Verity Johnson: Fake news just got even more sinister

OPINION: I've always thought 'fake news' was a bit like canned cheese - something so disturbing it could only be found in America.

But last night The Project interviewed the leader of Anonymous-style group Kaosis - complete with balaclavas and voice-muffling software. They were the team behind that synthetic cannabis video. It swept NZ via Facebook, supposedly showing users of synthetic cannabis reduced to a zombie-like state.

The video, posted by the dubious 'Hirini Cleaning' Facebook page, supposedly shows a cleaner walking into a property, only to find the owners catatonic after a "synnies" binge. It gathered more than 4500 likes and shares before it was denounced as a total fabrication, filmed by actors and involving precisely no synthetic drugs.

Fake news has arrived in NZ.

The group itself insists the message is real, even if the video is not. Its leader says they are simply trying to raise awareness about an issue which affects everyday Kiwis, arguing they choose to remain anonymous because they want the issue to be the focus point.

Kaonis denies what it did was a publicity stunt. The group's argument seems to be that it doesn't matter that the video is fake as it raises awareness about the real issue. In other words, the ends justify the means.

Except they don't. There is no moral justification for fake news. It's dangerous and completely counterproductive to everything they're supposedly trying to achieve.

For a start, fake news has incredibly dangerous consequences. Fake news is not just silly little online twitterings, but can lead to real life cases of harassment, abuse and even assault.

Just look at the story that alleged Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizza shop. It caused a man to open fire in the restaurant, having turned up to 'self investigate' Hillary's secret life.

Then there's the recent example of the British millionaire accused of pushing a London woman under a bus. He was subjected to a witchhunt by a fit of internet hysteria - despite being in the USA at the time.

Fake news isn't just damaging in a fire-an-assault-rifle-at-you way. It makes people distrust legitimate news. People grow uncertain of who to trust and as a result, we grow a culture where we can't trust anyone.

What's more, the fake synthetics video is counterproductive to the group's supposed goal of highlighting the seriousness of the drugs. If you keep releasing fake videos about synthetic cannabis, people will likely start thinking the drugs aren't that bad. It becomes easy to forget the truly horrific, real videos we've seen, and dismiss the effects as just actors putting it on for the camera.

When you don't know how bad something really is then you're always going to underestimate it. Especially if you'd always thought about trying it.

So no, it's not okay to trick people into watching fake news just because the message is 'worth it'. When there's no guarantee of authenticity, the message is worthless. And worse, it's poisonous.

Verity Johnson is a Newshub columnist and feature writer.