View From The Side: A Short History Of Fake News


The term Fake News has had such a strong showing in the first quarter of 2017 that it'd be a dead cert to win OED’s phrase of the year award- or it would be, had they not already given the award to the grander sounding “Post-Truth” back in 2016*.

So Fake News is found everywhere and cited by everyone. Every given moment of 2017 the term has popped up in one form or another: This week Facebook tried to combat the trend by chucking a load of adverts in people’s feed giving instructions on how to spot if someone’s getting a little bit cheeky with the facts. Elsewhere a teenager on Twitter has got 30,000 gullible people to retweet a photoshopped message exchange where “Oprah Winfrey” promised to go to the prom with him if he got 15,000 retweets.   



And let's not even get into the stuff coming out of the White House… We're at one of the occasional stages in humanity where the interface with a relatively new technology has become so intuitive it has been adopted by far more people than actually understand how easy it is to game the system. I can’t help but think that the deluge of mad crap coming out now is going to appear quaintly entertaining in a century's time (assuming – perhaps unwisely– that this phase of humanity is still around in a century's time). My reasoning for this is that, despite breathless headlines, fake news isn’t a new phenomenon. There are quite clear parallels between the current technologically enabled boom in hoaxers and charlatans and a similar boom that occurred in the years surrounding the Industrial Revolution, or, as I like to think of it; The Golden Age of Bullshit.

As with now, the period from the mid 18th to late 19th Century was a time when technology became both extremely complex and widely available. The printing press, long a laborious process, became industrialised at the opening of the 19th Century, resulting in an explosion of communication media along with a huge swell of literacy – much the same as millions of people suddenly having access to mobile phones and social media, millions of people had the ability to read and access to printed material, but were naïve to the potential for reshaping reality this represented. Chumps ripe for the taking!


Examples of vintage fake news are plentiful. One of the most persistent areas of abuse was in the world of medicine – the explosion in mass media led to a corrosponding explosion in quackery. With the early adopter mentality of hucksters throughout history, medical crooks quickly grasped the persuasive new language of advertising, filling newspapers with tall claims touting the miraculous properties of their wares. These concoctions were termed Nostrums by a disapproving medical profession, and the name came to be applied to any cure created by an amateur known to have limited, non-existent or even adverse effect. There are hordes of these nostrums to be found recorded online, and there even seems to be a fairly buoyant trade in the (admittedly beautifully crafted) bottles that they’d often come in- personally I’m quite taken with this Swamp Root bottle.

However, the term Nostrum implies that this was medicine somehow practiced outside the accepted body of thought, and often this simply wasn’t the case. Dr Ebenezer Sibly, an accredited physician who had a doctorate from University College, Aberdeen, made his name at the close of the 18th Century with his remarkable Reanimating Solar Tincture. Not one to do things by halves, Silby claimed to be able to cure death itself. Or, as the good doctor put it, his tincture “supersedes every art and invention. In all circumstances of suicide, or sudden death, whether by blows, fits, falls, suffocation, strangulation, drowning, apoplexy, thunder and lightning, assassination, duelling, &c., immediate recourse should be had to this medicine, which will not fail to restore life, provided the organs and juices are in a fit disposition for it, which they undoubtedly are much oftener than is imagined.” This stuff cures EVERYTHING. Brilliant. Unfortunately there are no known records of Silby actually bringing someone back from the banks of the Charon so we’ll have to take his word for the tinctures supernatural powers. And we wouldn’t be alone in doing so– the tincture proved so popular it continued to be flogged until the 1870s (some years after Silby’s death – gonna have to assume he didn’t have a bottle to hand when he passed)  

In October 2016, an empty bottle of Sibly’s tincture sold at auction for £8,200  – I’d love to think it went to a modern day alchemist convinced they were going to use it to create some new reanimating liquid. Looking at the image of the bottle from the auction site, you can clearly see that it’s got a royal seal of approval on it – this is interesting, suggesting as it does that this was aristocratically approved quackery; the equivalent of Prince Charles co-signing a set of mail order X-Ray glasses (I’m not saying he wouldn’t).**


Newspapers in 2017 have come in for loads of stick when it comes to fake news, and partially this is because they have been caught in an arms race with the less regulated world of online blogging – the likes of Breitbart on the right or The Canary on the left that can drop outrageous claims with little need for veracity. But, again, rather than a new development, this really just brings us closer to the world of journalism that newsmen first imagined.

