While some scholars have tried to identify the historical origins of fake news, resulting in various versions on the topic, the truth is that fake news has probably been around for as long as humans have lived in groups. In fact, before the invention of the press, stories were transferred from mouth to mouth, inevitably changing their connotation due to interpretation differences and understanding issues. On the other hand, groups normally present internal and external power dynamics which often lead to the creation of fake stories made up in order to discredit a member of the group or external rivals.
This concept can expand as far as the psychology of the masses goes: the higher the role of the person who spreads the news is within the group – identified as the leader – the easier it is for the group to believe the fake news is true. In ancient years, community leaders were the only ones able to read stone or clay incisions, leaving a large amount of space for their imagination and interpretation to feed the rest of the group with content. Therefore, if it is true that fake news existed long before the invention of the press, it is also important to remember that the press helped them be widespread. Ultimately, it was not just the small community that had access to the news, but these could reach a larger amount of people.
Press and war
Along with the diffusion of the printed press, the gap between literate and illiterate became evident. Who could read and write had the power to manipulate who could not, making the latter belief news in their own interests?. In the 1890s, the press started using what is called “yellow journalism”. It is an American term employed to identify either articles or papers based on a large amount of non-researched content, balancing its credibility with eye-catching, emotionally driven titles.
Historically, the term comes from the comic “Hogan’s Alley” which was featured in the New York World and presented a yellow-kid character. New York World started to use sensationalistic titles to sell newspapers, in order to compete with Pulitzer. It was the break of the Spanish-American war, often defined as the media war. Journalists started pushing vividly written news stories with the result of facilitating the United States into a war with Spain. This conflict is a great example of propaganda: information is spread in order to give a clear direction to the public opinion, gaining its favour for political purposes.
Historical fake news
As mentioned above, groups and communities tend to believe in the power of their leaders, rarely questioning their credibility. This was the case for the Great Religion Earthquake of Lisbon, which happened on November 1, 1755. For the Christian Church, November 1 has a very important meaning as it coincides with All Saint, a feast of certain Christian churches that celebrate all saints, including those not canonized. The earthquake destroyed almost every church in the surroundings of Lisbon: this was exploited by religious authorities of the time who, pushing on the superstitious of their followers, declared the earthquake happened because of God’s anger towards the sins humanity was committing.
Another important example of historical fake news is the dispute between Octavian and Mark Anthony, during the Roman Republic. A civil war was going on between the two, connected to the acquisition of status within the Republic. In order to stand out and win the war, Octavian knew that it was crucial to have the public opinion in his favor. For this reason, he claimed Mark Anthony was unfaithful towards the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, along with being often drunk and therefore unfit for the office. Octavian found a very original way of proposing this fake news to the public: he did it through poetry and slogans printed on coins. In the end, he won the war.
Contemporary fake news
Nowadays, the accessibility to different information online, the lack of counterfactual double checking and the need for clickbait, led fake news to become an industry. In particular, the 2016 US presidential election and the diffusion of social media platforms helped the term fake news become so popular to be Collin’s Dictionary word of the year. In the city of Veles, in the central part of North Macedonia, during the US presidential elections, a group of young Macedonians rode the wave of the increasing interest in fake news to implement websites targeting Trump supporters. The websites mainly featured fake news around political adversaries, in order to discredit them.
The websites started growing in number and visits, enabling these young people to earn money from the activity: over a hundred websites were tracked during the last week of presidential campaigns. The drive that led young Macedonians to create this fake news engine was not political, but money-driven. They built an economy detached from the current Macedonian work market: they were able to gain, in a very short amount of time, far more than the average salary. They just recognized interest and worked to make it grow with fake content.
But where does their profit come from? Ad services like Google’s AdSense, a program that enterprises use to display Google advertisements on websites, played a role in that. Each click on the advertisement makes the promoters of the website earn money which is directly paid on their bank accounts.
The future: deepfake
Source: The World Economic Forum
Today, the diffuse knowledge around technology makes it easier to distort reality through photo post-production and text editing. In this context, filmmaking and video documentaries have been considered reliable sources to prevent distortion and fake material circulation, as they are harder to manipulate. Despite that, deepfake are now putting at risk the trustworthiness of video materials. Deepfakes are videos that employ particular software to create digital versions of people. They function on an advanced machine learning technology that employs neural networks. For instance, in the process, the body of a person could be connected to the face of another.
Working on algorithms, deepfake create two videos: one which will be the later-shared video and the second one which is the “controller”, trying to determine whether the computer recognizes the first video as fake. If the “controller” is not able to spot the distortion, the first fake video can be shared and reach users. Despite deepfake and AI are currently being used to enhance fake content, these are also tools that can be employed to help society thrive. It is just a matter of intentions.
Carlotta Sofia Grassi