Brain Chatter: A History of (Fake) News

November 17, 2017 Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai

In tracking the evolution of fake news, we must go back to the beginning.

Perhaps not the beginning of communication, as that’s a whole evolutionary discussion and has existed since cave drawings have.

In the context of news, we’re going to go back to the 16th century.

From about 1500-1700 (and probably still today, depending on what publication you look at), sensationalism was a big theme of early printed news. Murder, miracles, monsters, mayhem – all the dramatic “m” nouns you can think of.

Broadsides were the earliest form of printed news. They essentially looked like a pamphlet and were disaggregated – they often only ran when there was one newsworthy event that would “sell.”

They did serve some purpose with important historical events.

Christopher Columbus’ printed letters of his 1493 voyage were “bestsellers” and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were spread throughout Germany within 2 weeks.

However, above even these bestsellers were headlines like “Tidings of a Huge and Ugly Child Born.”

Topics like monstrous births, witchcraft, crazy floods, trials and executions seemed to be the favourites. And if the sordid topics weren’t enough, the language was often very gory with all stories ending with the accused repenting for their crimes. They fabricated or spruced up quotations, created imaginative personas for the key characters and played up the idea of good vs. evil.

Broadsides pulled no stops on all the dramatics.

Now believe it or not, they too served a purpose – or so it’s theorized by historians who focus on the evolution of journalism.  

Generally speaking, broadsides were meant to make the point that religious and political order was to be maintained and obeyed at all times.

Sinful humans had to be on constant guard against the influence of Satan and social order could only be restored after repenting.

Pretty heavy stuff, huh?

Over the years as print news evolved over those following centuries (from the first printed paper in Strasbourg, Germany to the Penny Papers in 1800s New York), sensational “news” simply changed where it lived and how it was portrayed.

But it never left.

Fast forward to recent decades and thanks to the internet and social media, as we elaborated on in our first Fake News post, it’s still going on.

Does it still have the same goal of maintaining social values? Probably not. Especially now with how profitable it is.

And if there’s one thing that has always remained true to fake news, it’s greed.

More on that later though. Check out our next post in the upcoming weeks on the distribution and business of fake news.

As you go forward with your day however, we’d like to pass along a general rule of thumb: if a headline tells you that a bat child was born in Transylvania, it’s probably not true.  


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