False information might be served differently but its mission is always to benefit its originator, Source: Pixabay

From Roman rumours to social media manipulation: Fake news has always been with us

From Roman rumours to social media manipulation: Fake news has always been with us

An informative history of disinformation events

“History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. Mark Twain's famous quote is particularly apt when it comes to the history of fake news and disinformation. Throughout, we can find cases of false information being spread to manipulate public opinion and create chaos.

From ancient propaganda to modern-day conspiracy theories, the methods used to spread disinformation may change, but the underlying goals remain the same. While the specific instances of fake news and disinformation may change their platform medium, the patterns and themes that emerge often echo those of the past. 

When Mark Antony met Cleopatra

Information fabrication is not new. Misinformation and propaganda have been features of human communication since ancient Roman times when Mark Antony met Cleopatra. Octavian, who later became the first Roman Emperor Augustus, utilized propaganda tactics to smear Mark Antony's reputation.

He achieved this by crafting concise and attention-grabbing slogans on coins, similar to modern-day tweets, that painted his rival as a womanizer and drunkard who had been corrupted by his affair with Cleopatra. Through these tactics, Octavian was able to manipulate public opinion and secure his place as the new Roman Emperor.

As printing took off, so did fake news

Thanks to Gutenberg's invention – the printing press - the proliferation of fabricated 'facts’ took off at the same time that news began to circulate widely in Europe. The tool revolutionized the spread of information in the 16th century, making it easier and faster to disseminate news. This invention acted as a catalyst that accelerated the spread of fake news, demonstrating how advancements in technology can have unintended consequences.

“History is a set of lies agreed upon”, Napoleon Bonaparte

The year is 1814 and a group of fraudsters decided to manipulate the stock market by spreading false rumours that the Napoleonic Wars had come to an end. As a result, the market experienced a sudden and significant surge. The fraudsters then took advantage of the inflated stock prices and sold their shares at a high profit, leaving other investors holding worthless shares.

This event is an early example of how disinformation can be used for financial gain. The perpetrators deliberately spread false information to deceive the public, leading to the exploitation of unsuspecting investors. By the actual end of the Napoleonic wars, the impact of fake news on society had already been far-reaching and had permeated every aspect of public life.

The “Great Lunar Astronomical Discoveries”

Maybe one of the most notable examples of fake news in the media is the so-called Moon Hoax, a series of articles published in 1835 by the New York Sun. The newspaper published six articles, claiming that British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon, including detailed accounts of fantastical creatures and strange civilizations inhabiting the moon.

The story quickly gained widespread attention and turned into a public sensation. However, the story was a complete fabrication. Locke had made up the entire account, and the newspaper had knowingly published it as fact. The Moon Hoax initially helped to boost circulation and sales for the New York Sun. However, as it became clear that the story was fictional, the newspaper's credibility was severely damaged. The Sun received criticism from other newspapers, and its reputation was tarnished.

The "German corpse factory" story

The ‘weaponization’ of information reached new heights during World War I when British propaganda sought to demonize the Germans. In 1917, The Times and The Daily Mail published sensational articles claiming that the Germans were using the bodies of their own soldiers as raw materials for fat production, bone meal, and pig food due to a shortage caused by the British blockade. The story was false, but it played on people's fears and prejudices and was widely believed at the time.

Fast forward to World War II, where the Nazis committed horrific atrocities, including the mass murder of millions of Jews and other minorities in concentration camps. When early reports of these atrocities emerged, some people were sceptical and doubted the accuracy of the reports. This is because the disinformation contained in the "German corpse factory" story from World War I had already caused many to question the credibility of wartime reports.

Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction

In 2004, The New York Times came under heavy criticism for its reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which ultimately turned out to be false. In a reflective critique, the paper's editorial board acknowledged that editors failed to challenge reporters and exercise scepticism, instead prioritizing the publication of sensational stories.

The board noted that defectors' accounts were not adequately scrutinized and may have been influenced by their desire to oust Saddam Hussein. The Times issued an apology for its role in perpetuating the pattern of misinformation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. As penance, the paper vowed to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight and uncovering the truth about this crucial issue.

The Cambridge Analytica Scandal

Travelling through the years, we come to 2018 and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which involved the unauthorized collection and use of Facebook users' data to influence their political views during the 2016 US Presidential election.

The data was obtained through a quiz game developed by a researcher, which not only collected data from the quiz-takers but also from their Facebook friends. The data was then used to create psychological profiles of users and target them with political ads and content, often containing fake news and disinformation. The scandal highlighted the potential dangers of unregulated data collection and the use of social media platforms for political propaganda, including the spread of fake news.

In conclusion, while the phenomenon of fake news is not new, the emergence of computational propaganda, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, and sophisticated technology that can manipulate audio and video have dramatically amplified its reach and impact.

Today, many news consumers feel entitled to choose or even create their own "facts" and trust has become increasingly polarized. As The Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède has noted, the use of propaganda is ancient, but the technology to disseminate it effectively is unprecedented. The historical course of events proves that although history may "rhyme", combatting fake news and disinformation will be an ongoing challenge in our ever-evolving media and tech landscapes.

This article is part of Read Twice – an EU-funded project, coordinated by Euro Advance Association that targets young people and aims to counter disinformation and fake news by enhancing their skills to assess critically information, identify vicious and harmful media content and distinguish between facts and opinions, thus improving their media literacy competences.

The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Union nor of TheMayor.EU



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