When starting a serious conversation about the truth — perception versus reality, what’s real and what’s fake — it might be a bit unorthodox to begin by quoting a comedian. But, in the midst of 2017, with accusations and counter-claims of “fake news” flaring up day after day by politicians at the media, by people at bloggers, and even by the media against each other, it certainly feels well-worth asking the question: how did we get here?
And maybe an even better question when you start to look at the evidence: is creating and falling victim to fake news simple human nature? Is it only the scale, pace and pattern of fake news that’s changed recently?
To me, one of the better ways to start to approach an answer comes from someone who’s personal success and career is defined by an ability to talk to the world in a blend truth and absurdity: Stephen Colbert.
In an oft-cited monologue on the truth and fake news, Colbert warns us:
“It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true..?”
It’s timely advice, particularly at a time when current President Donald Trump continues to attack any and all negative press as fake news, under growing backlash from journalists on both the left and the right.
But you might be surprised to learn that Colbert’s quote isn’t from 2017. He gave that speech in 2005, during the very first episode of The Colbert Report. The president he’s referring to isn’t Trump, it’s George W. Bush, and the split he calls out between objective truth-seekers and people who create their own truths is a rift that’s existed well before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election or the existence of social media.
Trump may be responsible for popularizing the term fake news, but he certainly wasn’t the first person to invent or invoke it.
Fake news actually has a rich and checkered history, stretching from ancient times through the invention of the printing press to present-day comedy publications like The Onion, which published its first issue in 1988. Even the first headline appearance of fake news in a U.S. newspaper dates back to a story about baseball collective bargaining in the June 7, 1890 issue of the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune.
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The Ancient History of Fake News
Any attempt to trace the history of fake news is ultimately left following the history of social persuasion, power, communication, and even language itself. As Merriam-Webster notes, the word “fake” didn’t gain popular usage as an adjective until the late 18th century. But well before that, false news, propaganda, deception, and conspiracy theories have been crafted and weaponized throughout history, often with far-reaching consequences. It’s even fair to say that the use of propaganda to control information flow, shape public opinion, or manipulate behavior is as old as recorded history.
The Chinese scholar Confucius was one of the earliest thinkers to point out the persuasive power of effective communication. Writing in his Analects, Confucius observes that “good” rhetoric, together with certain types of speech and writing, could get people to take different actions in their life. Chanakya, an ancient Indian philosopher, wrote the first known text explaining how propaganda could be applied to warfare around the year 300 BC. In 5th, 6th and 7th century Greece, as Athens became a western hub for culture and commerce, the ruling ancient Greeks shared carefully crafted propaganda through public speeches, handwritten books, theatre, and false documents.
In one episode, fake news likely saved the Greek empire. When a powerful Persian army led by King Darius and his son Xerxes invaded and captured Athens, the Greek commander Themistocles sent Xerxes letters supposedly written by his own spies that contained fake news about the Greek forces. The disinformation persuaded Xerxes to change his strategy and attack the Greeks in unfavorable conditions, where Themistocles won a decisive victory that changed the course of the war.
As historians and scholars later pointed out, one of the reasons Themistocles’s trick genuinely worked was because his fake news sounded like a commonplace intelligence update and closely resembled the truth. Themistocles’s twisted the real news in subtle ways to make his lies believable, Xerxes fell for it, and the rest is history.
Fake news also has a long legacy of stoking racism, anti-immigration views, and cultural division. During the Roman empire, leaders like Cassius and Julius Caesar regularly created and spread fake news about foreigners, warning of German tribes who “hold it a proof of a people’s valour to drive their neighbours from their homes, so that no-one dare settle near them,” or Scottish tribes who “inhabit wild, waterless mountains and lonely, swampy plains… unclothed and unshod, sharing their women and bringing up all their children together.” The stories were successful scare-tactics for the Roman people, and increased popular support for military invasions to defend the empire and impose their culture on the ‘savage’ foreigners.
Caesar was also an early innovator when it came to sharing news. Recognizing that the most widely-circulated object in his empire was money, Caesar minted different types of picture coins to show his military victories, putting the same image in the hands of every citizen across the country. One could even argue that coins were the first form of “social media” in human history — small messages that could easily be shared with anyone.
