Fake News and False Reputations: a review of Ian Hislop’s Fake News: A True History

In the eye of the propaganda storm.

The Internet is being gamed. These days you wouldn’t even need to employ real humans to do the work for you. It can all be done by robots. There was a good program on the BBC the other week. It was called Ian Hislop’s Fake News: A True History. In it he traces the fake news phenomenon back to its roots in the growth of mass circulation newspapers in the 19th century. Fake news isn’t new. A number of newspapers engaged in it. They didn’t care that it was fake: and neither did their readers. It sold. He gives a number of examples, including one where a newspaper claimed to be citing a report in a scientific journal about life on the Moon. Someone had trained a very high-powered telescope on the surface of our nearest neighbor, and through that was able to see its inhabitants and what they were up to. The Moon was occupied by miniature bison, unicorns and flying man-bats. This was in an age when astronomy was still in its infancy. Many people believed the story. It was the talk of New York and made the newspaper in which it appeared, the New York Sun, a lot of money.

From that he traces the history of fake news to the modern day, taking in a number of examples which most of us will recognize. Fake news has been used to start wars. There can’t be many people who reached adulthood before 20th March 2003 who aren’t aware of this. It was fake news about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that started the war that still shapes our world today. The irony is that a number of people now complaining about fake news online were themselves responsible for spreading that particular piece of disinformation, both people in power, and those whose job it was to supposedly report the news.

Come in Tony Blair, your time is up.

In fact if you were to trace the origins of the current rash of fake news, that particular story would rank very high on the list. How many of us, realizing that we were deliberately lied to in order to start a war that never should’ve happened, can trace our scepticism to that one example? Once you start to disbelieve what the mainstream media is telling you, you’re left with no option but to find other sources. It’s the proliferation of such sources online that has led to our current predicament. How much of is true, and how much is just complete nonsense?

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