A Brief History of Fake News

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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:


  1. Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news.
  2. Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings.
  3. Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts.
  4. Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips.
  5. 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!


Jeff Jackson Added Jan 5, 2018 - 9:50pm
Nice work Michael. If I may plug one publication, The Wall Street Journal, if you prove them in error, they will publish a correction. They frequently publish articles that challenge their opinions from leaders, or people in authority. BTW, I love Uncle Billy, the nickname of William Tecumseh Sherman. He did a lot of nasty things, but as he said, war is hell.
Michael B. Added Jan 5, 2018 - 10:08pm
Mr. C, for some reason, I'm reminded of some dialog from Dr. Strangelove, with the Soviet ambassador and President Muffley discussing the Doomsday Device:
Muffley: But this is absolute madness, Ambassador. Why on earth would you build such a thing?
Russian Ambassador: There were those of us who fought against this. But in the end, we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time, our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our Doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we'd been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a Doomsday gap.
Muffley: This is preposterous! I've never approved of anything like that!
Russian Ambassador: Our source was the New York Times.
Actually, whenever I'm truly interested in something, as a matter of routine I cross-check against different sources. Agreed, if a vastly disparate collection of people and/or sources is more-or-less saying the same thing, there is usually something to it.
Michael B. Added Jan 5, 2018 - 10:10pm
Thanks Jeff! Yes, Uncle Billy was a character for sure! Several years ago, I saw one of his uniform coats in a museum, next to a Minie ball-laden tree stump, both from Shiloh. He spoke from experience.
Dino Manalis Added Jan 6, 2018 - 8:43am
Opinion is important, but it has to be presented as such, not news, because some won't believe it anyway, so it's essential to present your data credibly and responsibly.
Michael B. Added Jan 6, 2018 - 10:30am
Funny, I often see what I call "The Battle of the Links." Somebody supports their argument with a bunch of links, and the opposing party does likewise. Analogous to monkeys in a tree flinging their shit at one another.
Michael B. Added Jan 6, 2018 - 11:22am
Mr. C., yes, true that. In my world, data usually talks and bullshit usually walks. But it all depends on what you're trying to accomplish, and of course, who and what you're dealing with. I worked at a law office some years ago, and both sides would deploy their own "expert witnesses", who were hired guns for the most part.
Michael B. Added Jan 6, 2018 - 1:53pm
Yes, that's what I like about most science - you're either right or you're wrong. Not much gray area there. Unless you're a meteorologist, of course.
George N Romey Added Jan 6, 2018 - 2:04pm
With the 24 new cycle came opinion dressed up as facts. Of course we've had fake news all along to a certain extent.  However, once the news went from 30 minutes local and 30 minutes national to many, many more hours all those additional networks and venues had to fill up that time in more interesting ways other than watching the Hooterville Fire Department rescue Arnold the Pig from falling in an abandoned well as Fred and Doris Ziffle looked on with horror in their eyes.
Bill Kamps Added Jan 6, 2018 - 2:17pm
DO rely on media sources that have a long history of reliably reporting the news. 
Chris, which news sources would those be?  The ones that didnt report why we were in Viet Nam, the ones that didnt report that LBJ was stealing millions, the ones that didnt report how the White House was a brothel for Kennedy's use, the ones that pushed the Warren Commission at US citizens despite its many flaws, the ones that missed the fall of the Soviet Union, or the fact that Iraq didnt really have WMD?  the list is almost endless of the things that the press failed to report or covered up over the years.
And dont tell me the press didnt know these things, I was in the Soviet Union during the 1980s, anyone with a brain could SEE it was falling apart.  You just had to go there.   And yet the press helped to prop it up so we would keep spending more on the military, just as it is doing today, exaggerating the Russian threat.  Russia has an economy smaller than that of Italy, when was the last time the New York Times stated that context?  When did it really look at why NATO is necessary given that Europe's economy is 10x that of Russia and it outspends Russia by 5x on its defense.
