History and Effects of Fake News

Hello French Fries,

Boy was it cold yesterday, it did not crack 20 degrees at all, nor is it expected to do so today, and as a result, I’m starting to develop a bit of a disturbing cough. Hopefully I’m not getting sick, but I don’t like my odds. It could be worse; I was reading that Erie, Pennsylvania got 62 inches of snow! To put that in perspective, I’m 6’2″, or 74 inches tall, so that would be about a foot less than me. Talk about a lot of snow! I’m sure that when they were dreaming of a white Christmas, they didn’t dream of that much white stuff. Denver got the ideal amount of white Christmas snow, enough to coat everything and require boots, but not so much that you have to body slam your way out your front door. Well, here’s to a warmer sunshiny days for the residents of Erie, Pennsylvania.


My rant of the day is about fake news: Fake news is both a recent phenomena and a centuries old propaganda. What we call fake news today our grandparents would call wartime propaganda, our great (great) grandparents would call yellow journalism, and what their fore-bearers would call blood libel.  At it’s essence, fake news is a lie or distortion of the truth dressed up to look like a legitimate news story. While fake news has recently been at the forefront of our collective conscience, it’s roots goes deep into centuries past. One of the most prominent historical examples of how a fake news story can infect our society and cause lasting damage emerged out of 12th century England. One of the most well known fake news stories, that has been perpetuated repeatedly through the centuries is the story of William of Norwich. William of Norwich was a 12 year old tanner’s apprentice from Norwich who died under suspicious circumstances on March 22nd, 1144. His uncle, the town priest Godwin Stuart, was a religious zealot who tried to blame the town’s Jews collectively for the boy’s murder due to his anger at their refusal to convert to Catholicism. However, the Jews lived under a royal protection and thus were under the charge of the Sheriff of Norwich. Sheriff John de Cheney lacked any evidence and refused to allow the ecclesiastical courts to bring them to trial since, in his view, the fact the accused were Jewish meant the church lacked jurisdiction over them. King Stephen’s subsequent investigation found no basis for the accusation stemming out of Godwin Stuart’s fake news story, which caused the case to go cold.

Several years later, a local knight named Simon de Novers returned from the disastrous second crusade. He had incurred a huge debt from a local Jewish banker in order to finance his participation in the crusades, and rather than pay moneys owed when he returned, he instead killed the banker. At his trial for the murder, Simon de Novers argued that the banker and his fellow town Jews were complicit in kidnapping William of Norwich, torturing him, and ritualistically murdering him in a blood sacrifice, and the banker bragged about it while also stating the King was next.  So, Simon argued, he killed the banker to defend the honor of the now canonized Saint William of Norwich as well as King Stephen, and he could not be found guilty without all the town’s Jews being found guilty and executed for their blood sacrifice. This argumentative reinterpretation and expansion of Godwin Stuart’s piece of fake news was a blatant lie playing on the anxieties and tensions still persisting in Norwich. However, demonstrating the power of distributing fake news, Simon de Novers was acquitted. This false narrative started by Godwin Stuart, and perpetuated and expanded upon by Simon de Novers ultimately led to the expulsionof Jews from England,  their persecution across Europe, and the birth of the fictitious narrative of the Blood Libel which still haunts the Jewish community to this day. Heck, just this month The Russian Orthodox Church announced that they are investigating the Russian Jewish community for the execution of the Romanov family and Tsar Nicholas II as part of ritual blood sacrifice during the Russian Civil War. Demonstratively, this exemplifies the destructive and real danger that fake news can present once it gains a life of it’s own.

