This month, Facebook began prompting users in fourteen countries to read a guide on the fake news phenomenon, with a list of tips that included being skeptical about headlines and checking the source of the story.
‘False news is harmful to our community, it makes the world less informed, and it erodes trust,’ Facebook’s Adam Mosseri said. ‘All of us – tech companies, media companies, newsrooms, teachers – have a responsibility to do our part in addressing it.’
Is fake news a new phenomenon?
Not at all. It turns out, the more things change, the more they stay the same, or as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
1. The King’s Health is Failing
Back in the mid-1700s, during the height of the Jacobite rebellion in Great Britain, seditious printers printed fake news, even going so far as to report that King George II was ill, in an attempt to destabilize the establishment. Such fake news was picked up by more reputable printers and republished, making it difficult to tell fact from fiction. Responding to complaints about the practice, Attorney General Dudley Ryder wrote in a letter:
As the publication of such false news of his Majesty, has a tendency to disquiet the minds of his subjects, hurt public credit, and diminish the regard and duty which they owe him, I think the doing it with such views is an offence punishable at Common Law, and for which an Indictment or Information can lye [sic]. And the frequency of such publications is evidence of such wicked designs. But as every false report of this kind which may arise from mistake only cannot be charged as a crime, so it is very difficult to say how often it must be repeated in the paper to make it criminal… I don’t know any method to prevent this practice but by prosecuting the offenders when they are guilty.The English Press in the Eighteenth Century - Routledge Revivals. Google Books. 2010.
As long ago as this was, printing fake news about the Monarchy was not new in the 1700s either. In 1693, a printer by the name of William Anderton was tried at the Old Bailey for High Treason when he published two tracts designed to incite the population to rebellion against the King and that called for the restoration of the Late King James.
On Thursday in the Afternoon, William Anderton , Printer , was brought to the Bar, and an Indictment of High-Treason was read against him; for that he did Compose, Print and publish Two Malicious, Scandalous and Traitorous Libels, The first Entitled, Remarks upon the present Confederacy, and late Revolution in England. The second Entitled, A French Conquest neither desirable, nor practicable.The Proceedings of the Old Bailey
The jury found Anderton guilty and he was executed at Tyburn on Friday, 16 June 1693.
2. Reports of Peace with France Send Stocks Soaring in London
In May 1803, as Britain was preparing to end the Treaty of Amiens and declare war on France, a letter was hand delivered to Sir Charles Price, the Lord Mayor of London at the Mansion-house. Allegedly written by Lord Hawkesbury, and sealed with his personal seal, the letter claimed that the dispute with France was amicably settled. The Mayor at once took the letter to the Stock Exchange to share the joyous news.
Stocks immediately rose 5 per cent.
Meanwhile, suspicions about the validity of the letter were raised, and enquiries ensued. When it was determined that the letter was indeed a forgery, the Treasury sent the following press release to the editors of the London evening papers:
I have to acquaint you, that the message which was supposed to have been sent this morning from Lord Hawkesbury to the Lord Mayor stating that the Negotiations with France had terminated amicably, was a fabrication, and totally destitute of truth. I am, Sir, your most obedient humble Servant, John Sargent. ~1Bell’s Weekly Messenger – Sunday 08 May 1803
By then, of course, it was too late. Many stocks had changed hands at inflated rates and the Committee of the Stock Exchange called for reports from the Brokers, to determine who might have gained from the fraudulent letter.
All attempts to identify the perpetrator of the hoax failed.
3. Life on the Moon
On 21 August 1835, The New York Sun published a series of articles about the discovery of life on the moon. These were falsely attributed to a well known astronomer of the time named Sir John Herschel.
The article reported that Herschel had made these discoveries using new “hydro-oxygen magnifiers” and went on to describe in believable scientific detail, how the discovery was made. Bizarre life forms, inhabitants of the moon, were described, painting a fantastical picture.
Of animals, he classified nine species of mammalia, and five of ovipara. Among the former is a small kind of rein-deer, the elk, the moose, the horned bear, and the biped beaver. The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion.GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES Lately Made, The Sun, Thursday, August 27, 1835
After accomplishing their goal of adding many new subscribers to their newspaper that August, the paper quietly announced in September that the story had been nothing more than a hoax.
4. Fake Report of Outrage on French Railway
Madame Marquet, the wife of an Algerian apothecary, claimed in December 1890 that she had been set upon and robbed while riding in the ladies compartment on a French train. The train had departed from Monte Carlo and on reaching Toulon, she told authorities that at some point in the journey while she was sleeping, a thief had made off with 7,000 francs.
There was some skepticism about her claim when she was unable to provide any detail about her assailant, but another report of a similar occurrence some days later lent credence to her story.
An Italian man attacked a passenger travelling between Lyons and Grenoble with a knife and threatened to kill him unless he handed over his money. The attacker then jumped from the train but was captured when the victim pulled the emergency cord and stopped the train. It was thought that the same assailant had robbed Madame Marquet after hypnotising her and drugging her with chloroform.
The authorities still had suspicions however, and further investigation finally turned up the truth. Madame Marquet had gone to Monte Carlo to collect a debt but once there, she was lured by the roulette tables and lost all of the money. Fearing her husband’s anger, Madame Marquet made up a tale about being robbed. Finally, under pressure from the police, she confessed she had fabricated the story.
She was prosecuted on a charge of disseminating false news.
5. Jack the Ripper
In 1888, a series of brutal slayings in the Whitechapel district of East London were widely reported. Accounts of the eleven murders, typically involving prostitutes, were described in graphic detail in the newspapers of the time. Many tried to profit from the high profile case by spreading fake news.
