A Look at the History of Fake News

It all begins from word of mouth where a simple “he said she said” can turn into hatred between groups, nations falling apart, or even someone losing their life. Rumors and little white lies have been around since humans have gained the ability to speak and stories that sound true but are figments of a person’s imagination have swept their way all throughout history; leaving an impact on religions, politics, economies, and civilizations
Of course, with everything in this universe there is a counter balance. With peace, there is chaos. With matter, there is anti-matter. Since the invention of the printing press in 1439, newspapers have grown to be distributed nationally. With the invention of the printing press also came the national distribution of fake news.
But what is Fake news and why is it something that needs to be addressed?

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Image of Bernardino da Feltre, a Franciscan priest whose ideals caused local terrorism  towards  Jews during the 1400s. Taken From: Verdeazzurronotizie.it

Fake news can have many definitions and isn’t necessarily a concrete concept. At the heart, fake news is a story or report that is made to look real, but in reality holds no truth to it. An early example of fake news was Bernardino da Feltre, a Franciscan priest in the 1400s, giving sermons that labeled Jews as evil “bloodsucking” demons.1 Bernardino wasn’t a reporter, nor did he use multimedia to get his anti-Semitism ideals across. Instead he preached and used religion as his basis for credibility. With that, people revolted against local Jews within Italy and started burning them at the stake.

But sometimes fake news isn’t a complete fabrication or product of someone’s imagination. Fake news can be grounded in reality using statistics and interviews with people that may or may not exist. The ambiguity in that is what allowed journalists during the yellow journalism era to flourish in producing sensational news constructions that were not fact checked or ethically edited.

Yellow journalism was the result of large newspaper organizations caring less about journalistic principle and more about selling papers. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer went toe to toe with each other over selling papers that increased tension between the United States and Spanish countries – particularly Cuba2. In 1898, the Maine – a U.S. battleship off the coast of the Cuban shore – suffered an onboard exposition, sinking the ship and killing crew members. People who witnessed the incident saw that it was all an onboard malfunction that occurred. Pulitzer and Hearst, lost in their glorification of large headlines and fancy leads, rushed their reporters to create fake news stories about Cuba ships attacking United States battleships.

The two creators of the biggest news organizations to date created fake news to seize the opportunity for money and fame. The only cost was kick starting the Spanish-American War of 1898.

“A simple ‘he said she said’ can turn into hatred between groups, nations falling apart, or even someone losing their life.”

All fake news has an agenda that it was created for. Whether it was to trick people to believe that aliens exist or to tell Americans that their president wasn’t born in the country, fake news has an effect on those that read it and those that are involved. Since the election of Donald Trump, many have argued that conservative parties have been the leading force in the creation of fake news, with the goal to undermine liberal teachings and control.3

This is one of the basic principles of propaganda. When it doesn’t matter if the statement you may is true or not, as long as it is said and heard, you will influence a person’s mind. This is a common tactic used in law practice. As a lawyer, even if you know something that you say will be objected against and stripped from the record, as long as the jury heard what you said it won’t be forgotten. The only difference is that in a courtroom setting, you can be held in contempt. In the game of fake news about politicians and public officials, there are no real laws against that. Just like propaganda is protected by freedom of speech, so is fake news. Donald Trump has been called out many times during the presidential election for using false statistics and overgeneralizations. In reality, while it make him look bad for using incorrect numbers, the point he wants to get across is still conveyed and sinks in.

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Poll taken by Gallup Organization demonstrating the decline in public trust in media. Taken From: The Washington Post

America has become more clinical in its view towards the media and “watchdog” news outlets. When an organization debunks or fact checks lies from the government, the revelations do not carry as much weight as it used to in the years of Watergate. Due to today’s generation being more desensitized, we allow things to slip through the cracks and don’t give significant news stories as much play as they deserve. Because of the constant need for new information our society has, so many important reveals have been left behind and forgotten by the time the month ends.

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Above: Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo taken by: Greg Skidmore

A perfect example was Donald Trump firing national security advisory Michael Flynn after the alleged miscommunication he had in relaying information to and from the Russian ambassador. Trump made it his mission to have the man removed then turned around to save face after Flynn was gone by stating that Flynn was “treated very, very unfairly” by the “fake media.”4 This type of story got significant amount of playtime, but never divulged into anything more than the media blowing smoke about the president.

The nation’s desensitization and rise in fake news could be blamed on the ease of access to the internet.  Since the advent of digital publication, the power to be a reporter or news caster has been dished out to many Americans connected to a modem. In the earliest days of the World Wide Web, people flocked to their Macintosh computers to begin typing their opinions about topics previously only covered by official news organizations. Posted within online forums and chat rooms, everyone had an opportunity to speak. If you were one of the lucky ones to register and host your own domain name, you could speak without the fear of a filter.

With the inclusion of the hashtag becoming an emblem of connectivity on the Internet in the past decade, things can be shared with millions at the press of a button. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr all contribute to how fast the wildfire that is Fake News can spread around the globe – burning those that come in contact with it and completely consuming those who believe it. Tools hosting and cheaper cost of hosting has made website creation something that can be picked up in a few hours. This leads to the surge of fake news websites such as The Onion, American News, WorldTruth TV, etc. all appearing to look legitimate.

“Flynn was ‘treated very, very unfairly’ by the ‘fake media.’”

   FactChecker.org quoting President Donald Trump

The term clickbait has also been the topic of discussion. A common practice, even used by news organizations today, is masking advertisements as exciting and unbelievable news stories with a “Read More” button conveniently placed when the most interesting part of the title ends.5  These will usually lead you through a rabbit hole of websites that’s only purpose is to generate money each time you right click on your mouse or visit the page. The use of pictures and text are what makes clickbait so effective. Social Semiotics tells us that a captivating image accompanied by interesting text provides the best chance for user engagement, as opposed to if either of those elements were standing by themselves.

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We are living in a time where many tactics are being used to sway the public’s opinion to either the left or the right. While fake news is not the first one to do so, it is definitely causing many to question whether they trust the media, their government, or their peers. As fake news continues to spread, it is best for people to educate themselves about what effects it can have on our thoughts and actions. While it will never go away, journalists and news organizations need to make a push for the public to understand that their everyday reporting should not be categorized as fake news, while also ensuring that what they are reporting never falls into that category.

Sources:
1 Politico Magazine on Earliest Examples of Fake News: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-214535
2  History of Yellow Journalism: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/yellow-journalism
3 Conservatives Aiming Fake News to Undermine Liberals: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/viva-la-resistance-content/515532/
4 Fact Checking on Trump and Michael Flynn: http://www.factcheck.org/2017/02/trump-spins-flynn-facts/
5   What is Clickbait: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/technology/wp/2014/08/26/what-is-click-bait-and-why-facebook-wants-to-display-less-of-it/?utm_term=.f82049dacbe5
6 Poll and overview of Public Trust In Media after Fake News Crisis: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/03/americans-have-lost-faith-in-institutions-thats-not-because-of-trump-or-fake-news/?utm_term=.aaae9d7fb7ee

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