Giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire. These were the astonishing sights witnessed by John Herschel, an eminent British astronomer, when, in 1835, he pointed a powerful telescope “of vast dimensions” towards the Moon from an observatory in South Africa. Or that, at least, was what readers of the New York Sun were told in a series of newspaper reports.
This caused a sensation. People flocked to buy each day’s edition of the Sun. The paper’s circulation shot up from 8,000 to over 19,000 copies, overtaking the Times of London to become the world’s bestselling daily newspaper. There was just one small hitch. The fantastical reports had in fact been concocted by Richard Adams Locke, the Sun’s editor. Herschel was conducting genuine astronomical observations in South Africa. But Locke knew it would take months for his deception to be revealed, because the only means of communication with the Cape was by letter. The whole thing was a giant hoax – or, as we would say today, “fake news”. This classic of the genre illuminates the pros and cons of fake news as a commercial strategy – and helps explain why it has re-emerged in the internet era.
That fake news shifted copies had been known since the earliest days of printing. In the 16th and 17th centuries, printers would crank out pamphlets, or newsbooks, offering detailed accounts of monstrous beasts or unusual occurrences. A newsbook published in Catalonia in 1654 reports the discovery of a monster with “goat’s legs, a human body, seven arms and seven heads”; an English pamphlet from 1611 tells of a Dutch woman who lived for 14 years without eating or drinking. So what if they weren’t true? Printers argued, as internet giants do today, that they were merely providing a means of distribution, and were not responsible for ensuring accuracy.
But newspapers were different. They contained a bundle of different stories, not just one, and appeared regularly under a consistent title. They therefore had reputations to maintain. The Sun, founded in 1833, was the first modern newspaper, funded primarily by advertisers rather than subscriptions, so it initially pursued readership at all costs. At first it prospered from the Moon hoax, even collecting its reports in a bestselling pamphlet. But it was soon exposed by rival papers. Editors also realised that an infinite supply of genuine human drama could be found by sending reporters to the courts and police stations to write true-crime stories – a far more sustainable model. As the 19th century progressed, impartiality and objectivity were increasingly venerated at the most prestigious newspapers.
But in recent years search engines and social media have blown apart newspapers’ bundles of stories. Facebook shows an endless stream of items from all over the web. Click an interesting headline and you may end up on a fake-news site, set up by a political propagandist or a teenager in Macedonia to attract traffic and generate advertising revenue. Peddlers of fake stories have no reputation to maintain and no incentive to stay honest; they are only interested in the clicks. Hence the bogus stories, among the most popular of 2016, that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump, or that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to Islamic State. The impetus behind these was commercial rather than political; it transpired that Trump supporters were more likely to click and share bogus stories.
Thanks to internet distribution, fake news is again a profitable business. This flowering of fabricated stories corrodes trust in the media in general, and makes it easier for unscrupulous politicians to peddle half-truths. Media organisations and technology companies are struggling to determine how best to respond. Perhaps more overt fact-checking or improved media literacy will help. But what is clear is that a mechanism that held fake news in check for nearly two centuries – the bundle of stories from an organisation with a reputation to protect – no longer works. We will need to invent new ones.
Tom Standage is deputy editor of The Economist
IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS