A Brief History of Fake News

Communication & Psychology Theory

The history of journalism in American provides a comforting context to the recent development of fake news and the downturn of trust in the news media.
Misinformation has swayed, misled and influenced our country on a grand (and small) scale over the history of our nation. However, critical thinking and accountability have always gotten the media back on track. We have survived, and thrived as a nation, in spite of missteps. 

And we will again soon.

Currently, we are on the verge of self-correction. Fearmongerers encourage a complete mistrust of the media or a self-filtering of messages that match our existing worldviews. Wisdom proffers that we will take a longer view of history and a wider view of truth, learning how to interpret information using logic.

For example, Yellow Journalism plagued our nation in the 1890s. Shortly after, a progressive era of objective journalism followed. The pendulum swung back, as it always does. 

This article does not cover conspiracy theories, political opinions, or legal options. Also, I don’t offer solutions. I’m defining the terms and laying out a timeline of notable occurrences from a mainstream media point of view. 

At over 5600 words — and covering over 200 years of history — this article still does not include every detail related to the topic. While I made an effort to be thorough and inclusive, I welcome discussion, stories and counterpoints.

A Brief History of Fake News in America

Taken as a whole, America seems to swing on a pendulum that is anchored to the principle of a free press. Our country was born from a rebellion against monarchy and they preserved the right to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press within our first Amendment. 

By its very nature, the act was meant to put a check on power. The press is supposed to act as a counterbalance to authoritarianism and it was through this principle that the early whispers of our country were first heard.

Political Publishers and Pseudonyms

1600s – 1775

Before the Revolutionary War, American newspapers spread controversial ideas among the colonies. The papers were all politically-oriented, advocating for their viewpoints on a local level. Notably, Benjamin Franklin established himself not just as a printer but as a writer. This gave him influence in the founding of the forthcoming nation. 

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Master printers across the colonies started printing small, local newspapers to boost their income. Often, writers published under pseudonyms to avoid retribution from government officials or powerful businesses. Advertising funded the papers.

Readership was hard to determine because papers were circulated to many eyes beyond the original buyer. In general, the written word brought political arguments, and the related news, to citizens as a form of both information and entertainment.

1690: In Boston, Benjamin Harris published the first edition of “Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestic.” Despite his trans-Atlantic connections his newspaper was suppressed by Britain after a single edition. 

1704: The The Boston News-Letter became the first successful American newsletter. John Campbell, the local postmaster founded the paper and described it as “published by authority.”

1721: Benjamin Franklin begins working for his brother, James Franklin on The New England Courant. Like most newspapers at this time, it followed party interests. Using the pseudonym Silence Dogood, Benjamin Franklin published letters in the newspaper. His brother didn’t even know it was him, initially. 

1728: Benjamin Franklin takes over the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia. He begins writing under the pseudonym “Busy-Body” to advocate for printing more paper money. Since he hoped to expand his business through printing that money, it was in his special interest to influence others toward the idea.

1730: Slave rebellion rumors were commonly covered in Virginian newspapers. Although there was never a revolt, fake news circulated based on a false statement from Governor William Gooch

1750: Franklin expands his newspaper franchise to 14 weekly newspapers in six colonies. 

1754: The French and Indian War begins. Tensions rise in the Americas as they are forced to accommodate British troops.

1765: Britain attempted the Stamp Act of 1765. The tax burden hindered printers and they petitioned to curb the tax. Most newspapers began to lean toward patriot causes. Loyalist papers were often forced to shut down.

1770: The Boston Massacre kickstarts talk about American independence.

1775:The War for Independence begins. At the start of the war, 37 weekly newspapers existed. After the war, 20 continued and an additional 33 started.

During this time, popular topics included:

  • Details of Military Campaigns
  • Debating the Established Church
  • Use of Coercion against neutrals and Loyalists
  • The Meaning of Paine’s “Common Sense”
  • Confiscation of Loyalist Property

Advertising and the Alien and Sedition Act

1776- 1800

The new nation finds its footing by creating, then later repealing, laws regarding the press. These decisions, and the attitudes of the founding fathers, established America as a true Free Press nation. 

This freedom allows for more creative, and capitalistic practices such as hoaxes, publicity stunts and the spread of popular fiction stories. Newspapers began to branch out from military and political news to include features of interest and entertainment. Advertising continues to bolster printing and influences the content of papers. 

