoon was over, a group of people gathered in front of Choudhury´s shop with clubs and stones and ten minutes later no window was left intact. Inside, orange juice and milk blended with squashed bananas and hot cross buns.
The next morning the press reported that "an unidentified 23-year-old was arrested Tuesday in South Manchester in connection with the bombing. Police also said they had executed two search warrants in the city, including at one location where they conducted a "controlled explosion" to gain entry to the search site."
It didn't matter that they eventually let Ahmed go but as he had been arrested under the Terrorist Act, he spent the most terrifying 14 days questioned about his links to the bomber. And dad Choudhury had to abandon the shop and Fallowfield because no one wanted to buy cigs and booze from a man whose son might have been involved in the deaths of twenty-two innocent people. And while I remained formless, mysterious, and soundless, the game was over for Choudhury. Checkmate.
I finished talking and looked around the room. There was a guy by the door who wore a conspicuous, well-tailored suit. From where I was sitting, I caught a whiff of the rank smell of a secret service agent. Across the table there sat two men in uniform whose grade I could not establish but guessed they belonged to the upper echelons of the military hierarchy. Next to me sat a pretty, forty-something woman dressed in a somber black dress with a string of pearls who I knew to be the Big Boss's chief advisor. And his lover.
The Big Boss sat at the head of the table smelling of Acqua di Gio and his own self-importance. While I talked, he nodded from time to time and the protuberance in his throat slid up and down as he swallowed air. His skin was blotchy with orange spots, moisture dewed the unnaturally short patch of flesh between the upper lip and the nose, and the eyes, heavy-lidded and slanting, gave the impression of a simian cunning. And while I could interpret the expressions of the military guys and the woman, and even get into the head of the secret agent, the Big Boss betrayed no sign of what was brewing in his mind - there was simply no vibe coming from him.
"When I came here you asked: can you and will you help us win this election by whatever means it takes?" I said looking directly at him.
He did not blink.
"The reason why I told you how I got to where I am and how I don't give a damn who gets hurt in along the way as long as I obtain the results that I want is for you to draw your own conclusions. But if you still need a straight answer then I will spell it out: ladies and gentlemen, Manchester Analytica is at your service. Let's do it, let's win this damn election and if it means trampling on the opponent, hanging him out to dry, so be it. I can produce fake dirt on the man himself, on his drug-addled kid, on his wife, and even on the man's long-dead grandmother. Because all that matters is the power of fake news and how it lets us get to wherever we want to be," I was out of breath when I finished.
Everyone in the room was silent, all the eyes on the Big Boss.
And then he spoke.
"That's a fabulous guy we have here," he beamed at me.
"The type of guy I like".
"This guy will help us turn it around, and we're gonna start winning again! We are gonna win so big! We're gonna win at every level. We will keep winning and it´s gonna be fabulous! Fantastic! And we'll make the other guys squirm when we win! God bless this country because we will make it great again!"
"Bob's your uncle," I thought. "The Big Boss has spoken, the fake news contract for the elections is mine and I am a rich guy. And now that there is no way out of the quagmire I'd better just plod on, bro, just plod on."