Fake news has its roots in history. Misinformation, lies and deceit have been around since humankind could speak.
Writing fictional stories that play on people’s fears and constructing outlandish conspiracy theories is not new. Nor is it illegal. Governments and powerful individuals have used information as a weapon to quash dissidence and boost their reputation for millennia.
Bending the truth for political or economic gain can be a part of propaganda, and records of its uses stretch back to ancient times. The Romans were doing it before the birth of Christ. Octavian, for instance, famously used a campaign of disinformation to further his victory over Marc Anthony in the final war of the Roman Republic.
Era of mass communication
In the 15th century, a new force was unleashed. The invention of the printing press launched the era of mass communication. The resulting increase in literacy changed European society for ever, giving rise to new opportunities for circulating information, both true and false.
News sources were available aplenty. They ranged from official publications by political and religious authorities, to eyewitness accounts from sailors and merchants who had travelled overseas.
From these sources, there also flowed exaggerated and false news, from spectacular stories of sea monsters and witches to sensationalist propaganda and outright factual errors.
Snippets of news were usually a single paragraph, some made-up or misleading, and some true but compromising. They reached a peak in eighteenth century London as newspapers began to circulate among a broad public. By 1788, London had ten dailies, eight tri-weeklies, and nine weekly newspapers.
Reliable news and information were hard to verify. There was no concept of journalistic ethics or objectivity and readers in search of fact had to be sceptical and ready to question.
By the early 19th century, printing had expanded, and modern newspapers arrived on the scene peddling scoops, exposés and fabricated stories to increase their circulation.
With the growth of the New York penny press in the 1830s, some newspapers looked to advertising to boost their revenue.
Publishers resorted to ever more distortion and exaggeration, sensationalising news to bump up their readership and attract more advertisers.
This practice gave rise to some of the most memorable media hoaxes and widespread fabrication in the history of news reporting.
The Great Moon Hoax
One outstanding example is The Great Moon Hoax. Published in the New York Sun over several days in the summer of 1835, the series falsely claimed a highly regarded English astronomer had discovered life on the moon through a giant telescope. This “moon life” reportedly included unicorns, two-legged beavers and flying “man-bats” – furry human-like creatures with big wings.
These strange life forms would not have seemed so ridiculous to people unaware of evolutionary theory and living only 24 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859).
Hundreds of thousands of readers believed the story. Indeed, several other newspapers believed and republished worldwide before they realised the hoax. The New York Sun’s circulation increased dramatically setting up the newly emerging paper as an instant success.
Sensationalism has always sold well. As newspapers battled for circulation, distortion and falsification became a fast path to profitability. This practice peaked by the late 19th century.
Even the New York Herald, one of the most widely-read and respected newspapers in the 19th century, got in on the game. A cover story in 1874 claimed animals had escaped from their cages in the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging around New York City killing several people.
The article prompted widespread panic throughout the city. Police were mobilised, schools were closed, and men rushed into the streets with guns to hunt for free-roaming beasts.
By the end of the 19th century, the media had discovered its growing power to manipulate public opinion by sensationalising stories and exciting public emotion for the simple purpose of increasing circulation. This practice became known as “yellow journalism.
The whole point of yellow journalism was to produce exciting, sensational stories, even if it meant stretching the truth or making up a story. These stories would boost sales, crucial in this period when newspapers and magazines were battling fiercely for readership.
Pulitzer and Hearst
This practice peaked in the mid-1890s characterising the sensationalist journalism that arose in the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.
The two proprietors raised their circulation by producing a new kind of newspaper – papers that appealed to the mass-market. They used large headlines with lots of pictures and illustrations and articles that had scant regard for the truth.
Critics accused both papers of exaggerating the news and falsifying information in pursuit of profit, even though they did serious reporting as well.
Because Hearst controlled so much of the market for newspapers, he could practically dictate what the country would think the next day.
Some historians accuse Hearst and Pulitzer of trying to instigate the American war against Spain in 1898 because they believed war would boost the sale of their newspapers. When one of his freelance artists confidently predicted there would be no war, Hearst famously replied, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”
The role of the newspaper industry in this war foreshadowed the increasing importance of the media in shaping public opinion with regard to future wars, not least the First and Second World Wars.
Ironically, in later life, Pulitzer redeemed himself by setting up the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize which continues to make annual awards for journalistic excellence.
The return of quality journalism
Inevitably, the appetite for sensationalism began to wane and publishers started to turn their hand at rebuilding public trust.
In 1896, for instance, the ailing New York Times came under new ownership and refocused its efforts on objective journalism and business news.
Other publications followed suit. For several decades readers could buy a newspaper in the expectation of the news actually being accurate and true.
Newspapers reached their peak of importance during the First World War. This was partly because wartime issues were so urgent and newsworthy.
Following the First Great War, the US economy boomed on the back of mass production techniques and growing efficiency. Meanwhile, the UK faced a period of depression, deflation and economic stagnation, which lead to high unemployment and widespread poverty.
As a result, the Britain press began to undergo a similar metamorphosis which lead to the birth of tabloid journalism. However, this was under very different economic circumstances from America’s yellow journalism.
Free gifts and other inducements
During the 1920s and 1930s, the scarcity of money and fierce competition for circulation affected newspaper sales badly. Moreover, the sharp global economic downturn in 1930-31 further hit the British economy.
Thus, publishers found themselves forced to seek alternative ways of maintaining their readership. One ruse was to introduce incentives. The Chronicle had already offered readers who registered with it insurance compensation for the effects of Zeppelin air raids in 1916.
By 1924 most of the London dailies had begun offering bargain insurance inducements. The Mail paid out more than £1 million by 1928 and the Express was not far behind.
Soon newspaper publishers began to reward new subscribers with a wide range of other free gifts. However, this practice backfired.
People started to play the system. They remained registered readers for as long as it took to qualify for these gifts – before shifting their allegiances to a rival newspaper and more free offers.
As a result, a kind of trade war broke out within the newspaper industry. Soon the inducements became of greater significance than quality news.
Stepping up the struggle for readers, the Chronicle, Mail and Express offered a joint edition of Dickens at well below cost price. The Herald responded by offering encyclopaedias, which the Express matched.
Tempting bargains and free gifts were not enough The news content began to change too as news that would entertain as well as inform. Many readers became more accepting of inaccuracies in the news. Soon reliable journalism descended into excessive sensationalism. Bribes were more successful in building up readership than the quality of news.
Misinformation in the tabloid press during the twentieth century
You can read my article on Tabloid Journalism
Misinformation during the 2017 UK Election
“The misleading use of headlines, images and statistics has always been an element of a partisan press. Although many politicians and journalists use facts and statistics well to make their case, there are also many examples of facts being stretched to or beyond the breaking point.”
Read article on Types Of Misinformation During The UK Election.