The true history of fake news

Tom Standage in More Intelligent Life:

FakeGiant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire. These were the astonishing sights witnessed by John Herschel, an eminent British astronomer, when, in 1835, he pointed a powerful telescope “of vast dimensions” towards the Moon from an observatory in South Africa. Or that, at least, was what readers of the New York Sun were told in a series of newspaper reports.

This caused a sensation. People flocked to buy each day’s edition of the Sun. The paper’s circulation shot up from 8,000 to over 19,000 copies, overtaking the Times of London to become the world’s bestselling daily newspaper. There was just one small hitch. The fantastical reports had in fact been concocted by Richard Adams Locke, the Sun’s editor. Herschel was conducting genuine astronomical observations in South Africa. But Locke knew it would take months for his deception to be revealed, because the only means of communication with the Cape was by letter. The whole thing was a giant hoax – or, as we would say today, “fake news”. This classic of the genre illuminates the pros and cons of fake news as a commercial strategy – and helps explain why it has re-emerged in the internet era. That fake news shifted copies had been known since the earliest days of printing. In the 16th and 17th centuries, printers would crank out pamphlets, or newsbooks, offering detailed accounts of monstrous beasts or unusual occurrences. A newsbook published in Catalonia in 1654 reports the discovery of a monster with “goat’s legs, a human body, seven arms and seven heads”; an English pamphlet from 1611 tells of a Dutch woman who lived for 14 years without eating or drinking. So what if they weren’t true? Printers argued, as internet giants do today, that they were merely providing a means of distribution, and were not responsible for ensuring accuracy.

More here.