1776: The Founding Fathers draft the Declaration of Independence.

1777: Congress adopts the Articles of Confederation, creating the early union of the colonies.

1782: At the end of the war, the combined circulation of American newspapers was about 40,000 copies per week. Readership was actually higher because people shared papers. 

1783: American wins the war, confirmed by the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

1789: The Bill of Rights passes Congress.

1793: Debates about the French Revolution lead to hot discussions about nationalism. The blowback from Napoleon’s actions created an attitude among Americans with regard to how they saw their wars and the role of America within the western world. Thought pieces in newspapers, in addition to the coverage of this international event, shaped the policies of this young government.  

1798: The Congress of the United States passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. These outlawed the publication of “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government. Additionally, it was a crime to voice any public opposition to any law or presidential act. 

1800s: The new republic sees about 234 newspapers. They are mostly partisan publications focused on Federalist or Republican points of view. For example, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr was coaxed by local news sources.

1801: Alien and Sedition Acts are repealed. 

1804: Lewis and Clark begin to explore the West.

Hoaxes, Beats and Spreading Stories across the Frontier

1805 – 1860

During this era, newspapers spread across the growing nation. Whenever a new town was established, a new paper often followed. This led to some smart businessmen attempting to create news monopolies – or at least capture a corner the market. Some publishers, such as James Gordon Bennett Sr. of the New York Herald, started politically independent papers to feed the desire for independent journalism. 

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Thus, the concept of “beats” became established, putting journalists on specific types of stories that would interest the public. Newsworthiness became more defined. Hoaxes, often wink-nods of creative writing, duped audiences. 

1808: Slave trading ends. 

1809: The fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker is reported missing to several newspapers by author Washington Irving. It turns out to be a promotional hoax to garner attention for his upcoming book.

1812: The War of 1812 begins.

1820: Congress approves the Missouri Compromise, allowing some states to own slaves and others to be free.  

1835: James Gordon Bennett, Sr. founded the New York Herald. It was the first politically independent newspaper with a staff that covered regular beats including business and wall street coverage. 

1835: The “Great Moon Hoax” is reported by The New York Sun. In several articles, a real astronomer and his fictitious colleague stated that they had seen life on the moon. The articles attracted new subscribers. After a month, the paper admitted it was a hoax and people generally responded positively to the revelation.

1838: Bennett sends the first American foreign correspondent staff to Europe. He also sent reporters to key cities, including one to cover Congress.

1840: As American moved westward, presses expanded past the East Coast. Most new towns set up a weekly newspaper for homesteaders. 

1841: The New York Tribune, edited by Horace Greeley, is founded. It had a professional news staff that often crusaded for the editor’s pet causes. Because they used the new technology of the linotype machine, their speed of publication helped them expand quickly and gain national prominence. 

1846: The Mexican American War begins.

1848: America sees an influx of immigration as several European countries struggle with democratic revolutions.

1850: According to the census there were 1,630 party newspapers and 83 “independent” papers. 

1851: George Jones and Henry Raymond found The New York Times. They aimed to provide balanced reporting and excellent writing. 

1852: The Dread Scott decision clarifies that slaves were property with no rights. 

1858: The Associated Press starts when the Europe sends news through the first transmission on the trans-Atlantic cable.

1860: In general, editors were senior party leaders and their loyalty was rewarded with lucrative postmaster positions. 

Top publishers, who were nominated to the national ticket, included: 

Panic and Pressure During Reconstruction

1860 – 1870

During this time of great unrest, newspapers played a critical role in both reflecting and creating public opinion. Abraham Lincoln was elected president as part of a wave of social change in the nation. 

In light of this, the government again attempts to intervene in the free press. Border states were pressured to close papers after President Abraham Lincoln accused them of bias in favor of Confederate causes. 

Stanley’s journey to find Livingston exemplifies the shift toward investigative reporting during this era.

New technology, such as the telegraph and more consistent mail service, made news spread faster, throughout the fast-growing nation. International news, human interest stories, and investigative reporting developed to a new level because reporters could more easily and speedily send updates. 

