Belgian public television announced last night that Flanders, the Flemish-speaking half of the country, had declared its independence. It was, of course, just a joke, but many Belgians took it very seriously. Many were outraged that the French-speaking channel had dared to make light of a subject that is, in reality, highly sensitive. The RTBF station argued that the fake headline was intended to spark serious debate, a few months before an election in a country with distinct divisions between its French and Flemish-speaking regions. The broadcast was so convincing that thousands of viewers were taken in. Telephone switchboards and news websites crashed under the weight of concerned users.
There is strong support in the Flemish north of the country for separation from the Francophone south, meaning the false news was not so unbelievable. Some nine out of ten viewers initially thought it was true. The stunt provoked fierce criticism from politicians. A government spokesman called it ‘irresponsible’ and ‘bad taste.’ The leader of the French-speaking regional parliament said it was ‘unacceptable.’ But if the aim was to get people talking, then it certainly worked.