A new era of fake news was ushered in by the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, a development that significantly increased the spread of propaganda, particularly religious literature.
By the time the Reformation was underway in 1517 over 200 different European cities had printing presses. Any news-creator with sufficient financial means could mass-produce pamphlets or leaflets. These short documents were easy to share and easy to conceal from authorities if they contained controversial or anti-establishment views, such as the ones evangelizing the Protestant faith.
It’s important to note that much of this early religious “propaganda” was promotional literature that aimed to persuade people, but wasn’t intentionally dishonest or deceptive. The word “propaganda” — derived from propagation — first came into use in Europe from missionary activities led by the Catholic church. Pope Urban VIII even created a College of Propaganda to train priests for Catholic missions.
But other opportunists and religious zealots soon started using printed propaganda to spread fake news.
When Hanno the elephant, a famous pet of Pope Leo X, died in 1516, the Italian writer Pietro Aretino created a fictional pamphlet “The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno.” The piece was a viral hit, launching Aretino’s career as a satire writer. Soon Aretino was employed by the Medici’s and closely involved in Italian political intrigue, blackmailing political opponents by threatening to spread fake news about them and trying to manipulate elections with his writing.
Fake news pops up again in 18th century Paris leading up through the French Revolution. In one of the earlier examples of a successful “free press” that operated independently from the Church, the ruling class, or the wealthy aristocracy, French propaganda writers circulated sensational pamphlets called “canards,” which inspired the popular, modern-day French paper Le Canard Enchaîné (“the Chained Duck”), which specializes in political scoops. For all the intellectual progress of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, it did little to diminish the circulation and sway of fake news.
In London during the Colonial period, foreigners were again a common target of fake news spread by publishers who supported the British Empire’s occupation and oppression of India and other colonies. Early academics also began to study the effects of propaganda and fake news during this period, including Gustave Le Bon, whose book “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” (1897) later influenced the writing and thinking of Sigmund Freud, as well as Adolf Hitler and the Nazi propaganda strategy he deployed in World War II.
Fake news also has early beginnings on the other side of the Atlantic. Due to similarly unreliable sources, long distances, and a highly-fragmented, immature local press and postal system, fake news and false accounts were rampant throughout domestic coverage of the American Revolution (not to mention the related issue of low literacy rates). Even some of the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, created fake news about British King George III to spread fear and mobilize their fellow citizens.
After America won its independence, the trend of biased, partisan press continued, leading then-President Thomas Jefferson to write a strikingly critical letter to a Baltimore news publisher. Fake news, writes Jefferson, is a worse sin than even “suppression of the press” entirely:
“It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” (1807)
Fake News in the First Era of Mass Communication
For centuries, lack of an independent free press and undeveloped communication infrastructure made it particularly challenging to circulate truthful reporting and fact-check or counter false stories. Even prominent early newspapers that reached mass-distribution actively spread fake news.
In 1835, The New York Sun, one of the largest American newspapers at the time, ran a six-part fake news series about the discovery of life on the moon, full of fantastical artist depictions of moon people, supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.
The series, “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made,” wasn’t great for The Sun‘s long-term reputation, but it was great for short-term sales, which shot up after the ‘story’ hit.
For newspaper publishers, fake news was a fast path to profitability. Even the New York Herald, one of the most widely-read and respected newspapers in the 19th century, got in on the game, publishing a front-page article in 1874 claiming animals had escaped from their cages in the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging around New York City. Editors at the Herald claimed the story was published to draw attention to unsafe conditions at the zoo, but only small fine print at the bottom of the story clarified that “the entire story given above is a pure fabrication.”
The disclaimer was wildly insufficient. According to historical accounts, the Herald’s article triggered widespread panic throughout the city. Schools were cancelled, the NYPD was mobilized, and men rushed into the streets with guns to hunt for the animals and defend their homes.
But around the turn of the century, the tide began to turn against fake news as more publishers hired beat reporters and worked to rebuild public trust. In 1896, Adolph Ochs purchased the struggling, unprofitable New York Times, and refocused it on (relatively) objective journalism and business news.