Two young men, full of drink, were arrested and charged with spreading fake news. The pair were in Wright’s Lane in Kensington with their bundles of newspapers, and were heard to shout “Arrest of Jack the Ripper Tonight” at the top of their voices. William Macdonald and George Write, news vendors, were taken before the court but later discharged.
James Kendrick, another news vendor, was also charged with crying out false news about Jack the Ripper. After slow Sunday sales, he began calling that there was a “Horrible Discovery of a Missing Woman at Charing Cross”. Later, he cried out that four women were discovered slashed at Charing Cross. One customer, who bought one of his papers, found no such article inside and took the matter to the police. The news vendor was sentenced to 14 days in gaol, with hard labour.
6. The Report of My Death was an Exaggeration
In June 1897, reports out of New York were that Mark Twain was ‘dying in poverty in London’. That this was fake news was confirmed by Mark Twain himself.
On 2 June 1897, an article headlined Mark Twain Amused, appeared in the New York Journal under the byline of Frank Marshall White.
When reached for comment, Mark Twain told the reporter that he did not know whether to be amused or annoyed. He assured him that he was living with his wife and children in a very nice house in Chelsea and was hardly living in poverty, nor was he ill. It was Twain’s belief that the story came about because a cousin of his, James Ross Clemens of St Louis, was ill in London two or three weeks previously, although he had since recovered.
The report of my death was an exaggeration. The report of my poverty is harder to deal with. My friends might know that unless I were actually dying in poverty I should not live in poverty when I am receiving offers to lecture by every mail. The fact is that I was under contract to write the book that I have just finished or I should have accepted those offers.Mark Twain in New York journal and advertiser, June 2, 1897
7. The Fake News Trap
In 1903, the Clarksburg Daily Telegram published a purposely fake news story in an effort to expose the Clarksburg Daily News who they knew were pilfering their articles. The story was about the shooting of “Mejk Swenekafew” near Columbia mines and predictably, it appeared the next day in the Daily News. The story told of how Swenekafew, a Slav living near the Columbia coal mine was shot and was in critical condition after an altercation with an acquaintance over a pet dog.
The most unlikely name featured in the story, Swenekafew, spelled backwards read we-fake-news.
The Daily News, thus being caught out, was forced to acknowledge that it had been lifting articles from the Daily Telegram for several months.
‘The Daily News has been Caught fair and square in its nefarious work,’ said the Daily Telegram. ‘They have yesterday and today been publicly held up to public scorn and contumely and have actually admitted in their own columns that they “FAKE THE NEWS”.’2The Clarksburg Telegram, September 25, 1903, page 8
8. What’s That Got to do with the Price of Eggs?
In 1916, the price of eggs having risen to an unprecedented 80 cents a dozen in some parts of the country, the women of America decided to boycott eggs. By the end of November, there was a state-wide boycott of eggs planned by the women and public officials. The St Paul housewives in Minnesota declared a boycott on cold storage eggs. Milwaukee club women appealed to members to stop buying eggs for six weeks. Mrs. Ellis Logan began collecting signatures on a petition to Washington to ask Congress to provide relief from the high cost of America’s morning eggs.
Then on Friday, 8 December that year, an apparent victory was in sight. Headlines of “Eggs Drop Ten Cents” and “Cost of Living Smashed” appeared in the Chicago newspapers but the following day, it became apparent that this was nothing but fake news since the retail grocers in the city continued selling eggs at the same price. It was alleged that the newspapers were in cahoots with the food retailers.
The prices continued to fluctuate with supply and demand and the cost of eggs continued to rise steadily in the years following the 1916 boycotts.
9. World War One Fake News
In the spring of 1917, as World War One raged across Europe, both the Times and the Daily Mail in London published accounts from ‘anonymous sources’ that claimed they had visited a ‘Kadaver’ factory called Kadaververwertungsanstalt in Germany. This factory was said to extract glycerine from the corpses of the fallen to make soap and margarine.
Now, long after the war, the story has been attributed to MI7. In the employ of MI7 during the war were 13 officers and 25 paid writers, including Major Hugh Pollard, who spread this false story through the newspapers as a special correspondent for the Daily Express.
This horrific fake news story was only one of thousands reported by both sides during the war. In an example from the German propaganda machine, the French Minister of War reported in 1914 that the Germans in Alsace-Lorraine were publishing news that the French Parliament had voted against the war and that the President of the Republic had been assassinated.
10. War of the Worlds
The fake news of an alien attack on America is a classic one. On Sunday, 30 October 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting network aired an adaptation of the 1898 novel War of the Worlds by HG Wells. During the broadcast, the first two thirds of the story were aired over the radio as a series of breaking news alerts and the effect was so realistic that many listeners panicked, believing that there truly was an alien invasion taking place.
The show began as an interruption to regular programming announcing that a professor had observed a series of gas explosions on Mars. Later, a bulletin stated that a meteor had fallen in New Jersey, killing 15,000 people. Another news flash contradicted the first, saying that the meteor was actually a cylindrical object containing strange creatures from Mars armed with death ray guns.
Even before the end of the broadcast, doctors, nurses, soldiers and sailors reported for duty, ready to fight the Martians. Police stations across the country responded to thousands of calls. Newspaper reporters, hearing of the invasion, rushed to prepare special editions. Producers of the show were quite unprepared for this response, never thinking that anyone would believe that the broadcast was real.
Reasons for Fake News
As we’ve seen, reasons for fake news stories differ. Some are spread for political advantage, while others are spread for financial gain. Other fake news stories are nothing more sinister than an attempt to entertain, some stories come about by mistake while others are an act of desperation.
But whatever the reason, it is quite certain that Fake News is Not New News
Whether you are skimming through historical newspaper archives, or browsing through your Facebook feed, don’t believe everything you read. Check your facts with reliable sources and be skeptical of sensational claims.