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A Real History of Fake News

A Real History of Fake News

It has a long, not-so-illustrious past.

John Maxwell Hamilton, Heidi Tworek
1 Herald:     News, news, news!
2 Herald:    Bold and brave news.
1 Herald:     New as the night they are born in.
2 Herald:    Or the phant’sie that begot ’em.
—Ben Jonson, News of the New World

If the past half-dozen years have a defining concept, it may be the refrain “fake news,” a phrase that former President Donald Trump claims to have invented. In the last year alone, books with those pungent two words in the title have described beauty pageants, theology, pregnancy, clinical engineering, sports (Did the Truth Even Matter, Book Two: Fake News, Felons and Football), and, of course, politics.

“From 2016 onwards, the political state of play has changed—disinformation narratives are how you play elections,” said one researcher in November 2020. In 2016 the State Department created the Global Engagement Center, whose mission is to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”

But is fake news really news? In one sense, perhaps. Technological advances that enable the dissemination of fake news have themselves accelerated. In the process, politicians have learned to throw the term “fake news” around indiscriminately, as when another President, Richard Nixon, repeatedly hauled out the phrase “national security” to dismiss the Watergate investigation and other inconvenient inquiries into his administration’s activities.

In another sense, though, fake news is not novel at all. It was widespread from the very beginning of newspapers as we know them. In fact, the long and broad history of faking is an uncomfortably integral part of the news itself.

A convenient starting point is 1622, when a London printer named Nathaniel Butter made journalism history by starting the first British newspaper. This was a step forward from the so-called manuscript news services previously available to gentry and political leaders, who could hire someone to compile snippets of current affairs information from abroad. Now, thanks to Butter, many people could imbibe the news.

The seed of Butter’s Certain News of the Present Week grew into a flourishing news industry that enlarged the sphere of public discourse in England. The process occurred in other countries as well. The thought took hold that knowledge-empowered citizens would produce better societies. “From little compartments of the type case [sic] in printing shops, great and generous ideas will come forth,” said Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a keen observer of French politics in the 1780s, “and it will be impossible for man to resist them.” With gushing enthusiasm over this development, he prophesied, “Everything had a general and clearly distinguishable tendency toward perfection.” By the 19th century, members of the British Parliament expressed concern that they no longer held much power to lead, given the sway of journalism over British subjects’ opinions.

These same ideas washed up on the shores of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, among other Founding Fathers, said the press was more valuable than government itself. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers,” he said, “or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The 1792 Postal Service Act subsidized the exchange of newspapers through the mail, enabling the cheap movement of information. “Of all the countries in the world,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the early 1830s, “America is the one with both the most associations and the most newspapers.”

But something else about Butter’s newspaper endured as well. The News of this Present Week was disreputable. It was not just that Butter had a shaky grasp on grammar and proofreading. Nor was it his inconsistency in deciding what constituted news. (He could not even make up his mind as to what to call his newspaper, which also appeared as The Last News, More News, and Brief Abstracts out of Divers Letters of Trust, Relating the News of the Present Week.) Indeed, the problem was even more profound than any of those shortcomings. It was that when Butter published something that was not trivial, it was often made up.

This, too, would take hold with other newspapers. In one of his less optimistic pronouncements about the press, Jefferson said, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Perhaps the first critic of disreputable “faking” was Butter’s contemporary, the playwright Ben Jonson. Not long before Butter printed his first weekly—on Fleet Street, which would become London’s newspaper district—Jonson, in News of the New World, from which the quote at the top of this essay is taken, noted the “curious uncertainties” that pervaded manuscript news services. Five years later, Jonson attacked Butter directly in a satirical play called The Staple of News. Thus, an innovation that promised greater enlightenment arrived hand-in-hand with confusion, derision, and fear.

Despite Donald Trump’s claim that he invented the term “fake news,” it can be found in newspapers in the 19th century. Here is an item from the Los Angeles Times of May 15, 1891: “The City of Mexico promises to eclipse the reputation which Willcox, Ariz., held during the Geronimo outbreak as a manufacturing point for fake news.” Around the same time, books appeared with titles like Fakes in American Journalism (1914) and Facts and Fakes About Cuba (1897). The former was written by a socialist who thought the press did not treat his political point of view with sufficient sympathy. The latter exposed the false news that American correspondents served up about the Spanish-American War.