Still with each new communications medium, new opportunities to spread fake news emerged.
In 1938, Orson Welles’ re-enactment of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on a Halloween radio show triggered national panic and media backlash for describing an alien invasion taking place across the country. The show’s use of a news-bulletin format to tell a fictional story was widely condemned, and became one of the first major cases reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), formed a few years earlier by the Communications Act of 1934. But, much like Aretino’s fantasies about Hanno the elephant, the fact that the news was fake did little to detract from its creator’s newly minted fame.
Largely however, the rise of radio and later TV broadcast journalism from the 1940’s through the 1990’s captured and consolidated American public attention in a way that blunted the reach and influence of fake news. False stories could still emerge in local markets, regional papers or from individual reporters, but a limited number of daily national broadcasts from journalists like Edward R. Murrow could reach tens of millions of people instantly, orders of magnitude beyond other media sources.
This era of a powerful, centralized and free press using mass broadcast technology is, in some ways, unique in human history. With no access to broad distribution, fake news was no match for the strong voice of network journalism during these decades. Even anti-communist and anti-civil rights fake news flare ups during McCarthyism, the Cold War, or from the conservative John Birch Society’s campaigns, were largely confined to privately-funded advertising and local coverage. Hoaxes didn’t have the hosts to spread.
But in the 1980’s and 90’s, fake news began to creep back into our cultural consciousness. The primary reason? A small group of media entrepreneurs realized fake news could be a successful business model.
The emergence of modern tabloid journalism had many early participants, but few as influential as Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, an Australian-born media mogul, began buying newspapers in Australia, the United Kingdom, and later, the United States, and turning them into sensational tabloids.
The word “tabloid” itself originally derives from an English pharmaceuticals company named Burroughs Welcome & Company, which trademarked the term to describe a pill (tablet) filled with compressed powder. But over the years tabloid evolved to become a word Londoners commonly used to describe anything compressed, which led to the print tabloid: a compressed paper that contained only short, popular — and often fake — stories about celebrity gossip, crime and politics.
After early media success in Australia and England, including the British tabloid The Sun, Murdoch bought his first America newspaper in 1973 the San Antonio Express-News. But Murdoch’s first domestic media success came from his second and third papers, Star, a supermarket tabloid, and The New York Post. In 1984, Murdoch used his newspaper profits to diversify into film and TV, purchasing 20th Century Fox for $250 million, which included the Fox Broadcasting Company.
On October 7, 1996, Murdoch and Fox launched a new cable TV show, Fox News, under the leadership of long-time GOP operative and Richard Nixon advisor Roger Ailes.
The late Ailes was a man of many colorful quotes. Asked once about journalist participation in a Nixon campaign event Ailes organized earlier in his career, Ailes responded: “Fuck ’em. It’s not a press conference – it’s a television show. Our television show. And the press has no business on the set,” according to Nixon biographer Rick Perlstein.
Given free reign by Murdoch over Fox News’ style and programming, Ailes approached fake news like entertainment with a political agenda. “He’s got a niche audience and he’s programmed to it beautifully,” remarked a former Fox News colleague. “He feeds them exactly what they want to hear.”
From lies about environmental research and attacking climate scientists as partisan extremists to claiming Barack Obama is a Marxist, Muslim, black nationalist, Ailes scripted and controlled Fox News’ coverage to match his political views. And for the demographics Fox News targets, those views were a commercial success. In 2002, Fox News became the top rated cable news station in America.
And to anyone who’s support for free speech extends all the way to undisclosed, politically-motivated and around-the-clock public disinformation campaigns, it’s quite the coup.
“Forget facts and figures,” Ailes once once told Ronald Reagan during a meeting. “Go on the offensive.”
Fake News in the Age of Social Media
If Ailes’ Fox News was a megaphone for partisan fake news, social media has evolved over the last 15 years to become its most dangerous echo chamber.
On social media, fake news is a behavioral arbitrage within an attention exchange. A cultural-meets-commercial opportunity.
