Fake News: Collins Dictionary made it their word of the year 2017, following an explosion in use. Despite Donald Trump’s claims, it existed as a term long before he popularised it. The term describes untrue or misleading news stories spread for the purpose of financial gain, manipulation of people’s opinions or even just for attention. Because of its shocking, sensationalist and/or absurd nature, it often spreads faster and further than the truth. It can be hard to spot, especially when spread by news sources deemed “legitimate.” Fake News is swiftly worsening social divisions in our society, turning us against each other. But how did this happen?
As long as we’ve been distributing the news, fake news has existed.
An article for BBC Bitesize has traced the concept of fake news back to Ancient times. They detail how Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, overthrew Mark Anthony as commander. He generated a campaign of fake news, slandering Mark Anthony through poetry and slogans, which he distributed. Octavian overthrew Mark Anthony, then ruled as emperor for 40 years, despite his lies. This is a clear example of the manipulation of public opinion using early forms of media, but of course on a smaller scale to modern times.
Fake News becomes more prevalent with the invention of the printing press. It spread throughout Europe in the 16th Century. News can now quickly get to the masses. Later, the end of the 18th Century brought the debate of ‘free press’. To the opinion that “free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public,” President John Adams wrote in 1798 that “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798…” Free press means that governments and rulers can’t suppress the news for their own benefits. However this leaves the medium open to manipulation and falsehoods.
We can see an example of states using the press for this manipulation with wartime propaganda. For example, have you heard that eating carrots can make your vision better? Or even see in the dark? This was a propaganda campaign from the UK Ministry of Food during WW2. They pushed that pilots’ carrot heavy diets were the reason the British Air Force was defeating Germans planes. An attempt to conceal radar technology. After this has been debunked, the myth persists 80 years later. In this case the fake news was harmless, but it proves how long it sticks around.
And then Social Media came along…
The increase in fake news after the invention of the printing press was nothing compared with what social media would cause. The ability for information to spread at lightning speed arrived, much untrue. A major problem is when misinformation is spread to social media and picked up by ‘real’ news sources. Back in 2012 there was a story about a wealthy banker leaving a tiny tip and a rude message for a waiter on his receipt. His colleague photographed and posted the receipt online, where it spread like wildfire and spurned mass outrage. News sources picked up the story (such as CNN). But, the restaurant revealed it was photoshopped. Social media villainised an innocent man after a perfectly normal meal out, just to make clickbait.
Then we see the health misinformation that’s so popular now. Even in 2014 we were struggling with it during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Just as now, medical advice from questionably qualified individuals and sources proliferated. Useless and potentially lethal “cures” were spread around. Fear and doubt targeting the healthcare workers desperately trying to treat the disease caused further issues. And this was just local. It triggered mass panic abroad, encouraging racist ideologies, just like with Covid now.
I’ll finish with the obvious example of the 2016 US Election. Many sources suggest that fake news helped Donald Trump to win, believed by his supporters and previous Barack Obama voters. Some popularly believed stories promoted by Trump, largely on social media, include Hillary Clinton being in very poor health, and that she “approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists.” Even, absurdly, that Pope Francis endorsed Trump. As previously mentioned, he even claimed to have coined the term ‘Fake News’, despite Hillary Clinton having used it previously in a speech. Trump made liberal use of the failings of the free press and social media when it comes to spreading misinformation.
So that’s the history, but where are we now?
In my next post, I’ll discuss the challenges we’re facing with fake news in the present, generated on and worsened by social media.