1861: The Civil War begins and the use of the telegraph makes news stories more succinct. During this time, supporters of slavery would start false stories to stir up fear. False stories, that inspired violence, included rumors that African Americans were spontaneously turning white. These spread through the South and struck fear into the hearts of many white people.

1862: Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

1863: The Battle of Gettysburg turns the war in favor of the Union.

1865: The 13th amendment ends slavery. During the same year, Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. 

1868: The New York Sun started publishing the first human interest stories under the direction of Charles Anderson Dana. This is also the year that the 14th amendment is ratified making all people born in the U.S. citizens.

1869: The Transcontinental Railroad is completed, linking both coasts for not just travel but also communication. 

1871: James Bennett of the New York Herald sent reporter Henry Stanley to Africa to find the missing David Livingstone. This created a new type of investigative journalism.

Starting a War with Words during the Industrial Revolution

1870 – 1900

Bad actors, most notably Hearst and Pulitzer, manipulate the free press for financial gain. As they both grew their news empires, the trustworthiness of news suffered. Concepts like fact checking, sources, and reputation are discussed by both politicians and the public.

At this time, people begin to realize the power of the press both to do harm and do good. 

Hearst, Pulitzer and similar publishers changed their content to expand readership and increase ad dollars. The news became less political and partisan loyalties were traded for more entertaining topics like sports teams. They also hyped scandal to sell papers. In hindsight, muckraking and yellow journalism began during this time. 

The five characteristics of Yellow Journalism By Frank Luther Mott are: 

  1. Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  2. Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  3. Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  4. Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  5. Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.

1874: The New York Herald covers the fictitious story of the Central Park Zoo Escape where several animals, including a rhinoceros a polar bear, a panther, a Numidian lion, a pack of hyenas, a Bengal tiger, broke loose and killed people.

1876: Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone. 

1882: President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion act halting immigration under pressure from the public during the time. It’s one of the many signs that racial tensions, particularly toward immigration, continue to dominate public discussion. 

1883: William Hearst starts the New York Journal

1896: Pulitzer founds the  New York World.

1897: President McKinley is pressured to start The Spanish American War thanks to the yellow journalism of both Hearst and Pulitzer. Reporting on General Weyler’s activities in cuba were sensationalized. 

Examples of Falsehoods included: 

  • Hearst sent artists, such as Frederic Remington,  to Cuba to paint and draw the atrocities. Remington reported that the stories were overblown. Hearst replied, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” One painting, of an American woman being brutally searched by male Spanish security forces created an outrage. 
  • Remington faked a painting of the Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill. He did not see the battle. They reenacted the scene for him.

1898: The Spanish American War begins. 

1899: The “Great Wall of China Hoax” capture’s American attention with a story of a businessman who bid on the contract to demolish the structure. It’s reported widely by mainstream media. 

Teddy Takes on the Free Press in our Expanding Nation

1900- 1913

A consummate showman, President Theodore Roosevelt finds that the press loves a scandal more than they love him. Like Abraham Lincoln, he attempts to rein them in by pulling public favor to his side. 

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At the same time, journalists push the power of the free press further by forcing reform through investigating secrets and controversial stories. Several writers make names for themselves for exposing information and developing in-depth articles.

1901: President Theodore Roosevelt starts a war with the press. He demands that they cover his presidency favorably, and in return, they would get unprecedented access to his office. His goal was to force reform and boost his image by controlling the media. 

His tactics included: 

  • Touring the country to promote favored legislation
  • Courting the Washington press corps
  • Upgrading the shabby White House pressroom
  • Hosting informal press conferences during his afternoon shave
  • Keeping tabs on photographers at his statements to give them good shots for the front page
  • Hiring the first government press officers
  • Staging publicity stunts, such as riding 98 miles on horseback to prove the reasonableness of new Army regulations.

1903: Muckraking journalism spiked in January. Several reporters, Ida M. Tarbell (“The History of Standard Oil”), Lincoln Steffens (“The Shame of Minneapolis”) and Ray Stannard Baker (“The Right to Work”), published hit pieces in the same issue.

1906: Roosevelt uses the term “muckraker” to refer to unscrupulous journalists making wild charges. 