I think my favourite of all the many, many ridiculous stories published in the 1800s has to be the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Published in the New York Sun (imagine! A paper called The Sun printing lies…), the GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADE BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c. At the Cape of Good Hope was a 6 part series that detailed some incredible scientific breakthroughs. Purported to be written by one Dr. Andrew Grant, who was working alongside Sir John Herschel (a noted astronomer of the day), the series opened with ‘Dr Grant’ claiming that a team led by Herschel had finally created a lens strong enough to see the surface of the moon up close– and what the team had witnessed was the stuff of dreams.

Over the 6 excerpts, Grant detailed the moon’s fantastical flora and fauna; rolling fields of dark red flowers, spherical amphibious creatures rolling “with great velocity across the pebbly beach”, giant size beavers who walked on two legs, lived in mud huts and lit fires, and societies of man-bats "covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair," who, scandalously, could be seen shagging as they cavorted through the sky.

The story was immensely popular and widely believed. It’s now considered to be the first mass media event – thanks to industrialised printing, The Sun already had a large circulation before the moon revelations broke – not only did they reach the Sun’s large audience, they were also reprinted by every other newspaper in New York, were shouted by paper boys hawking from street corners, and were subsequently discussed in dive bars and uptown restaurants alike. The Sun never actually came clean about the hoax, which was likely created as both a circulation drive and a satire on some of the taller claims of contemporary astronomers. According to the excellent Museum of Hoaxes website (which you can spend hours trawling through), a year after the hoax first dropped

Dr. Meredith Reese, a respectable New York physician, wrote a work titled ‘Humbugs of New York: Being a Remonstrance against Popular Delusion whether in Science, Philosophy, or Religion’, in which he included …remarks about the widespread belief in the hoax:

“In relation to philosophical humbugs, an illustrious example is furnished by the celebrated moon story, ingeniously fabricated by a shrewd and intelligent practitioner on public gullibility, and the success of which proved, that he had rightly judged of the character of our population in regard to their readiness to swallow the most sublimated nonsense, when dignified by the name of science… There are very many in our city, who to the present hour, regard those revelations with more of reverence and confidence than any of the established truths in physics or morals.

The run-away success of the Moon Hoax in shifting papers can be seen as a pre-cursor to the Yellow Journalism of the late 19th Century. Yellow Journalism is the practice of writing sensationalist stories with scandalous headlines, with the barest recourse to facts or evidence. In the 1890s William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, editors of the New York Journal and New York World respectively, were locked in a circulation war. They soon realised that knocking out the 19th Century equivalent of clickbait was the way forward and filled their pages with lurid crime and society sleaze. They are famously accused of kick starting the Spanish-American War of 1898 by running story after story on the appalling conditions being suffered in Cuba under Spanish rule (tbf historians dispute this claim, pointing out quite reasonably that the papers only circulated in New York, and the vast majority of Americans lived elsewhere). Still the idea of newspapers trying to stir up hostilities against Spain with overly aggressive comment chimes something of a bell in post-Brexit Britain. 


So what’s to be learnt from the fact that fake news has been around for as long as mass media? I guess all you can take is the fact that any time a new technology upends the way stories are told, then the narratives we signpost our lives with will find themselves similarly upended. More importantly, why do we continually set so much belief in the tales we are told by strangers? The 19th Century may well have been beset with stories of bogus cures and man-bats on the moon, but the readership absorbing these wild tales were also far more aware that entertainment came first, factual evidence a distant second. Historian Michael Robertson has claimed that "newspaper reporters and readers of the 1890s were much less concerned with distinguishing among fact-based reporting, opinion and literature." So when did we start believing that men in the business of selling media were at all interested in the dull complexities of truth?

Essentially the relationship between those telling stories and those listening has always been one of tricksters and gulls. The modern world has slipped into expecting the set-up to be any different – but seeing as it never has been, why should it be when the opportunities to reshape the world into narratives that suit our prejudices are greater than ever? When, in future years, someone invents screens that you wear in your eyes, or holograms are beamed into our homes, or finds a way to hear echoes of Jesus's voice, still bouncing through the stratasphere from a couple of thousand years back, then you can bet that a part of mankind will rub it's hands in malicous glee at the chance to lie in fresh and inventive ways once more. Maybe we should just learn to enjoy it….   

*other recent 'word of the year' winners- on a list seemingly designed to fill the heart with sorrow- include Selfie in 2013, Vape in 2014 and the crying with laughter emoji in 2015

**This may all sound ludicrous to us now, but America continues this tradition of advertising advanced quackery to this day – take this advert for sleeping pills I caught when I was last out there; the small print points out that they can also cause “aggressiveness… hallucinations… and risk of suicide” but still they’re being marketed as a remedy.. I mean as far as I can tell, at least Silby never actually killed anyone with his Solar Tincture…

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