How can one tell if news is fake or not?

My customer helps me decide

I have been noticing just how often the phrase “fake news” is being used these days, (the answer is “all the time”) and that started me pondering when fake news itself first came about.

When I mentioned this to one of my customers who has a collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings stored with Admiral he told me “fake news” it is much older than one might think.  And although he didn’t have any actual print examples to prove it (something he excused by the tiny detail that printing hadn’t been invented at the time) he told me that the pharaoh Rameses the Great is said to have created a story about the Battle of Kadesh over 3000 years ago in which he set himself up as the great victor of the battle.

“So how do we know that was fake?” I asked, and was told that the treaty that brought the war to an end and which is recorded on papyrus shows the battle as being a stalemate.

Now of course it could be the treaty itself that is fake news, but normally treaties are written by the victors for the vanquished to sign, and the victors never underplay the size of their victory, so that seems a little unlikely.

The early days of the Roman Empire knew a bit about fake news also, and we can tell this, it seems, since much of the information that popular history has carried forward about Mark Antony comes from the writings of the Emperor Augustus, who as Emperor had a pretty free hand when it came to writing up the records of events.

Augustus had his team of fake news writers create what he claimed was Mark Antony’s will which said that he (Mark Antony) wished to be entombed with the pharaohs – which caused public outrage.  It does seem to be true, however, that Mark Antony eventually killed himself after hearing the fake news that Cleopatra had killed herself.

I put it to my customer that this meant that fake news really was just rumour by another name, although he begged to differ slightly.  “Rumour,” he said, “can happen by chance, and those who propagate it at first do so genuinely believing it to be true.  Fake news is deliberately created and known to be false by the person inventing it.”

Either way fake news can be awful in its consequences.  In 1475 in Trento in Italy a story did the rounds that the local Jewish community had murdered a Christian child, using his blood for a religious ritual.  In the resultant popular uprising all the Jews in the city were rounded up and 15 were burned to death.

“And,” I was told, ”we should not forget that some things that are said to be fake news are actually true.  Galileo suffered somewhat in that regard.”

What I didn’t know however was that so keen was the government of the Netherlands to maintain its publishing industry as a highly respected and truthful enterprise that the publication of fake news was specifically banned.

But no matter how anyone tries to stop it, fake news keeps breaking forth.  Apparently Benjamin Franklin created a series of fake news stories concerning how native Americans were working with King George III by attacking brave American settlers and scalping them.  The aim was simply to secure absolute support for American independence.

On listening to such tales I began to develop a little theory of my own.  It is, of course, only a theory and should not be taken too seriously at this point, but it might come in handy one day.  It goes like this.

The more unreasonable, bad, illogical or just plain daft the proposition, the more illogical and unlikely is the fake news that is created to support it.

in 1730, for example, the Governor of Virginia reported that a slave rebellion had occurred but was effectively put down – and that black slaves had been seen who had spontaneously turned from black to white.  There was no rebellion… I leave you to decide on the likelihood of the second proposition.

So it continues.  Last year the Daily Express reported that a mission to Mars had spotted children’s toys in the red dust.  Of course the toys were untrue – but then so was the mission. There was no mission.

However, sometimes the consequences can be awful. The late 19th century Spanish American War (I was informed) was created when an American ship’s faulty boiler exploded in Havana Harbour.  There was no attack on the ship, but one was announced, and the war started.

In the first World War most English papers contained the news that those who had died on the battlefields were being rendered down to make soap (in one story) or nitro-glycerine (in another).  This was being done by the enemy, of course, not by our side.  It was ever thus.

Moving on to modern times my customer then reminded me of the story to the effect that in 2016 Buzzfeed identified 140 fake news websites in Macedonia that were flooding Facebook with fake news, running stories like  “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 yet people believed them.  And thus began the modern – and internet-friendly – life of the phrase “fake news”.