WITHIN days we should learn what type of nerve agent was used, and whether the victim is expected to recover from the attack – but it’s likely to take much longer for the full geopolitical consequences to become clear. I’m talking, of course, about the latest plot development in Homeland, the US espionage drama that started from the premise of “you don’t need to be mad to work for the CIA, but it helps”, and has been running with it for seven series.

Many viewers abandoned the show when they considered it had become too far-fetched ... which is a shame, because now real life has caught up. Indeed, the writers had to hastily incorporate an assassination plot into series six so their boringly level-headed president could turn against her nation’s intelligence services in dramatic fashion.

Of course, many previous TV shows have proved prescient, but UK viewers may be having a particularly hard time distinguishing fact from fiction at the moment. Homeland’s first assassination by nerve agent was screened here just three weeks before the events in Salisbury, and the first suggestion Russia was behind that fictional killing came when Sergei and Yulia Skripal were still in critical condition.

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So is this merely throwaway Sunday-night entertainment, or could it be something more sinister? Is there a mainstream-media conspiracy to churn out “Russiaphobic” propaganda and reboot the Cold War? Many certainly seem to think so, and a number of factors are fuelling their suspicions.

Firstly there’s the fact that the UK has a comedian for a Foreign Secretary – a man who, a mere 20 years ago, was best known for appearing on Have I Got News For You. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that Boris Johnson cannot possibly be as incompetent as he appears, and that his incompetence must therefore be a cover for nefarious behaviour. Certainly Mr Johnson is neither stupid nor the total buffoon he played for laughs and prime-time exposure, but it’s entirely possible he simply isn’t on top of his brief. Did he really mean to suggest scientists at Porton Down had told him – directly – that the Novichok used to poison the Skripals had come from Russia, or was he simply busking his way through an interview and hoping for the best? It’s hard for most of us to conceive of the arrogance required for the latter, but most of us didn’t go to Eton and Oxford.

Secondly, there’s the sheer weirdness of the events in Salisbury, which at first glance appeared to come straight out of a Le Carre novel but got stranger and stranger as more information was revealed. When I first read that Sergei Skripal kept a pair of pet guinea pigs – the animals that are literally synonymous with experimental research – I assumed it must be nonsense. When I read in the Daily Mail the claim from “a close friend” that he spent hours alone in his home playing Russian war games and stroking his pets, I wondered if someone had been pulling the journalist’s leg.

Commentary on the death of these rodents has queried why no-one checked on them before they died of thirst, the whereabouts of their remains and whether the Government’s account of what happened to them can be trusted. In all of this my key question – how many adult men keep guinea pigs as pets? – seems to have been neglected. Is no-one else wondering that? If not, should I just don a tinfoil hat and be done with it? If you’d said two months ago that I’d be sitting here googling “guinea pig autopsy results” I’d have told you not to be so ridiculous.

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Thirdly and fourthly, and most importantly, there’s the inconvenient recent history of the US and UK starting wars on false pretences, combined with the overwhelming volume of information – and misinformation – now available online. When the “dodgy dossier” claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was issued to British journalists in 2003, Facebook didn’t exist and Twitter was still three years off. The British public had to watch Channel 4 News – or read about its investigations in the papers – to learn why this source was not quite what Tony Blair and his colleagues were making it out to be. Now, however, news, views and wild claims are everywhere, and can spread like wildfire within minutes.

The latest art installation by the brilliant David Mach, which went on show in Glasgow this week, aims to convey “the flood of information we receive daily”. It’s an imposing work made out of thousands of newspapers containing a volume of information

that no individual could hope to properly digest and evaluate. It also incorporates hazard warnings and radiation symbols (another timely artistic reference), perhaps to convey the sense that just being in close proximity to this overwhelming amount of reading material can be hazardous to our health.

So where can a line be drawn between healthy scepticism and easy-to-dismiss “conspiracy theory”? The suggestion that Russia did not carry out the attack on the Skripals is certainly not up there with the claims that 9/11 was an inside job or the moon landing was faked, but some theories about the broader motives of the UK Government (scaring us into keeping Trident, waging war to avoid indyref2) take us into far-fetched territory. Right?

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The big problem here is that we’ve been lied to before, and now we don’t know who’s telling the truth, Facebook recently introduced new controls to combat the spread of fake news on its site, but who will police the news

police? On Friday the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the changes “will make it a lot harder for anyone to do what the Russians did during the 2016 election and use fake accounts and pages to run ads.” But by Tuesday he was being grilled by two US Senate committees about how Cambridge Analytica got its paws on the data of Facebook users.

It all makes you nostalgic for the days when the top-rated TV shows were about navel-gazing New Yorkers and alien-hunting FBI agents. We may not yet have found proof of extra-terrestrial life, but perhaps Mulder and Scully had the right idea: trust no-one.