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This current election has brought the idea of fake news from the dusty racks along supermarkets to the mainstream. For many growing up in the 80s and 90s, when one heard "fake news," they thought of the National Enquirer, with articles "confirming" not only Elvis' continued survival into the present, but also that he, in actuality, was an alien from Alpha Centauri. Obviously, a ridiculous story.
But now, thanks to the internet, fake news is so prevalent that some find it hard to tell it apart from real news. Political perspectives have become so divisive that many seek out news to validate their own opinions without actually caring about whether or not the information is factual.
But this is not a new problem...
Sadly, one of the earliest examples of fake news lead to a surge of antisemetic hate crimes. In 1475, Easter Sunday, a report emerged in Trent, Italy about a series of gruesome murders. A young boy, not even three years of age, was kidnapped by Jewish men, and drained of blood for an eldritch Passover ceremony.
Obviously, this "massacre" never happened. The Vatican tried to prove the news report false, but, by then, it was too late. Angry mobs gathered together for the sole purpose of avenging the "death" of this child. For centuries later, people justified their anti-Semitism by claiming that the Jews killed babies and drank of their blood. Even though the Pope himself tried to stop the spread of this falsehood, the fake news could not be stopped. Sensationalist and galvanizing, false news is more than just deception. It can lead to true terror. Which leads to...
It is no surprise that the Nazis used fake news. It's even less of a surprise that their "fake news" is literally just a rehash of the old Trent story. Revived accounts of Jews draining babies of blood ran rampant throughout Nazi Germany, all part of their effort to make them a scapegoat upon which all of Germany's woes could be blamed.
Most infamous among their propaganda, however, are reports that Jews held all the jobs. Germany had been hit by one of history's worst financial depressions following its defeat in WWI. With much of the country dirt poor, Nazis insisted that the Jews stole all the jobs, pointing to a few examples of Jewish men with financial stability. Those Jews, after all, kept the working German out of a job. These beliefs were rubbish, of course. The Jews, living in Germany, suffered just like every other German. Hitler and the Nazis just utilized preexisting prejudices against them in order to galvanize his crew into a hate-fueled fever pitch.
The Libson Earthquake
Let's move away from anti-Semitism. It's too specific of a lens. Let's just look at fake news that claims all of humanity deserves death.
In 1755, an earthquake hit Libson, Portugal. Many people believed that God had triggered the earthquake due to his displeasure with man's sinful ways. Lacking facts or proof to confirm this, many zealots chose to just make some of their own. They wrote false accounts from survivors who claimed that the Virgin Mary materialized before them in order to guide them to safety. Of course, since the survivors were good people, this meant that they should survive the earthquake, which had only occurred to cull the sinners of the world.
As one can imagine, this made a lot of people angry, including the real survivors who insisted that, no, the Virgin Mary did not guide them away from their crumbling house as debris crushed their innocent loved ones. Once the air ran from this false news balloon, the story...continued circulating. No matter what factual evidence emerged, the story did not die, and would be spread by word-of-mouth for decades to come.
In 1761, Marc-Antoine Calas, son of respected Protestant merchant Jean Calas, killed himself. No one really understands why--not even today. The man was well-liked and well-established in his community. While the circumstances of the suicide remain a mystery today, at the time people were left shell-shocked and confused. Many Catholic activists started a false report claiming that Marc-Antoine had been trying to convert to Catholicism, but his father, refusing to see his son go down that path, murdered him. Marc-Antoine had been a martyr for the Catholic cause, they cried.
Armed with a false report, the people rallied against Jean, throwing him into a kangaroo court that found him guilty. Jean was brutally tortured. His limbs--stretched until they sprang from their sockets. They poured 30 pints of water down his throat until his organs burst inside him. Even as they killed him, he professed his innocence. This episode would be lost to history if not for Voltaire, the philosopher and satirist, recording it for history's sake.
Enough violence. Enough death. Let's talk about something lighter. Let us take solace in the fact that the world has always had false financial reports about their political adversaries, and this has only lead to revolution, bloodshed, and horror--oh, wait.
Enter France, pre-revolution. Political division ran rampant. Pamphlets were everywhere, proclaiming to have insider information about the disaster that was the French economy at the time. People could walk down a street in Paris, and collect dozens of such pamphlets. Many posted contradictory numbers, but every one of them claimed to to know exactly who was to blame for these staggering, unverified statistics: the other party.
Eventually, however, information leaked from the French crown, and set the record straight, but, even then, only the most careful Frenchmen could discern fact from fiction. And the false reports divided the nation enough to, eventually, lead to the famous Revolution.
King George's Indian Scalping Squad
Let's move onto that special brand of fake news: American fake news. Took us long enough to get here.
Benjamin Franklin actually fell for this one. People claimed that Native Americans had ambushed them and attempted to scalp them. The reports claimed that these Natives had been hired by King George himself in order to destroy the fledgling revolution from within.
Considering, however, that King George had just fought the French-Indian War, where the British and Americans had fought the Native American tribes, this seems just a little ridiculous. Of course, due once again to the xenophobia and prejudices already running rampant in the country, this story spread like wild fire.
Black Slaves Turned White
In another example of fake news being a source of utter cruelty, fake news spread frequently in the Antebellum South against the slaves. There are countless fake reports of slave uprisings that never happened, written to justify racism already rampant in the south...but then there's this bizarre report that gained some traction.
The report claimed that, in the south, several slaves had just...turned white. Overnight. That somehow, like Pokemon, they had evolved thanks to the pampering and care of those oh-so-generous slave owners.
This story is ridiculous, yet remained popular throughout the whole South, perhaps because, in their minds, it justified their horrific abuse of a racial minority and financial dependability on slave labor because they genuinely believed that beating the black out of their slaves made them "better."
In 1835, The New York Sun published a report about a Great Moon Civilization hovering in the heavens, every night, watching the world below. This report boosted sales of The Sun so vastly that the publication became a mainstream news source for decades to come.
Moon people. They published a piece...on moon people. People living on the barren wasteland overhead. Moon people. No matter how many times you say that, it doesn't get less stupid, nor is it any less incredible that people ACTUALLY BELIEVED IT!
No Irish Needed
In 19th Century America, people hated Catholics. Irish and Italian immigrants met harsh treatment at the hands of the rest of the country. In 1844, newspapers in Philadelphia spread false reports of Irish stealing bibles from schools. Why Catholics would need to steal Bibles when they probably had their own was anybody's guess, but no one thought that hard. They just blindly believed what was written.
And that led to a series of violent attacks on Irish immigrants throughout not only Philadelphia but also the country as a whole. Gangs of Protestants would attack the Irish, and viciously beat and torture them. The attacks became so vicious that some Irishmen died. All because of a ridiculous, sill lie.
"The Reports of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated."
Let's end on a light note.
Mark Twain is one of America's greatest writers. This is not up for debate. In 1897, Twain was in England, writing a piece for The New York Journal when The Herald published a piece stating that Twain had fallen gravely ill. They established he was on death's door, in desperate need of financial aid, and that, worse yet, his vast intellect had been shattered beyond repair.
When Twain returned, he found himself coming home to a place arguing over whether or not he had died or not. He took to the public to announce, "The report of my death was an exaggeration." One of Twain's greatest quotes, misquoted even in this article's subheading, joining such famous misquotes as "Luke, I am your father," and "Beam me up, Scotty!"
In the end, though, fake news remains a cruel constant in this society. These are just ten of countless accounts of fake news. Some false news have fostered the flames of war, riots, and, in a few cases, just a few fun quotations. And Moon people. That will never sound less ridiculous.