Is Fake News Really A New Phenomenon?

When I was a teenager in the 1980s everyone knew someone who had a friend of a friend who had flushed an alligator down the toilet that had grown into a sewer monster or knew the lurid story about some rock star or movie star who got a hamster stuck in their derriere and had to go to the ER because a friend of their friend’s mother was a nurse at that hospital. We spent hours pontificating about these “true” stories, which in reality turned out to be urban legends 

Although the phrase has changed, the principle has remained much the same. Today instead of huddling around a half-eaten pizza, sharing tantalizing stories at a slumber party, people are huddled around their smart phones and computers consuming these types of “stories” or as they have been coined, fake news. And the effects have been paramount in everything from election results to slandering someone’s good name.  

Many of us tend to associate the phrase fake news as a modern phenomenon, a phrase that captures the zeitgeist of the 21st century perhaps. But hang on a tick, at a closer look fake news has been running wild with abandon way before it became a neologism. It was just packaged differently according to each time and place in society. However the goals have been startling the same, to manipulate a group of people or sway a group of people into believing something that simply is not based upon any fact, only on hearsay and conjecture. 

Rumour Has It 

A quote from the poet Cheryl Pearson comes to mind, “Before there was witch, there were women.” Going back approximately 400 years to the Salem village in one of the first American colonies, fake news aggravated the locals of the village and resulted in 19 innocent people being hung. How did the word of three young girls end up becoming the truth among so-called educated men? The number one cause was fear and much like today, when people get fearful of something they know or understand little about they begin to get paranoid. Salem was struggling as a colony due to food shortages, exposure to an unknown wilderness and constant threat of attack from a people they considered savages (1). As a result the colonists felt vulnerable and this vulnerability created the right conditions for rumours that led to hate mongering. And it all started out of the mouth of three young girls. Although there are different types of threats today that we face on a global scale, the principles fueling fake news are much the same as they were 400 years ago, such as fear, ignorance and power.  

Back in the days of Salem, the information spread word of mouth, much like the urban legend stories mentioned previously.  However due to the rise of the smart phone, posting fake news or a rumour via social media is like dropping a match during a drought in a forest. It spreads like a wild fire. It quickly reaches far and wide, as was the case with both the Brexit and the 2016 US Presidential Elections. Had those old patriarchs in Salem not been so fearful of the uncertainty of the world around them and took the time to dig deeper into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the accusers, perhaps they would have chosen differently and not executed as many innocent people as they did. What would the outcome have been if they had taken more time to consider the source of their information? In the case of Salem, the fake news the girls propagated was to damage the entities of people and led to fatal circumstances.  

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words 

Leap forward a couple of hundred years to France, to the tail end of the rococo movement and a place called Versailles. In moved a young, spirited princess by the name of Marie-Antoinette (2).

This young foreigner initially brought with her a breath of fresh air through the palaces old lace curtains and hanger-on-ers. However, there were those in the house of royals who didn’t take well to having an Austrian alien among their midst and from day one began circulating rumours to damage the newly appointed princess. In Paris by the 1780’s the streets were littered with a seedy type of publication called libelles. These libelles used vulgar humour and pornographic satire combining illustrations and stories that appealed to both the literate and illiterate masses (2).

  There was hardly ever anything truthful to the stories but as the princess became a queen and the conditions in France became ripe for revolution, she became their main target. There was a disconnection between the peasants and the court.  Most people were completely separated from the court and therefore had very little information about the reality about the royal family. Furthermore, poverty was widespread and like the aforementioned situation in Salem, people were fearful, in this case, because crops had failed, there was not enough to eat and poverty was rampant. Due to this fear grew the need to place the blame somewhere. Daily fake news was circulated about Marie-Antoinette, slandering her name by accusing her of the most vile and outrageous behaviour (3). According to historian Robert Darton, “The avalanche of defamation that overwhelmed her between 1789 and her execution on October 16, 1793, has no parallel in the history of vilification” (4). The defamation of her character through these libelles was so widespread that they cancelled out any reality about the person she actually was. 

Why were the libelles so powerful and widespread? First off they came in an array of publications. Sometimes they were fliers or what they called broadsheets or pamphlets, they could be in the form of a script for theatre, essays or even produced as cartoons (5). 

The libelles functioned much the same way our fake news sites are functioning today, being pumped out at a fast pace, back then daily, in comparison to today’s standards which is within minutes. Many people during that time period were uneducated and unable to read but the libelles licentious images of the queen made her recognizable and the stories or news easy to understand despite the mendacity they were spreading. By sullying the name of Queen Antoinette, the foreign queen, the public was able to attack the king indirectly. Interesting enough, many of these libelle presses were located outside France, much like the fake media sites that have come to light today that are operating out of Russia and other foreign hubs.  

They were what we would call in today’s world upstarts that set up shop in places where the publishing laws were much more lax. Similar to the actual writers and networks of fake news today, they were actually more intent on making quick money rather than bringing about a revolution. However again like today, there were people who had political ambitions that helped fuel the funding of this propaganda machine, back then aristocrats who had turned their back against the court and today alleged governments that want to cause chaos in other countries. In the case of Salem and in France the end result of all of the fake news lead to the execution of people who were innocent of the crimes they were being punished for. 

