The ori­gins of fake news

Trac­ing the long his­tory of fake news


In cap­i­tal let­ters and with an ex­cla­ma­tion mark, “FAKE NEWS!” may have been pop­u­lar­ized by Don­ald Trump in hun­dreds of his tweets, but the con­cept has ex­isted for cen­turies.

For the US pres­i­dent, the term refers to what he claims are lies mas­querad­ing as news in the main­stream “Fake News Me­dia.”

Gen­er­ally, it means “false news re­leased in the me­dia with full knowl­edge of the facts,” says French com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­pert Pas­cal Frois­sart from Uni­ver­sity of Paris 8.

This ex­isted long be­fore Trump be­came the 45th pres­i­dent of the United States in 2017 and way ahead of the emer­gence of so­cial me­dia.

Here are some ex­am­ples through his­tory.

Du­bi­ous Byzan­tine “anec­dota”

Early ver­sions of fake news are found in the sixth-cen­tury Anec­dota of prom­i­nent Byzan­tine scholar and writer Pro­copius, says Har­vard Uni­ver­sity his­to­rian Robert Darn­ton.

Known as se­cret his­tory in English, these texts con­tain “du­bi­ous in­for­ma­tion” on the

pur­ported be­hind-the-scenes scan­dals of the reign of Em­peror Jus­tinian, Darn­ton says.

They were kept se­cret un­til Pro­copius’ death and con­trasted with his of­fi­cial writ­ings about the ruler.

Pharaonic fibs

French re­searcher Fran­cois-Bernard Huyghe finds traces of fake news even fur­ther back in time, dur­ing the pe­riod of the Egyp­tian pharaohs be­fore the birth of Christ.

For ex­am­ple, Ram­ses II’s claimed vic­tory over the Hit­tite peo­ple at the bat­tle of Kadesh to­wards 1274 BC, which is cel­e­brated in bas-re­liefs and Egyp­tian texts, was in re­al­ity a “semi-de­feat,” he says.

The real suc­cess was “that of pro­pa­ganda, of the sculp­tors and scribes,” Huyghe says.

Half-true “li­belles”

In 18th cen­tury France “li­belles” were short satir­i­cal or con­tro­ver­sial texts that mixed truth and fic­tion in an “early form of fake news,” his­to­rian Robert Zaret­sky, from the Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton, tells AFP.

One item pub­lished in Lon­don in 1771, con­cern­ing scan­dals in the French court, even warned read­ers that some of the con­tent is “at the very most plau­si­ble” and some an “ob­vi­ous fal­sity.”

Rags, fab­ri­ca­tions

Sold in the streets of France dur­ing the same pe­riod, “ca­nards” were pop­u­lar news sheets that of­ten car­ried made-up news, for ex­am­ple, re­port­ing around 1780 the cap­ture of an imag­i­nary mon­ster in Chile.

The word has moved into the English lan­guage to mean an un­founded ru­mor or story.

Elab­o­rate hoaxes de­signed to sell news­pa­pers emerged in the US press in the 19th cen­tury. The New York Her­ald, for ex­am­ple, gave in 1874 an ac­count of a bloody es­cape of wild an­i­mals from the Cen­tral Park Zoo but wrapped up with: “Of course the en­tire story given above is a pure fab­ri­ca­tion.”

It is around this time the term “fake news” seems to have ap­peared, says US jour­nal­ist Robert Love in the Columbia Jour­nal­ism Re­view.

It was a pe­riod “when a rush of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies in­ter­sected with news­gath­er­ing prac­tices dur­ing a boom time for news­pa­pers,” he says.

Op­er­a­tion INFEKTION

Dur­ing the Cold War a cal­cu­lated So­viet tac­tic was the “de­lib­er­ate spread­ing of false in­for­ma­tion to in­flu­ence opin­ion and weaken an en­emy,” in this case the West, ac­cord­ing to Huyghe.

An em­blem­atic case was the KGB’s Op­er­a­tion INFEKTION, aimed at mak­ing peo­ple be­lieve that HIV/AIDS was a bi­o­log­i­cal weapon cre­ated in US army lab­o­ra­to­ries.

It started with the pub­li­ca­tion in an ob­scure In­dian news­pa­per in 1983 of an anony­mous let­ter mak­ing such claims, which were even­tu­ally spread more widely.

Me­dia hoaxed

In late 1989, as the com­mu­nist regime of Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu tot­tered in Ro­ma­nia, im­ages were pub­lished of mu­ti­lated bod­ies dug from mass graves near the town of Timisoara.

They were said to be vic­tims of the regime’s se­cu­rity forces. The pic­tures went around the world, gal­va­niz­ing pub­lic opin­ion against Ceaus­escu, who was ex­e­cuted by the end of the year.

But the corpses turned out to be of peo­ple who had died from ill­ness or ac­ci­dents be­fore the un­fold­ing revo­lu­tion.

The rep­e­ti­tion of false re­ports by other me­dia was what Huyghe called an “au­toin­tox­i­ca­tion” in his 2016 book on dis­in­for­ma­tion, La Desin­for­ma­tion: Les Armes du Faux.


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