And it’s spread is linked to a simple formula:
As news that’s often designed and engineered to be surprising, scary or anger-provoking, fake news triggers strong emotional reactions by people who encounter it.
Awe, anger and other “high-valence” or “high-arousal” emotions make people more likely to share something.
Social media newsfeed algorithms are designed to filter and promote “the best” content to their users, so news articles that receive high engagement and sharing rates are more likely to get algorithmic promotion to additional members of the network.
This cycle repeats, and the virus spreads and propagates.
And “virus,” as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (the thinker who coined the term “viral media”) notes, is the right analogy to use:
“That’s why the extent to which we are infected by Donald Trump says less about him than it does about our immune response as a society. A virus doesn’t make us sick unless we lack an immune system capable of recognizing the shell and then neutralizing the code. Until we do that, the virus replicates, and our immune system goes berzerk, giving us the fever, chills, congestion, or vomiting — which manifest in culture as media confusion, protests in the street, sleepless nights, and Twitter wars.”
And social media is the perfect circulatory system to help viral media spread.
In an interview with Phil Howard, leader of the Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, a group that studies misinformation on social media, 60 Minutes host Scott Pelley asked Howard about the scope and impact of fake news in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.
Pelley: How much of this news on Twitter in Michigan was, as you call it, junk news and how much of it legitimate?
Howard: Well, in the case of Michigan, we found that the proportions were about equal. The junk news with stories that had not been fact-checked and that came from organizations that were not professional journalism organizations, was about as much as the amount of content coming from the professional news organizations.
Today, Facebook is used by over 2 billion people, 26% of the world’s population, while Twitter hosts 328 million monthly active users. And social’s unprecedented reach has made fake news far more distributed, while at the same time giving it access to newfound distribution leverage. From Macedonian teenage hoaxsters to domestic fake news opportunists, the news ecosystem and our understanding of truth has never been more complex, protean, and harder to police.
An increasing body of objective research makes it clear fake news shared over social media was a major influence — along with voter disenfranchisement — in Trump’s 2016 Election victory over Hillary Clinton. Moreover, specific hoaxes like the Soros paid protesters outcry and PizzaGate show how quickly even fringe conspiracy theories can spread across Reddit, 4chan, Facebook and Twitter. Under mounting pressure, Facebook just announced it will hire 1,000 new content and ad editors to police fake news and foreign propaganda to stand in for its newsfeed algorithms that fundamentally failed to distinguish fact from fiction.
And Facebook needs to move quickly. A more recent 2018 study by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University that looked at fake news during the 2017 French presidential election between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen found that Facebook significantly shifted reader attention away from trusted news sites and toward fake news sources.
Left to their own devices, French news readers selected to get their political news from trusted news organizations like Le Monde and Le Figaro (light blue, left).
However, when Facebook starts to influence and regulate the news conversation, it shifts clicks, comments, shares and reader attention away from top news sites toward a broader set of fringe and fake news sites.
In one case, researchers found, “Facebook interaction… generated by a small number of false news outlets matched or exceeded… the most popular news brands. In France, one false news outlet generated an average of over 11 million interactions per month — five times greater than… established news brands.”
The Reality Ahead
While social networks have stepped up their accountability and many helpful, non-partisan resources have been created in recent months to help consumers identify fake news sources, the stats today remain sobering. In a recent Politico/Morningstar poll, 46% of Americans — and 76% of Republic votes — believe the mainstream media publishes false stories about Trump. More broadly, after decades of press empowerment and consumer credibility-building in the mid-20th century, overall public trust in the media has gone into a period of consistent, secular decline.
Fake news is far from a new phenomenon, and 2016 would be only one of many cases throughout history where lies, deception and propaganda helped overturn a political balance of power. What has changed — and will continue to change — is the world, and trends like globalization, demographic shifts, income inequality and technology access that continue to trigger cultural anxiety and resistance among those who feel threatened by them.
For the people who do view modern change as something to fear and fight, and long for a different-looking time and place that likely no longer exists, it may be especially tempting to fall for the allure of fake news. In that self-made reality, fiction likely is more palatable than fact. But that’s a familiar story of self-deception that’s almost as old as humankind itself.