The (Almost) Complete History of ‘Fake News’

Written by on April 7, 2018 in Entertainment, Media & Arts, Social Media with 0 Comments

Image via Alamy / BBC

By Mike Wendling | BBC


In record time, the phrase morphed from a description of a social media phenomenon into a journalistic cliche and an angry political slur. How did the term “fake news” evolve – and what's next in the world of disinformation?

It was mid-2016, and Buzzfeed's media editor, Craig Silverman, noticed a funny stream of completely made-up stories that seemed to originate from one small Eastern European town.

“We ended up finding a small cluster of news websites all registered in the same town in Macedonia called Veles,” Silverman recalls.

He and a colleague started to investigate, and shortly before the US election they identified at least 140 fake news websites which were pulling in huge numbers on Facebook.

The young people in Veles may or may not have had much interest in American politics, but because of the money to be made via Facebook advertising, they wanted their fiction to travel widely on social media. The US presidential election – and specifically Donald Trump – was (and of course still is) a very hot topic on social media.

And so the Macedonians and other purveyors of fakery wrote stories with headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide”.

They were completely false. And thus began the modern – and internet-friendly – life of the phrase “fake news”.

Nothing new here

Misinformation, spin, lies and deceit have of course been around forever. But what Silverman and others uncovered was a unique marriage between social media algorithms, advertising systems, people prepared to make stuff up to earn some easy cash and an election that gripped a nation and much of the world.

In the wake of President Trump's victory, BBC Trending delved into the huge world of pro-Trump Facebook groups. Inside those hyper-partisan spaces there were some outright falsehoods circulating.

But most of the content was more traditional political communication: puffery, drumbeating, and opponent-slagging. There were memes showing Trump as a fearless leader, support for his pledges to deport illegal immigrants, and potted biographies describing the candidate as “the very definition of the American success story.” It was hardly balanced stuff – but nor did much of it qualify as “fake news”.

But pundits scrambling to explain the shock result (and in many cases, their own follies) turned to “fake news” as one possible explanation.

Enter politics

The phrase now evokes much more than those get-rich-quick Macedonian teenagers. President Trump even gave out “Fake News Awards” to reporters who had made errors or poor predictions – with a special nod to all reporting on the ongoing and very real investigations into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But to say that President Trump was the first politician to deploy the term would itself be, well, “fake news”.

On 8 December 2016, Hillary Clinton made a speech in which she mentioned “the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year.”

“It's now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” she said. “This isn't about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk… lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.”

Some journalists at the time interpreted her remarks as a reference to “Pizzagate”, a bonkers conspiracy theory which sprouted and grew to tremendous proportions online.

It started with a rumour that sex slaves were being held under a Washington pizza restaurant, and ended a couple of days before Clinton's speech, when a man entered the busy family-friendly restaurant with a rifle. Nobody was injured, and the man was arrested and sentenced to four years in jail.

But in that speech, Clinton also asked her audience to help “protect our democracy”. Other reporters interpreted that more broadly as a reference to the election.

President-elect Trump took up the phrase the following month, in January 2017, a little over a week before taking office. In response to a question, he said “you're fake news” to CNN reporter Jim Acosta. Around the same time he started repeating the phrase on Twitter.

“That signalled to the many people out there who were supporting Trump and running websites supportive of him, that he was saying ‘OK, we're going to take this term and make it ours',” Silverman says.

The fake news horse had not just bolted from the stable, it was off and running.



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