“The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity takes the form of slander he may be worse than most thieves.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Also, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair further drew scrutiny to journalists’ integrity and intent in publishing. His novel was meant to explore the exploitation of american immigrants. However, his descriptions of the meat-packing industry created scandal and outrage. He had seen disgusting activities working undercover and listed the practices in his fictional story.  

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Upton Sinclair

In this same year, Canadian inventor Reginald A. Fessenden makes the public radio broadcast.

1907: America peaks in European immigration with a massive flow of people, often through Ellis Island.

1908: The National Press Club forms and journalists are pushed to conduct themselves more professionally. The quality of writing became a focus in journalism, in addition to, the conduct of journalists. 

1912: Columbia accepts $2 million from Pulitzer to create their school of journalism. At the same time, women are campaigning for suffrage and using the press to further spread their progressive ideas.

1913: Although President Theodore Roosevelt tried to sue several major papers, mostly for reporting corruption around the purchase of the Panama Canal rights, Freedom of the Press became a firmer principle. 

Radio Personalities and International Propaganda during the Great Wars

1914 – 1955

Initially, propaganda wasn’t a dirty word. Much like the idea of “promotion,” governments would make a coordinated effort to influence public opinion. However, Americans fought back against the concept because it resembled the state-controlled media found in fascist countries. Even more, Americans clung to the concept of a Free Press to keep their government in check.

1914: America enters World War 1 and the U.S. government first flexes its ability to spread propaganda through the press. They promoted war bonds during World War I to stimulate the economy. Also, they promoted victory gardens and other wartime activities. After the war, public skepticism toward the Committee on Public Information causes the formal use of propaganda by the government to end.

1915: Several newspapers covered a story of an alleged “German Corpse Factory” spread saying that the German battlefield dead were rendered down for fats used to make nitroglycerine, candles, lubricants, human soap, and boot dubbing. 

1917: America starts linking highways in a huge national effort to fix infrastructure. 

1920: Broadcast journalism slowly begins to impact America through radio reports. In the same year, women win the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. 

1928: The first mechanical TV station, W3XK airs it’s first broadcast under Charles Francis Jenkins.

1929: The Great Depression begins with the stock market crash.  

1932: The Dust Storms begin on the Great Plains, increasing the suffering of Americans in the Midwest. 

1933: Walter Duranty, writer for the New York Times, reports that famine in the Ukraine is false. Ultimately, his accusations against other reporters are found to be untrue and sympathetic to the Russian regime.

1935: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt creates the Work Projects Administration to turn around the Economy. 

1938: The radio drama “The War of the Worlds” directed and narrated by  Orson Welles creates mass panic in the East Coast. People thought the dramatized broadcast was an actual news event. 

1939: America enters World War II. Without an official propaganda program, the government used programs like Writers’ War Board (WWB) and the United States Office of War Information to promote their messages regarding World War II. Core messages included making distinctions between German nationals and the Nazi party.

1947: Anti-communism propaganda during the Cold War was mostly managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover.

Fake News Stories during this time included: 

  • Discrediting communist sympathizers, such as H. Bruce Franklin
  • Discrediting communist organizations like the Venceremos organization
  • McCarthy’s Communist Witch Hunts
  • And later Discrediting critics of Nixon and the Vietnam War, such as Ben Bagdikian

1950: America enters the Korean War.

1955: America enters the Vietnam War

Scandal and Betrayal Create a Cultural Revolution

1955- 1980

For the first time, the press completely turned on the president when they uncovered the Watergate Scandal under President Nixon. Formerly, there was a certain sensitivity to the power of this institution. Investigative journalism, that had been suppressed during the World Wars, came back into vogue. 

Furthermore, confidence in the American press became very high. They were seen as allies of the people, holding the government in check by bringing important information to citizens. Corrupt politicians railed against the press’s power and sought ways to undermine their authority.

1956: Confidence in newspapers shows that 66% of Americans thought newspapers were fair, including 78% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats, according to an American National Election Study.

1960: Bob Woodward and the Washington Post coverage of the Watergate scandal brought investigative journalism back into vogue. 

1961: The Bay of Pigs invasion increases international tensions for the United States.

1963: Martin Luther King Jr. leads the March on Washington. 

1964: 71% thought network news was fair according to a poll by the Roper Organization.  

1969: Spiro Agnew, as Vice President to Richard Nixon, gives a landmark speech denouncing what he felt was media bias against the Vietnam War.  