The Spy Who Love Me 

During the mid-20th century another type of fear was growing, especially in America. As tensions rose between the former Soviet Union and the United States of America something called the Red Scare took hold in the US. This Red Scare term was coined to describe people who were believed to have communist tendencies and therefore had leanings towards Russia and their red flag. This scare led the government to take action against its federal employees by analysing their activities which allowed them to determine if they were loyal enough to the government and therefore their jobs (6). Unfortunately this scare spread and led  

investigations into Hollywood and many people were then falsely accused of being communist. People either confessed that they were involved in communist activities or they were pressured and sometimes bullied into accusing others, sometimes even friends that they were communist. A whole campaign spread across the media. Even the once beloved Charlie Chaplin fled his adopted country to Switzerland because of bullying from the government, accusing him of unlawful activities when he had only ever spoke his mind. 

One of the saddest cases from this era is that of the Rosenbergs. Julius Rosenberg was a member of The American Communist Party and lost his government job as a result of the Red Scare. However his brother-in-law made a deadly accusation that ended up costing not only Julius but his wife’s Ethel’s life, leaving behind two small children. His brother-in-law Greenglass, confessed that Rosenberg asked him to give the Soviet Union instructions on how to build atomic weapons (7). However the actual materials were given to the USSR by Harry Gold an acquaintance of Greenglass (8).

According to historian Herbert Packer, “Not only were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—and Morton Sobell—unjustly convicted, they were punished for a crime that never occurred” (7). This has been claimed on more than one occasion because the only direct evidence there was was the confession of Greenglass. So why did the jury and government want to believe one person instead of looking more closely at the bigger picture? How could it be that one person’s fake news could be enough to bring a husband and wife, father and mother to be executed? For similar reasons as to why fake news is being propagated today, there was a fear about communism infiltrating the American way of life, that word fear again. There was also the idea that if they could scare the Rosenbergs enough, they would confess and give them names of other spies. The federal officials had hoped that  

Julius Rosenberg would not be able to handle the pressure on death row and would give in and save his wife, the mother of his children, by confessing the names of other spies. Unfortunately, if you’re not guilty how can you confess? Sadly, the Rosenbergs were made an example and executed. It has since been revealed that they were involved in some kind of espionage but not to the extent in which they were executed for. Their two children have been working tirelessly to clear their mother’s name. 

History Continues to Repeat Itself 

Today, misinformation can be spread in seconds, popping up on our screens and changing our whole perception within moments planting the seeds of doubt in our psyche. Once those ideas take root they become harder to eradicate, not unlike weeds in a garden. Throughout history, it is evident that the best way to sell a story is by providing sensationalist details. However, fake news does this by straying away from the truth. The one thing that links each of the above examples is that misleading information was used to frame all of these individuals. During each of these periods, fake news was generated by the quickest means possible at first by word of mouth, later by the printing press and with illustrations, and today by way of social media. But why does it leave such an impact on us? Perhaps because it is formulated in such a way that it elicits an emotional response, as in the case of each example I used it was fear. Furthermore, much like the urban legends I described from my childhood, fake news provides us with more tantalizing stories that are shorter and easier to remember which allow us to be able to spread them more easily. I hope for myself and the rest of the world, we can learn to better assess and double check our sources before our happy little fingers tap on our screens and repost the first bit of news that pops up on our social media pages. 


1 www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489 

2, 3, 4, 5 http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/libelles/ retrieved 10.5.18 

6, 7 https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/red-scare retrieved 10.5.18 

The Strange Trial of the Rosenbergs, Packard, Herbert. Doubleday 1966, p.403 




Author: TAK Erzinger
Email: tania.erzinger@gmail.com
Author Bio: TAK Erzinger is an American/Swiss poet and artist. She is also an English teacher who earned a BA in English from Boston University and her English teaching certification from the University of Cambridge.

Her poems have been published in anthologies by Her Heart Poetry Publishing Press (New Zealand) and Artson Publishing House (India). She has also been featured numerous times by The Ministry of Poetic Affairs (Holland) and she won their 2017 Mother Earth poetry competition. In February her first micro-chap collection entitled Water Songs was published by The Origami Poetry Project (USA). In spring her poem That Teacher was short-listed for Zathom’s March 2018 Spring Competition (USA). Her writing has also been featured in Harness Magazine, Hello Switzerland, Naturewriting.com and the Mojave He[art] Review.
Link to website: https://poetryvagabond.wordpress.com/ 

by TAK Erzinger

TAK Erzinger is an American/Swiss poet, artist and teacher with a Latino background. Her close relationship with nature and her struggles with PTSD feature prominently in her work. The themes in her poetry touch upon varying degrees of loss, forgiveness and healing, as well some environmental and social commentary. She lives in a Swiss valley with her husband and two cats.


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