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Fake News and Information Literacy: How Old is Fake News?

How Old is Fake News?

Fake news in nothing new! Alternative facts has been used for centuries for political, personal and monetary gain.  Fake news can be traced back to ancient times when Octavian during the final war of the Roman Republic utilized alternative facts to obtain victory over Marc Anthony. He continued to distort reality after the war by changing his name and presenting a youthful image of himself through out Europe, an image which he maintained even as he aged.

Fake news also has a history in American politics, in fact, it has existed for a very long time and is embedded in the history of American politics as far back as 1796 with John Adams and in 1782 with Benjamin Franklin according to a Washington Post article. The Washington Post relates the story about a fake newspaper article which was written and submitted by Benjamin Franklin in which he described a gruesome picture of the discovery by American Forces of 700 boys, girls, soldiers and infants who were scalped by Native Americans. Benjamin Franklin added to his fake article, that the scalps were bagged and accompanied by a letter supporting King George.

This fake news story was promoted by Benjamin Franklin because he felt a sense of anger towards the Native Americans for supporting the British during the Revolutionary Way. Fake News was used as a tool to create public anti trust and hatred for the Native Americans.

Fake news seems to be generated more by American politics than any other activities in America (read more here), but it is not limited to politics. Orson Welles in his radio broadcast in 1938 created hysteria and panic with his fake alien invasion story entitled War of the Worlds.

During the 20th Century, the mass media was used by world leaders to promote propaganda. During  World War One, the British Government used the mass media to influence and manipulate the views against the Germans, while in Germany the Nazi Party used the mass media to promote racial stereotyping and discrimination against the Jews. 
The use of the mass media for propaganda continued during World War Two, but was less successful in changing ideologies since biases and untruths were being notices by the population.
Today, the Internet has served to expand the dissemination of Fake News.

Fake News today differs in the way it is shared. With the entrance of the Internet and the more specifically Social Media, Fake News was more driven by monetary gain rather than propaganda. Before the Internet, publishing fake news and gaining an audience that could be monetized was nearly impossible for three reasons:

  1. Distribution and cost: Physical location, staff, distributors
  2. Audiences and trust: Building a large audience took time adn was expensive, publishing fake news could have damaged credibility and reputation
  3. Laws and regulation: Fewer media organizations, that were easily regulated. 

With the free and mostly unregulated sharing of information afforded by the social media revolution, networks such as Facebook and Twitter allowed for the free exchange of information on a much greater scale, while publishing platforms like WordPress allowed anyone to easily create a dynamic website with ease. This removed some of restrictions mentioned above:

  1. Distribution and cost: The costs of online publishing (via WordPress) and distributing (via social networks) was almost depleted
  2. Audiences and trust: With lower costs and the great level anonymity, reputations are far more expendable
  3. Law and regulation: With the daily growth in online users regulation is almost impossible and requires constant adjustments by social media sites.

(Adapted from