Fake news is a troubling trend yet not new.
Ben Franklin admitted to paying for false stories of Indian scalpings to justify evicting them from British-controlled lands. In 1835, the fledgling newspaper The Sun reported telescoping views of advanced civilization on the moon. The editors knew it was false but wanted to spark circulation.
How fake news happens
The internet and social media have made every smartphone owner a publisher. Professional journalists must follow rules for confirming what sources say, and will lose their credibility and their livelihoods for publishing falsehoods. They also have to issue corrections. Others don’t have these constraints. A story about paid anti-Trump protesters was started on Twitter by a private citizen who said he “didn’t have time” to check his facts.
Fake news is splintering and poisoning American society. America is bitterly divided today because its citizens can’t agree on the facts, and the media, while more necessary than ever, contributes to this confusion. People are skeptical and cynical about truth. They have trouble distinguishing between editorial opinions and news, and many outlets make matters worse by not keeping the line clear. Let’s see where fake news originated in American history. Partisans with printing presses (today, wireless routers) distorted the mass public mind many times. With enormous consequences.
I have three episodes in mind that show how fake news is not a new problem.
The HD’s Top Three List of Fake News in American history
1. Paul Revere distorts the Boston Massacre to fuel the revolution
Most Americans have heard of it, at least in school. The Reader’s Digest version first. On the streets of colonial Boston, murderous British redcoats fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. Four were killed, propelling the colonies to revolution. The trouble is, the events happened nothing like the lithograph Paul Revere commissioned. Revere presents a sunny day, with perfect vision. You can even count the windows of the distant buildings! You see a redcoated firing squad with the cruel commander, grinning sadistically, ordering a volley of musket fire into genteel civilians. Look closely and you’ll even see the British headquarters labeled “Butcher’s Hall.” The number of civilians is very small, and none is armed.
Credited for the being “the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history, Revere’s depiction is distorted. In fact, colonists repeatedly brawled with British troops before the March 4 shooting, the crowd numbered in the hundreds, pelting the Brits with lethal projectiles. Sons of Liberty organizers even falsely rang the town fire bell so as to assemble a hostile mob. Colonists attacked the British with clubs and were more or less about to lynch them. It is more than reasonable to make the case of self-defense by the British, as John Adams did who was their lawyer.
But the facts didn’t suit Revere’s political purpose. He wanted to accelerate the coming of revolution, and needed some propaganda to propel it. Imagine someone from Georgia, knowing nothing of the facts, seeing Revere’s depiction. What would that person do? Join the revolution.
2. Yellow journalism manufactures war against Spain, 1898
“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,” said New York publisher William Randolph Hearst to his field reporters in Cuba in 1895. What did he mean? He was directing his reporters to take gory photos of Spanish occupation in Cuba. If it bleeds, it leads, was the memo. Hearst and others wanted war against Spain to seize Spain’s colonies for an American empire. Hearst’s goal was to whip up war frenzy in the US, to generate popular outrage. A Spanish general in Cuba, Valeriano Weyler, was depicted as a demon running concentration camps.
Normally, the press targets the ruler of an opposing nation for such attacks. But the king of Spain was only 14 at the time, and it’s hard to depict an adolescent as a murderous maniac, so Hearst zeroed in on Weyler.
Then came the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine, immediately blamed on Spanish agents. “Remember the Maine” became a rallying cry for war just as “Remember the Alamo” had 63 years before. The fake news campaign worked. The US declared war and vanquished Spain in a few weeks. It seized Cuba, the Philippines and other lands as the spoils. Once America claimed its global empire, it then had to fight wars, expending money and lives to defend it.
3. British tabloids bait the US into joining WWI
Britain was losing World War I to Germany in 1916. Britain really, really needed American help. But Americans resisted. So British tabloids invented stories of German soldiers in Belgium throwing Belgian babies into the air and spearing them with bayonets. These tabloids sought to inflame anti-German sentiment in the U.S. These atrocities did not happen, but who wouldn’t be appalled? In the mass American mind, the Germans became “The Hun,” their leader transformed into “The Beast of Berlin.” Baited by the British paparazzi, and for other reasons too, the U.S. entered the war in 1917. American entry into WWI had far-reaching implications.
But the full historical disaster of the British tabloid lies would not be revealed for decades.
Here is the problem. Twenty-five years later, when reports of Nazi extermination camps reached the U.S., many Americans were incredulous. Even the Nazis could not be such barbarians! Reports of mass gas chambers had to be the work of the British yellow press again. So the U.S. was slow to respond while the Nazi gas chambers operated at full capacity. That is the searing consequence of fake news in history.
When the US government is the culprit
At several critical junctures in American history, American officials were the ones to spread the fake, or at least cherry-picked, news.
President James Polk misrepresented events on the Mexican border in 1846 to justify invading America’s neighbor. He simply wanted California.
President Lyndon Johnson’s administration gave an inaccurate account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 to justify expanding the American war in Vietnam.
And don’t forget George W. Bush’s claim of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He really, really wanted to topple Saddam Hussein. So he exaggerated the threat and tied Saddam (incorrectly) to the 9-11 attacks. No history degree required to see the vast implications.
60,000 names on a war memorial
How successful was the American policy of waging war in Southeast Asia? Sixty thousand American names on a war memorial and Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City. How successful was the U.S. occupation of Iraq? It can take a while for the truth to catch up, but it always does.
The lies of the Nazi state prevailed for too long, but in the end the Nazis were smashed. Pravda delivered Soviet lies smoothly, but the Soviet system crashed. American slavery in the south was based on myths, but the Confederacy was vanquished.
If history teaches one thing, it is that deceit has a limited shelf life.
Note that the Chinese character for “crisis” is the combined characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” Where danger exists, so does opportunity. I predict that in the coming years, the crisis of fake news will birth crucial reforms in our society. History says that we are on the cusp of a golden age of investigative journalism. Paging the next Woodward and Bernstein!
I hope this post was interesting for you and made you think a little. Share it if the spirit moves you.