1972: 72% of Americans trusted CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite according to one of their polls.

Celebrity Journalists, Culture Wars and Conservative Backlash 

1980- 1999

In a single century, technology leaps from print to radio (1920) to television (1940) then the
internet(1995). The impact on storytelling and sharing information is enormous. The ever-escalating pace of reporting mirrors these changes.

As journalism grew from papers to radio to television, some journalists undermined the authority of the press by taking shortcuts or simply publishing fake stories. Although there were several notable instances, the American public was shocked at the behavior. With the people already jaded about corruption in government, the corruption of the press became a powerful symbol of the fall of truth in the postmodern era.

1980: Janet Cook publishes “Jimmy’s World” in the Washington Post. Her fraudulent story reported on an eight-year-old heroin addict.

1988: Propaganda against drugs begins with the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign by the National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1988.

1990: America enters the Gulf War. 

1993: Michael Gartner resigns from NBC over a dateline segment depicting safety issues with GM pickup trucks. The segment staged footage for the broadcast but neglected to note that it was a dramatization. 

1995: The term “infotainment” begins to be used to describe the practice of picking news topics to attract viewers (and thus, higher ratings). It’s a departure from serious news and analysis that was the mainstay of programming. 

“Imitating the rhythm of sports reports, exciting live coverage of major political crises and foreign wars was now available for viewers in the safety of their own homes. By the late-1980s, this combination of information and entertainment in news programmes was known as infotainment.”

Barbrook, Media Freedom, (London, Pluto Press, 1995

1995: USA Today became the first newspaper to offer an online version of its publication. CNN launched a site later that year.

1996: Nicolas Negroponte’s book Being Digital predicts a world where news is consumed through technology and the experience is personalised to the reader’s preferences and behavior.

1997: According to Gallup Polls, American’s confidence in mass media to report the news accurately begins to wan. 

1998: Mike Barnicle resigns from the Boston Globe over allegations that he fabricated a story about a donation to cancer patients. He used anonymous sources and was unable to track back all of his facts to the actual accounts.

The News Goes Online

2000- 2008

Technology again changes the way people get their news as the internet provides both a new means of distributing stories and a way of monetizing readership through online ads. Print papers suffer as they struggle to compete with online media outlets. Similarly, television feels the impact of streaming, pirating, and blogging. The publications that survive are the ones that reinvent themselves as media companies that learn to tell stories in a variety of formats for these new audience habits.

The launch of social media (Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006) alongside the rise in internet content reshapes the news climate.

Trustworthiness in news continues to sink as people struggle to separate ethical and unethical content creators. Everyone can play a journalist by simply typing. As a result, Americans adjust to the new normal of a constant cycle of information, some true and some false. 

2000: Internet-based “free” news based on a model supported by online advertising overwhelms and undercuts daily newspapers. This affects not only the number of newspapers in the U.S. but also the practices of editors and journalists. 

2001: The War in Afghanistan begins. 

2002: The U.S. Department of Defense launched the Pentagon Military Analyst program to the desired information about Iraq to news outlets. In 2008, The New York Times revealed the program resulting in a new ban against permanent domestic propaganda. Other propaganda during this time included programs like The Shared Values Initiative.

2003: The Iraq War begins. Around this time, Jayson Blair, journalist, resigns from the New York Times after revealing he made up or plagiarized articles. Suspicious articles, with inconsistencies and errors, from his tenure include: 

  • October 30, 2002,”US Sniper Case Seen as a Barrier to a Confession”
  • February 10, 2003,”Peace and Answers Eluding Victims of the Sniper Attacks”
  • March 3, 2003, “Making Sniper Suspect Talk Puts Detective in Spotlight” 
  • March 27, 2003, “Relatives of Missing Soldiers Dread Hearing Worse News”
  • April 3, 2003, “Rescue in Iraq and a ‘Big Stir’ in West Virginia”
  • April 7, 2003, “For One Pastor, the War Hits Home”
  • April 19, 2003, “In Military Wards, Questions and Fears from the Wounded”

Many believe that his mental health issues during this time contributed to the false stories.

2003: Rick Bragg receives criticism for not crediting the intern he sent to research a story. Instead, he wrote the piece like first hand reporting. In his defense, he revealed that this is common practice among some busy journalists.

