Fake News is Old News

Stephen DeAngelis

June 27, 2018

Many people think the fake news problem started with the 2016 presidential campaign. That, however, is a false perception. I’m guessing the fake news problem can be traced back to pre-historical times. When Moses descended from Mount Sinai bearing stone tablets, the writing on the tablets instructed people how they should deal with age-old problems. We call those instructions the Ten Commandments. One of the problems addressed was fake news. To counter this problem, the commandments stated, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” That entreaty has been interpreted to cover all sorts of prevarications. Unfortunately, that commandment didn’t end the problem. Fake news and bearing false witness are still with us.

Defining fake news is not as easy as it may sound. Jackie Mansky (@jasmansky) explains, “What we’re talking about when we talk about fake news requires some clarification. In a 2017 paper published in the journal Digital Journalism, researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University came up with six distinct definitions of fake news after examining 34 academic articles that studied the term between 2003 and 2017 in the context of the United States, as well as Australia, China and Italy.”[1] Those six categories are:

1. Satire. Satire is supposed to be humorous and not taken seriously. Mansky writes, “News satire … applies to how programs like The Daily Show use humor to contextualize and mock real-world events.”
2. Parody. Parody is another technique used by people trying to make a point in a humorous way. Mansky writes, “News parody, like The Onion, … differs from satire in that platforms create made-up stories for comedic purposes.”
3. Propaganda. Now we’re getting serious. As Mansky explains, “Propaganda created by the state to influence public perceptions is another form of fake news.” The Nazis were famous for their propaganda campaigns, which ultimately resulted in the Second World War and the holocaust.
4. Manipulations. Mansky explains, “Manipulations of real photos or videos [are used to] create a false narrative (such as the animated gif of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez tearing up the Constitution, when in reality she was tearing up a gun-target poster).”
5. Advertising. Not all advertising involves fake news; but, as Mansky explains, “Content generated by advertising or public relations teams that appear as though it has been generated by news outlets also falls under the umbrella.” This sometimes called native advertising, which is advertising that looks very much like the format used by the media in which it is embedded. The best native advertising actually contains useful and truthful information.
6. Fabrication. Fabrication is what most people think of as fake news. Mansky writes, “News fabrication [is] the definition of fake news which swirled prominently around the 2016 U.S. presidential election in reference to pieces with no factual grounding that attempted to pass as legitimate news items.”

To counter fabrications, my company, Enterra Solutions® is partnering with VIDL (Vital Intelligence Data Live) News to develop and implement a proprietary ‘Truth in News’ AI platform. The application of machine learning to breaking news and editorial stories is intended to bring consumer trust back to the media marketplace by analyzing third-party news stories, social media posts and external data and providing users with accurate information. Such efforts won’t eliminate fake news, but it will help provide trust in the news at a time when trust is desperately needed.

Some people add a seventh category of fake news: bullshitting. Jason Daley (@jasondaley608) explains, “According to John V. Petrocelli of Wake Forest University, the author of a new paper in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the technical definition of bullshitting is ‘a pervasive social behavior involving communication with little to no concern for evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge.’ Bullshitting is not lying per se — Petrocelli says a liar is someone who is actually concerned with the truth and is actively trying to divert their audience from the truth. Bullshitters, on the other hand, don’t really care if what they are saying is true or not, they’re just putting their opinion out there. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote in his 2005 treatise On Bullshit, ‘It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.'”[2]

Fake news in history

As I noted at the beginning of this article, the fake news problem is not new. Historian David A. Copeland asserts political broadsides and pamphlets published in England and the American colonies as early as the 1640s contained information we would now call fake news. Copeland claims these publications set “precedents for what would become common practice in [the] 18th-century.”[3] By the end of the 19th century, the actual term “fake news” was in use in the United States. Historians at Merriam-Webster note, “Fake news appears to have begun seeing general use at the end of the 19th century.”[4] They go on to provide the following examples:

  • Secretary Brunnell Declares Fake News About His People is Being Telegraphed Over the Country.
    Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (Cincinnati, OH), 7 Jun. 1890
  • Fake News. The following is handed to us for publication: Sunday’s Enterprise says that I and a companion were run over by the Neptune and thrown into the water. As can be proved by more than one, we did not so much as get our feet wet, nor were we helped into the Neptune. Clarence Collins.
    The Kearney Daily Hub (Kearney, NE), 7 Jul. 1890
  • The public taste is not really vitiated and it does not in its desire for ‘news’ absolutely crave for distortions of facts and enlargements of incidents; and it certainly has no genuine appetite for ‘fake news’ and ‘special fiend’ decoctions such as were served up by a local syndicate a year or two ago.
    The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY), 2 May 1891

The Merriam-Webster historians go on to note that prior to the 19th century, the preferred term was “false news.” Mansky notes Donald Trump isn’t the first president to complain about fake news. She writes, “In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s treatise Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, President John Adams scribbled a cutting note. Writing in the section where the French philosopher predicted that a free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public, Adams scoffed. ‘There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798,’ he wrote at the time.” The bottom line is that fake news, in all its various forms, is with us to stay. Nevertheless, it’s in our own best interests to counter fabrications whenever we can.

Footnotes
[1] Jackie Mansky, “The Age-Old Problem of ‘Fake News’,” Smithsonian Magazine, 7 May 2018.
[2] Jason Daley, “Study Looks at Why We All Spew So Much BS,” Smithsonian Magazine, 11 May 2018.
[3] Mansky, op. cit.
[4] Staff, “The Real Story of ‘Fake News’,” Merriam-Webster, 2018.