By Regina Marchi
We hear a lot about fake news today, but sadly the publication of false news stories for political or economic profit has been around for centuries, often resulting in devastating consequences. From as early as the 1400s in Italy and other parts of Europe, fake news stories claiming that Jewish people murdered Christian babies and drank their blood were published to incite and justify anti-Semitism. This fake news phenomenon reached frenzied proportions in post WWI Germany, leading to the Holocaust.
Here in the US, newspaper industry mogul William Randolph Hearst published an onslaught of fake news stories about Spain in the 1890s to grow public support and justification for the Spanish-American War. Hearst recognized that a war would sell lots of his newspapers and would jettison him to national prominence. (For more on this, see the PBS documentary Crucible of Empire).
Though he did not have a correspondent on the ground in Cuba as the Cuban rebellion against Spain heated up in 1895, Hearst shamelessly attached Havana datelines to bylined stories manufactured in New York. Today, Hearst’s fake news stories which, among other things, blamed the Spanish government for the February 15, 1898 sinking of the USS Maine without any evidence, are widely acknowledged to have caused the Spanish American War, considered to be the first “media war.”
In the early 1950s, fake news stories accusing Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, of being a Communist were published in major US newspapers at the behest of the Boston-based United Fruit Company. Operating banana plantations on the majority of Guatemala’s arable land at the time, United Fruit’s top leaders (who had powerful friends in the Eisenhower Administration and among US newspaper publishers) wanted to end President Arbenz’s plans for agrarian reform. False news stories about Arbenz being a “Communist” convinced the US Congress and the public to support a violent CIA-led military coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954, which ousted President Arbenz and ushered in decades of brutal military regimes from which Guatemala has never politically recovered. (For more on this, see Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer.)
In a less deadly example of fake news, Orsen Welles’ 1938 radio theater broadcast “War of the Worlds” was subsequently reported by many newspapers to have caused numerous heart attacks and suicide attempts by listeners who were allegedly terrified of an alien invasion (these claims were later found to be mostly false). As Adrian Chen notes in his New Yorker article “The Fake News Fallacy” (Sept. 4, 2017), newspapers exaggerated the War of the Worlds panic in an attempt to discredit the pubescent medium of radio, which was becoming the dominant source of breaking news in the 1930s. Chen writes: “Newspapers wanted to show that radio was irresponsible and needed guidance from its older, more respectable siblings in the print media, such “guidance” mostly taking the form of lucrative licensing deals and increased ownership of local radio stations.”
Today, fake news proliferates on the Internet, with social media being deployed as weapons of information warfare. In the weeks after the 2016 presidential election, Facebook and Twitter faced widespread criticism for their failure to halt the spread of fake news about Hillary Clinton on their platforms. The problem was not simply that people were able to spread lies but that the digital platforms were designed in ways that made lies especially transmissible, spreading faster than fact checkers could debunk them.
Supposedly “neutral” social media platforms use personalized algorithms to feed users news based on past personal preferences. But this makes it less likely that people will see news that contradicts their worldviews. Today, there is a growing sense among observers that the championing of openness by Facebook and other social media platforms is at odds with the public interest, something we write about in Young People and the Future of News and in the book chapter “Storytelling the Self into Citizenship: How Social Media Practices Facilitate Adolescent and Emerging Adult Political Life,” forthcoming in the edited volume A Networked Self: Birth, Life, Death (Ed. Zizi Papacharissi).