The current Presidential administration have found controversy down every corner it seems, but one particular recurring story seems to be that of so-called ‘fake news’, the premise that Donald Trump and the media have been disseminating fake news to deliver a blow to the opposition. But could it be that ‘fake news’ may just be old news? A brief wander through history shows that this is not the first time false stories have been told for political gain.
Surprisingly, fake news has a history longer than that of newspaper journalism, much longer in fact. In Trent, Italy, in 1475 ‘fake news’ involved a lot more than stories of exaggerated attendance at an inauguration ceremony. When a child went missing on Easter Sunday 1475 the Franciscan preacher Bernadino la Feltre prophesied that the Jewish community had stolen the baby, and subsequently drank its blood during the Passover. La Feltre’s actions sparked a reaction from the incumbent Prince-Bishop of Trent to have the town’s Jewish community rounded up and tortured. Hundreds of impromptu attacks ignited in surrounding villages, and 15 Jews were burned in Trent. Only the papacy saw through the ‘fake news’, and immediately called the farce to a halt.
However, it did not finish there as the Prince-Bishop sought to justify his actions, and raised more stories of Jews drinking babies’ blood. Soon others corroborated his tale, claiming to be witnesses to such atrocities. It got to the point where villagers had no real idea of what was truth, and what was lie. Furthermore, Adolf Hitler would re-tell these stories of Jewish people in the 1930s when Nazi antisemitic propaganda began to flourish.
Fake news again reared its ugly head in the 18th Century, both on the continent and in the USA. In 1761 the Protestant Toulousian Marc-Antoine Calas committed suicide the Catholics distributed leaflets describing how Marc-Antoine’s father had murdered him in the name of Catholicism as the heretic failed to convert from his Protestant faith.
Yet American history is not safe either. The election of 1800 saw the advent of the toxic use of fake news, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams locked horns during the election campaign. Jefferson’s supporters suggested Adams wanted to become the King of the United States by marrying off his daughter to the English king, George III. Conversely, Adams’ side declared that if Jefferson was elected “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced” – damning comments indeed. But of course, this did not turn out to be true. Things flared up again in 1828 when Andrew Jackson was accused of murdering prisoners in the 1812 War. In a world where newspapers were owned directly by the political parties there was no prospect of independent news.
The amount of fake news calmed down from 1918 onwards as the necessity of running a government became more important than vitriolic jabs at opponents, and voters needed real policies to help rebuild their country. However, it seems that fake news is returning, with Kelly-Anne Conway speaking of “alternative facts” when speaking about President Trump’s inauguration ceremony. The Government claimed that attendance was higher than that of Obama’s, whereas the media’s coverage of the event undermined this assertion.
It appears new battlegrounds are emerging however. It is no longer a clear divide between who is fighting who. Historically we have seen Catholic versus Protestant, Democrats versus Republicans, Christians versus Jews. But now the lines are much more blurred as The Media takes on The Government. In this case the media appears to be defending us from propaganda, yet it is not always so simple. Fake news has flowed from both sides, as jibes over Trump’s Russian allegiance shows. Therefore, if these positions become entrenched the public would be the only victim, as reality and truth become inseparable. And with Trump declaring he will fight the media “tooth and nail”, this could be a depressing reality. However, this is not 1800, and now we have improved expectations of what a government should deliver. Therefore, it is Trump’s responsibility to tell the truth, even if that means taking a dent to his pride. He promised a move away from ‘crooked Hilary’, yet thus far he is doing what he claimed his rival to do. When will the deception end?