There Has Always Been Fake News--And We Can Learn From That

"A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on."
--Terry Pratchett, The Truth

What better way to discredit something than to call it "fake news?" What better way to subtly deride your political opposition by bemoaning the "post-truth world" that we now live in?

It seems difficult to argue against the idea that fake news plays a larger role in our society today than it did 10 or 20 years ago. In 2016, the top 20 fake news stories got more traction on Facebook than the top 20 real news stories. The Internet has made it ever-easier for people with no credentials or credibility to have a say and be amplified, by tapping into our lizard-brains. We have the tech to make our own BS more viral, more quickly.

But there's a risk to thinking that we are in some unique moment in history, or having false nostalgia for some time back in the day when everything was trustworthy and you didn't have to be a discerning reader. That time probably never existed. Fake news has ebbed and flowed in its power through history, but we're certainly not experiencing anything unprecedented. 

(Why is over-estimating the uniqueness or scope of this phase of fake news risky? Because it gives you license to decide everything you don't like is fake news. You don't become vigilant about fact-checking, you just end up becoming even more ideologically and factually isolated.)

Fake News in History

The first written fake news at mass scale started with the printing press itself, though of course before that, false stories of Jews drinking children's blood or women making pacts with the devil and becoming witches could still move like wildfire through a countryside and lead to mass murder of the slandered. There were no journalistic standards of any sort, and no way to verify what you read. Some people believed it, and other people quickly knew they could make money (selling pamphlets) or push an agenda by writing whatever they wanted.

Since then, there have been periods where fake news flourished, and areas where it was more under control.

In the 1600's, politically-polarizing fake-news pamphlets became popular in England, and may have contributed to the English Civil War. 

In 1782 Ben Franklin printed a straight-up BS fake issue of a Boston newspaper to publish straight-up fake BS about Native Americans carrying white scalps with a letter for the King of Britain pledging their loyalty and support. 

In the early 1800s, modern industrialized newspapers as we knew them in the 20th century became a thing, and immediately they published sensational fake news in order to increase circulation, such as telling of alien civilizations on the moon, complete with drawings. Throughout the century, yellow journalism grew in circulation and magnitude of BS, including the torrent of fake news around Cuba that sparked the Spanish-American war.

Interestingly, it seems the general consensus is that (with the exception of war propaganda), the 20th century was an ebb in the tide of fake news in the Western world. 

Fake News as Foreign Policy Weapon

Beyond our own domestic fake news concerns, there's the Russians, too.

The Russians aren't the first people to use a false-flag style propaganda machine to cause discontent in their enemies' populations. Radio Free Europe was a project funded and operated by the CIA to spread propaganda to Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Such propaganda was directly meant to cause discontent among residents stuck behind the Iron CUrtain. Sometimes the information was accurate, sometimes it was horsehockey. Most interesting, though, was the fact that the US Government supported a facade that RFE was funded by donors and operated independently. It was made to look like a free press, rather than the agent of a spy agency. Sound a bit familiar

My Hypothesis

The first fake news came out as soon as Gutenberg started ripping pamphlets off his printing press. Yellow journalism followed. Now we have internet-based fake news, with all the advantages of Photoshop and other forgery.

I have a theory, and it is this: when we encounter novel ways of digesting information, as a society, we are highly susceptible to being deceived. Over time, as new generations grow up with those information technologies, they become more savvy and begin to better understand what markers tell of truth and what tell of BS. They learn to question, and there is an incentive for this: when you are easily deceived, you are easily scammed out of money. Consider for example the proverbial grandparent who was scammed by a Nigerian Prince email. Young people would never fall for this. Before the Nigerian Prince email, there was selling shares of the Brooklyn Bridge. (For those of you unfamiliar, the phrase, "if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you," comes from real-life examples of hucksters printing off forged shares of stuff like bridges and selling it for money.) 

When you're good at spotting BS in new information technologies, you start to use that. That savvy allows certain institutions to establish themselves as credible by demonstrating validation or other markers of truth. In the 17th century, the UK created institutions such as the Royal Society to be bastions of truth, and educated citizens formed salons and clubs to get to the truth for themselves. In the 20th century, newspapers started using better practices, citing sources, and creating as an industry their own journalistic standards. It brought about nearly a century of fairly trustworthy news. Fake news never went away, of course--tadbloids have always sold well on supermarket shelves.

Some technologies also help make it easier to verify information (at least for a time). Take the invention of the photograph. Readers knew that photographs were much more reliable sources of information than drawings--they were hard to fake. Now, of course, they are much easier to fake, and if we follow the trends of the past, people will in time rely on them less. Perhaps a new form of verification or proofing will take over (there is a strong incentive for that in the courtroom, and that may provide the initial demand that eventually leaks over into media).

I particularly appreciate Pratchett's novel, The Truth, as a colorful satire of a population first encountering a new source of information. Readers of the brand new newspapers in Ankh-Morpork (the city in which the story unfolds) wonder briefly about incredible stories, and then assure themselves that nobody would print it if it wasn't true, and move on. We giggle at them both because we feel we have moved a bit past that gullibility in some ways, but that we share it in others. 

We have a tendency to believe things for two reasons: one is that we think the source is credible. The other, and maybe more important, is that we really want to. This may be why people were so quick to believe that protesters had been bussed in to Austin, or that the CDC somehow had 7 words banned that so many people bought T-shirts over. Given that we're in an age where our sources of truth (both institutional and popular) have become so numerous that we cannot keep track of them, it can be hard to establish credibility. So, perhaps, we lean towards trusting what we want to be true.

But if the pattern of history holds, we will get used to this new information revolution in time. There are incentives for us to find the truth, and we'll therefore develop the techniques, technologies, standards, and practices that make both truth and BS easier to identify. Smart people should absolutely do the work to speed this up. At its heights, fake news has caused untold horror--from witch-trials and pogroms, to the Spanish-American War, to the current discord we face in this country now. I tell this cyclical story not to make you complacent, but to get you thinking: what innovation can we develop that will more quickly bring about the next stage in the cycle?


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.