2004: Jack Kelly, writer for USA Today, resigns over assertions that he plagiarized and faked interviews. 

2004: Dan Rather, Mary Mapes, and other journalists take heat over their reporting that George W. Bush received preferential treatment in his military service. Reports asserted that key documents may have been edited or forged. Several key personnel resign and Rather’s retirement followed shortly after.  

2005: Mitch Albom and several other reporters are suspended from the Detroit Free Press over allegations that they fabricated parts of a story, saying players attended a game when they did not.

2006: Ben Domenech resigns from his position at the Washington Post over plagiarism accusations. Since then, he has been linked to several hoaxes and scandals.

2008: Scott McClellan, George W. Bush’s press secretary reveals that he regularly passed misinformation to the media. 

2008: The fallout at Reuters over Adnan Hajj’s photographs conclude. Digital manipulation resulted in a photo editor’s firing and the images being removed from services. 

2008: 45% of Americans say they have no confidence in the press, according to Ladd. 

News Trends and Social Media

2008- 2014

The innovation of social media again disrupts the news cycle. Stories can gain more exposure through the power of people’s interest. However, silos of information also develop as the platforms encourage users to self-select only the points of view that they favor. Sensitivity to media bias reaches an all-time high.

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Conspiracies spread quickly within friendly audience bubbles. Journalists struggle to separate themselves from opinion writers – and even content creators generating fake information. Trust in information continues to decline and Americans begin to question even the most established media sources.

2011: Johan Hair, journalist, receives criticism for attributing other interview quotes as his own work. The story gains widespread attention as he wrote for several prominent news outlets. He is forced to return his Orwell Prize.

2011: The meaning of the word “troll” shifts in definition. Originally, it described people who would go on the internet to pick fights (sometimes even about deeply trivial topics). Now, it is linked to fake news as internet trolls often pass along false information that can gain traction over time.

2012: Mike Daisey’s story about working at Apple is aired as part of an episode of This American Life. Several factual errors and exaggerations have been criticized as untruthful portions of his monologue and his book.

2013: A 59% majority reported a perception of media bias. 

2013: Lara Logan leaves CBS news over a clash with the U.S. Government over her source’s story for a 60 minutes report. 

2014: The Russian government uses disinformation to create a counternarrative to the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, saying that Ukranian rebels shot it down. The story spreads into the U.S. because of the high-profile story. Similarly, disinformation about their Invasion of Crimea begins to circulate onto American websites.

2014: Fareed Zakaria faces criticism for improper citations in several of his written works. Warnings and disclaimers are added to his content on several news sites.

Fake News Makes Big Bucks

2015- Present

Americans become deeply disturbed at their ability to be manipulated by false news reports. Pay per click advertising attracts even more bad actors to join, and profit, from the spread of misinformation. Additionally, social media giants are forced to acknowledge that they allowed foreign governments to generate and spread fake news stories with the aim of disrupting American democracy. 

The late Paul Horner discusses why he creates fake news stories.

As a result, everyone from politicians to publishers to social media platforms are looking for ways to hold content creators accountable for the truthfulness of the information they spread. Most people are aware that fake news is everywhere. The problem is that they still struggle to identify it.

2016: Jestin Coler, former CEO of the fake media conglomerate Disinfomedia discusses the large profit, upwards of $30,000 per month in advertisements, that can be made from spreading fake news. 

2016: Courts find Sabrina Rubin Erdely guilty of defamation with actual malice in a lawsuit brought by University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo. Erdely was found personally responsible for $2 million in damages. The suit was brought on the basis of the Rolling Stone report “Rape on Campus.”

2016: Facebook begins to see criticism for its role in contributing to the distribution of fake news. 

2016: NATO claims that Russian propaganda (through fake news stories) has risen sharply. 

2017: Kevin Deutsch fights allegations that he faked sources for his news articles and books related to coverage of crime. 