The fakery was not confined to political reporting. Medical advertising was ubiquitous in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with many suppliers promising impossible results. Until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began regulating the field after its establishment in 1906, overblown claims about miracle cures provided a significant portion of newspapers’ revenues.

This history is worth recalling when we look at the mounting contemporary concerns over fake news. True, technology has contributed to the proliferation of bogus information. Today, fake news travels far and wide in the blink of an eye. Technology also allows for anonymous reporting, which means that “journalists” who purvey the “news” do not have to take heat for their actions.

But, as powerful as technology is, the roots of fake news lie in human nature. On the eve of the Enlightenment, as masses of people acquired greater ability to think for themselves, uncover facts, and report them, they often found it more fun and profitable to make things up, as Butter did.

The rise of fact-based journalism in the 20th century helped curb these excesses. The costs of entry into newspaper publishing soared, something that Upton Sinclair decried in 1919 in his muckraking The Brass Check. (The brass check reference was to tokens given to women in brothels for their services.) Few could afford to buy expensive presses and populate newsrooms with talented reporters. The newspapers that thrived became more professional, not only because journalists liked the idea (they were respected and paid more) but also because owners found it good business to provide high-quality news. Although this news was not without many flaws and the coverage not without lacunae, its relative reliability attracted advertisers who sought credibility.

This economic model is now broken, thanks in part to technological change. Advertisers don’t need newspapers in the way they did before. More, the hegemony of principled editors over the news has eroded. Once upon a time, no newspaper would publish a story claiming that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. Now, even the best newspapers are obliged to report about the story, at least to discredit it, lest they seem detached from public discourse.

This brings us to another human factor. People have long glommed onto news that confirms what they think is true. Germans believed that Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated on November 9, 1918, because it made sense in the dying days of World War I. In fact, the news was spread by Chancellor Max von Baden, who wanted to forestall revolution in Berlin. The Kaiser did not actually abdicate until weeks later, from his base in exile in the Netherlands. But because the abdication story made intuitive sense, many history books still repeat the false narrative about the Kaiser’s abdication.

When the New York Times tries to discredit fake news, it often achieves the opposite result: Readers are reminded of the original story, and those who believed it before are likely to be reinforced in their view. After all, if you believe that Hillary Clinton is into sex trafficking, you are likely to think the New York Times is happy to cover it up.

History tells us that faking is here to stay. An excellent reading list for students by Alice Marwick, Rachel Kuo, Shanice Cameron, and Moira Weigel highlights the fact that disinformation shaped the United States from its foundation and has been continually intertwined with race, even up to anti-Asian sentiment during Covid-19. Meanwhile, although the FDA has largely rid newspapers of medical disinformation, such disinformation continues to exist and wreak havoc. Purdue Pharma spent six to twelve times as much money promoting OxyContin to physicians than Purdue’s competitors did for their products, contributing to OxyContin’s prominent success. Erroneous claims about its non-addictive nature helped fuel a proliferation of prescriptions. Medical disinformation spread an opioid epidemic that has claimed over five hundred thousand American lives.

This history does not mean that improvement is hopeless, but improvement will not come unless root causes of fakery are considered.

Many commentators have pointed to foreign interference and geopolitics as factors in misinformation. While these are part of the story, the history suggests two other crucial factors. The first is economics: People fake because it makes money for them. Some people, like Alex Jones, have combined political disinformation with the sale of superfluous vitamin supplements.

The second factor is the underlying domestic political situation: Researchers have shown that Americans disseminate more fake news because of polarized partisanship than they do for other reasons. This partisan motivation may be exacerbated by the design of social media, but social media did not cause polarization. As Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor have pointed out, we need to address racial inequalities and other problems in U.S. society rather than just “reactively blaming technology for democratic problems.”

Social media platforms can and should address the economic motivations behind faking. But it is up to politicians and citizens to improve the civic health of American society.

John Maxwell Hamilton is the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor in Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. He is author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda (2020), which recently won the Goldsmith Prize.

Heidi Tworek is associate professor of international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia. Her most recent book is News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900–1945 (2019), which won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel Prize and the Ralph Gomory Prize.

TechnologyUnited States