In a normal year, the media would be heading into the so-called silly season, when a summertime lack of real news encourages them to fill the gap with the oddball, the frivolous, and the entertaining.
The term was coined in the 19th century to describe the slow news period that starts at the end of July, when the United Kingdom’s Parliament went into recess and politicians and those who wrote about them had disappeared on their annual holidays.
The concept spread to most of the Anglophone press, and beyond. French journalists call it “la morte-saison”－the dead season.
Classic themes include UFO sightings, freak weather warnings, and animals behaving strangely. A favorite that earned a large crop of headlines in recent years was the story of a British woman pensioner who complained her holiday to Spain had been ruined because there were too many Spanish people there.
After a half-year in which every front page and news bulletin has been dominated by COVID-19 and the global battle against the pandemic, it could be argued that the news-consuming public deserves a bit of light relief.
“Aliens are living in underground tunnels on Mars formed by lava billions of years ago, experts suspect “was a recent headline on the UK’s Sun website.
“Flying ant day strikes Isle of Wight－seagulls ‘drunk’ after consuming insects” proclaimed the local County Press.
Both headlines were silly season archetypes: both contained at least an element of truth.
Scientists had indeed theorized about finding traces of ancient life in caves beneath the Red Planet. But that scarcely supported The Sun’s hype that some version of little green men might still be living there.
As for the hordes of flying ants, they were indeed heading for southern England－as they do most years in the breeding season－but the evidence for intoxicated seagulls appeared to be little more than hearsay.
Like most silly season stories, both were fairly harmless exaggerations. However, more damaging reports can make it from social media to the front pages.
A discredited British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, recently resurfaced to claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is a plot by pharmaceutical giants, aided by governments, scientists, and the media, to force the world to be vaccinated.
It makes for good headlines and, to be fair to the press, all their reports dismissed the theory put forward by someone who lost his medical license for falsely claiming the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine caused autism.
It could be argued, however, that the better option, even on a slow news day, would be to ignore him entirely, rather than feed the paranoia of the one-in-four Britons who say they would refuse any future novel coronavirus vaccine.
In the United States, where editors are scrambling for new angles in a pre-election silly season devoid of set-piece political events, crackpot theories are also making it to the mainstream.
A range of serious media have honed in recently on the so-called QAnon movement, a growing online conspiracy that promotes the idea that the world is controlled by a satanic cabal of pedophiles that has infiltrated the media, politics, and entertainment.
Concern has been expressed that QAnon’s influence now extends to candidates running for election in November.
Before the last presidential election four years ago, the conspiracy theorists behind QAnon promoted the fiction that Hillary Clinton and Democrat elites were running a child sex-trafficking ring from a Washington pizza restaurant. In December that year, a vigilante gunman took a weapon to the restaurant and opened fire in a bid to liberate the non-existent children.
Social media, on which such conspiracy theories have proved notoriously difficult to control, have been the main driver for fake news. But equally, mainstream media, by transmitting such theories even as they denounce them, have played a role in their propagation.
In the old media environment, readers and viewers generally got the joke. The silly season was a time to relax with a few exaggerated and harmless tales and take a break from conflict and politics.
These days, it could be argued that it is silly season all year round, with increasingly bizarre theories making it to the mainstream.
We might miss the summer silly season if it disappeared altogether. But perhaps the headline writers should stick to aliens on Mars and drunken seagulls.
Harvey Morris is a senior media consultant for China Daily UK.