2017: Claire Wardle of First Draft News identifies seven types of fake news:

  1. satire or parody (“no intention to cause harm but has the potential to fool”)
  2. false connection (“when headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content”)
  3. misleading content (“misleading use of information to frame an issue or an individual”)
  4. false context (“when genuine content is shared with false contextual information”)
  5. imposter content (“when genuine sources are impersonated” with false, made-up sources)
  6. manipulated content (“when genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive”, as with a “doctored” photo)
  7. fabricated content (“new content is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm”)

The public slowly becomes aware that fake news is spreading rapidly through social media. Popular stories, that were picked up by mainstream news sources, include:

2017: One of the major sources of pro-Trump fake news stories is linked to the city of Veles in Macedonia. Seven different fake news stories, employing hundreds of teenagers were creating false news content for U.S. companies.

Additionally, almost 30% of the spam and content spread on the internet originates from these software bots.

2018: Google launches their Google News Initiative (GNI) to fight the spread of fake news. They aim “..to elevate and strengthen quality journalism, evolve business models to drive sustainable growth and empower news organizations through technological innovation.”

We’ll Be Back! Right After These Messages

Upon putting this timeline together, this piece feels like it ends on a cliffhanger. The next part of this story depends on us, the audience as we sift through information critically and carefully (but not conspiratorially).  Critical thinking and accountability has always gotten the media back on track. That’s because the press isn’t the enemy of the people — it’s the voice of the people.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure you follow me on Instagram @verdera.me. You can join this conversation there or through the comments below.

If you have a story from history that you think should be added, please reach out to me.


Defining the Terms

Currently, “Fake News” is a term with a broad meaning. People use it to label everything from intentional misinformation to opinion editorials. Below are some of the terms that are used when news and information falls short of journalistic principles. 

  • Propaganda: Merriam Webster defines this as, “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person” or “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.”
  • Media Agenda: This is a slang term used to reference Agenda Setting theory. In communication theory it is explained as, “Media influence affects the order of presentation in news reports about news events, issues in the public mind. More importance to a news = more importance attributed by audience.” 
  • Media Bias: Wikipedia summarizes the term well saying, “(Media Bias) is the bias or perceived bias of journalists and news producers within the mass media in the selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered. The term “media bias” implies a pervasive or widespread bias contravening the standards of journalism, rather than the perspective of an individual journalist or article.”
  • Fake News: In general, this is false information that appears to be legitimate news. Claire Wardle’s 7 types of Fake News define this term more clearly.
  • Opinion Leadership: As a marketing and business term, this refers to “Influential members of a community, group, or society to whom others turn for advice, opinions, and views.” and “Minority group (called early adopters) that passes information on new products (received from the media) to less adventuresome or not as well informed segments of the population.” 
  • Yellow Journalism: The Encyclopedia Britannica describes, “…the use of lurid features and sensationalized news in newspaper publishing to attract readers and increase circulation. The phrase was coined in the 1890s to describe the tactics employed in furious competition between two New York City newspapers, the World and the Journal.”
  • Muckraking: This encompasses journalists who, “…search for and expose real or alleged corruption, scandal, or the like, especially in politics.”
  • Libel: As a legal term, libel refers to, “…the written or broadcast form of defamation, distinguished from slander, which is oral defamation. It is a tort (civil wrong) making the person or entity (like a newspaper, magazine or political organization) open to a lawsuit for damages by the person who can prove the statement about him/her was a lie.”

Timelines (Full Size)

8 thoughts on “A Brief History of Fake News

  1. A few other things come to mind–because, you know, it isn’t long enough.

    1798 Matthew Lyon, Vt Congressman jailed under the Alien & Sedition Acts for calling Adams names like “stupid” and “bullying” in print, re-elected from prison.

    1839-45 James Fenimore Cooper’s successful libel suits , including against Horace Greeley. Cooper won the court battles but lost the public opinion battles.

    1919 Schenk v United States, in which justice Oliver Wendell Holmes equated handing out leaflets opposing the draft with “shouting fire in a theater and creating panic” and said such speech created a “clear and present danger.” The metaphor was far from perfect, but it resonated.

    ‘2016 Trump says” I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.” I saw this as a shot across the bow for those who would like more aggressive laws restricting libel, but also unsettling because Trump wanted to be able to punish reporters for “negative and horrible” pieces.

    And of course the leaks by Snowden, Manning, (Assange),etc. Are they demonized and wanted because the information was sensitive or because they revealed criminal acts and disinformation on the part of the government and of individuals in power?

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