There seems to be a lot of noise being generated lately about fake news. Just about every time I read something about fake news, I get a very real chuckle, because like the vast majority of human endeavors, nothing is new under the sun; not really, anyway. Also, for every legitimate thing, there are at least a dozen counterfeits, knockoffs, or imitations, so there's that. Especially when it comes to fake news. Fake news is as old as writing itself, and probably predates writing by many centuries.
Let's start with oral histories, or "word of mouth". One time we had an experiment in class, which had about 50 people in it. The teacher whispered something in the first person's ear, and then that person whispered in another's ear, and so on and so on. I forgot what was said first and how it ended up, but I do remember that what the very first person said they were told and what the very last person said they were told were in no way similar to each other. Evidently, people naturally distort and filter information before they pass it on to others, either accidentally or deliberately.
The history of various Roman emperors are filled with stories of their greed, sexual perversions, and outright depravity in general, with Caligula being the most infamous. Although many accounts were probably more-or-less true, many of the stories were also created and/or embellished over the years to vilify the Emperors by their enemies, especially if the authors were punished in some way, as many of them were. Propaganda and revisionist histories are very ancient arts.
The American Civil War is widely considered to be the first modern war in that it employed much technology that was never seen before; mass production of everything from muskets to shoes, locomotives, ironclad ships, and telegraphy were among the many newfangled devices that ushered in the modern age. Thanks to the telegraph, it also spawned one of the first instances of reporting by what eventually became the mass media. Union General William T. Sherman quickly became annoyed with the various reporters from New York and elsewhere that swarmed his camps and headquarters, and at one point offered half of his salary for them to NOT to write about him. In addition to his complaints about reporters “picking up dropped expressions, inciting jealousy and discontent, and doing infinite mischief”, he also had other things to say about reporters and journalists:
"If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast."
"I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are."
“I think I know what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.”
“You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better.”
No better or more accurate statements could be made, and are every bit as valid today as they were in the 1860’s.
Another leap in the world of fake news was during the golden age of what came to be known as Yellow Journalism. According to someone named Frank Luther Mott, Yellow Journalism is defined by the following factors:
- Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news.
- Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings.
- Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts.
- Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips.
- Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against “the system”.
The Yellow Journalism practiced by both the Hearst and Pulitzer organizations led directly to the Spanish-American War. The English writer Evelyn Waugh accurately sent up Yellow Journalism, and sensationalist journalism in general, as well as the power that the media has over people, in his novel Scoop:
“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up in the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand words about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spread-eagled in the deserted railway, you know? Well, they were surprised at his office, getting a story from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it on six international newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in, too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, a state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny, and in less than two weeks there was an honest-to-God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. That’s the power of the press for you. They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing description of the carnage, but that was color stuff.”
So, in closing, keep in mind that fake news is like advertising and propaganda in that rather than truly trying to keep someone informed, it’s really trying to influence somebody to think and act a certain way. My advice is to unplug every once in a while, avoid the internet as much as possible, and stop making Yahoo or something similar your home page. I used to have Yahoo as my home page, but it got to the point to where every time I brought up my browser, I would get angry at the first things I read. Yellow Journalism is alive and well!