As Michael rightly points out, virtually ALL reported news is wrong, either by laziness, bias, lack of proper context, being given wrong information, or covering up "for the good of the country", which went on in spades before the age of the internet.
One of the big challenges we face going forward it sorting out fact from fiction.  You can find conflicting "facts" on the internet for almost anything that is debated these days.  So even if you bother to do some independent research it is tough to know what "facts" to believe. 
Bill Kamps Added Jan 6, 2018 - 2:38pm
Indeed, how do you know that your accusations are true?
Chris, as just one example.  After enough time passes, and many, many people report how LBJ stole millions while in office, it is assumed to be true.  Show me a reliable source that now says he didnt.  These same sources also said the press was well aware of it, but covered it up "for the good of the country".  Thankfully these days, that couldnt happen.
In the past before the internet, it is pretty well agreed that the press "edited" the news.  They could because there were so few outlets.
Today, its not possible for the mainstream media to hide much.  Today we are plagued more by laziness, and sometimes by bias in the reporting. 
The Economist is agreed one of the better sources of news.  However the Economist doesnt cover everything, so there is still a lot of grey out there.
Michael B. Added Jan 6, 2018 - 3:44pm
Another thing to consider is media concentration. I know a working journalist, and for the longest time, a paper he wrote for rarely edited his stories. Then it was bought out by a large media company, and the editing of his stories got much more active. Then it was bought by another huge media company, and his stories were meddled with so much, he said "Fuck it" and quit. They relented somewhat and got him back, but he still hates it - the only saving grace is they still pay him the same for his stories and interviews.
Michael B. Added Jan 6, 2018 - 4:43pm
Mr. C., all of the above. The fact that they would micro-manage a journalist with 30+ years of experience says a lot. No, it wasn't "heightening standards." He was actually fired from other publications for writing articles they didn't like, and one for his political activity that had nothing to do with his job. Otherwise, they're just like any other corporation, who bring in their "own" people and discard those they feel aren't going to be "a good fit."
Stephen Hunter Added Jan 6, 2018 - 5:33pm
Old becomes new and the cycle continues, you are absolutely right Michael, nothing new about fake news. 
Ari Silverstein Added Jan 8, 2018 - 9:14am
The way I see it Fake News is news you know to be false, yet release it anyways under the guise that others may think it’s true.  With that as the guide, I think every accusation of “fake news” can be easily identified.  Generally speaking just about every story would be legitimate news, with only a select few constituting of fake news.  I would also point out that there is a difference between news and opinion, obviously anything that’s opinion can’t be labeled fake news either. 
As it relates to this article, I couldn’t disagree more with the assertion that fake news is news that tries to influence somebody.  All news can be loosely described as news that tries to influence people.  Furthermore, there is probably the same amount of fake news on the internet as there is elsewhere. 
Bill Kamps Added Jan 8, 2018 - 10:23am
- it was considered to be a private matter with no political significance. It wasn't "news". 
I said they were editing the news for the "good of the country" and you say they decided "it wasn't news".  I dont think there is a  big disagreement here. 
Whatever the rationale, the point was simply  that the media was editing the news in a way that wouldnt be possible today because of the internet.  We can debate whether it was better or worse then.
Yes of course LBJ, like most politicians who receive favors, was clever enough to hide what he did under the guise of plausible deniability, or actions that could not be proved criminal in a court of law.  We do know he went to Washington essentially a pauper and left office worth around $100 million, back in the day when a million was real money.
Politicians today continue doing the same thing.  These pages in WB are filled with speculations about what the Clinton Foundation may  be doing, and that is all we can do is speculate because the people running it are pretty clever, and that makes it difficult or impossible to prove wrongdoing.  Even if the Clinton's are engaging in "wrongdoing", just as with LBJ it doesnt necessarily mean they  are breaking the law, and even if they are, it doesnt mean it can be proven in a court of law.