While one of the most prominent and damaging examples of fake news,  blood libel is not the only example. During the last throws of the 19th century, a resurgent, reunified postwar United States was starting to flex it’s imperialistic muscle as it rose to prominence as a great power. However, a former global superpower suffering centuries of decline was desperately clinging to a few last colonial possessions,conveniently located right on the doorstep of America’s frontiers. These colonies were ripe for the taking, but, even in the age of colonial imperialism, a nation can’t just invade another sovereign nation outright without a good justification.  Enter William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper and media empire. William Randolph Hearst was the turn of the century’s version of Rupert Murdoch. He was an oligarch who’s wealth was made on the media industry of his day, and he was not afraid to use his media empire to shape a political outcome to his liking. Hearst and, to a lesser extent, his rival Joseph Pulitzer used their New York based newspapers to portray life in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the remnants of the Spanish Colonial Empire to be one of constant human rights abuse, violence, cultural suppression and unjust misery. They portrayed Cuban revolutionaries as being akin to the American Revolutionary Continentals, fighting for their very right to exist against an unjust empire. The reaction Hearst and Pulitzer’s papers induced amongst the reading public encouraged the United States Navy to send a ship to Havana’s harbor to protect American interests. Thanks to his fake news campaign, Hearst had given the United States a casus belli of protecting Cuban rights, virtues and American interests in order to take on imperialistic ambitions. Another causus belli was either gifted or manufactured when the ship the United States Navy sent to Havana, the USS Maine, blew up in the harbor.  Whether it was intentionally destroyed by the Americans, was accidentally destroyed by an on-board fire, or was destroyed by a Spanish mine sent to sink the USS Maine, the cause of the explosion is a debated mystery even today. What is certain though is that William Hearst’s papers wasted no time drafting fake news stories to twist the destruction of the USS Maine into an evil Spanish cabal hellbent on destroying and recolonizing the Americas, and harrying the United States into a declared war and invasion of the Spanish colonies. Six months after the USS Maine sank, the Spanish Colonial Empire was no more, America had it’s imperial colonies and Great Power status, and William Randolph Hearst had made a profit while achieving his political goals off of the war his fake news manufactured.

Half a century later, the most destructive conflict in human history occurred, and fake news was again underlying the political climate, this time in the guise of wartime propaganda. The Nazis rise to power in Germany was assisted by fake news. The first world war had left Germany humiliated and defeated, and the Treaty of Versailles had left Germany’s economy crumbling under the debt owed in the form of war reparations. Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kompf (itself a work of propaganda), dedicated two full chapters to the art of propaganda (i.e. fake news) and it’s affect on war efforts and purifying society. Following the Nazi’s takeover in 1933, the Nazis established a full government ministry that not only focused on fake news, but also utilized the arts and culture to promulgate propaganda that reinforced the Nazi ideology while subjugating political opposition. The Nazis used their media outreach to promote fake news about the Jews and lay the blame of the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles at their feet. Once the second world war got underway, the Nazis were not the only country to appreciate the power of fake news. The United States had a wartime agency called the War Production Board which coordinated propaganda and ‘messaging efforts’.  First headed by Walt Disney, who was later succeeded by Theodore Geisel (better known by his pen name Dr. Seuss),  the War Production Board coordinated the various branches of the military, the US Treasury, and other governmental agencies propaganda efforts through movies, films, arts and fake news. Surprisingly, unlike most of the other involved powers, the United States was pretty honest, open and fair in it’s news coverage of the Second World War, while publishing articles of fake news, they did not suppress real news or try to subvert the true narrative. However, the War Production Board was purely propaganda, and some of the most know cartoon characters today such as Popeye the Sailor ManDonald Duck and Bugs Bunny got to cut their creative chops as tools of rather racist American war propaganda.

Flash forward to this past year, and fake news is one of the defining terms of 2017.  Coming to modern prominence in the aftermath of the 2016 American presidential election,  when news emerged that the Russian government had sponsored many fake news articles to influence the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump, it has since become a buzzword among the media and those trying to control the narrative.  The Trump Administration started their reign right off the bat utilizing fake news to control their own narrative. Trump’s administration spent it’s first full day in power arguing that reports of the small size of the inauguration crowd compared to President Obama’s 2012 and 2008 inaugurations was fake news. The Trump administration inexplicitly coined the term ‘alternative facts‘ to support their argument of fake news. In effect, the Trump administration had weaponized the concept of fake news in order to attack their critics and media outlets that do not toe the line of the narrative they would like to promote. While by no means is the Trump Administration innovators of fake news, they have done a very great job at utilizing fake news to attack their critics so that any media organization or person who publishes an article they dislike or peddles an opinion or fact that makes them look bad is a propagator of fake news and should not be trusted. By attacking their critics, and propagating their own and often blatantly false narrative through ‘alternative facts‘ (i.e. fake news), the Trump administration is distorting the truth, and sowing enough uncertainty about what the the facts are to provide cover for their actions by creating a smokescreen of confusion.  Like Simon de Novers, the Trump administration has defended itself by going on the offensive. Attacking those they have conflict with or who don’t agree with their view as being fake news. They couple these attacks with a strategy of peddling a batch of fake news of their own creation. Through this dual track public relations approach,  the Trump administration has changed the narrative to a parameter that benefits them, and, like Simon de Novers charge of the Jews’ blood libel, the affects of the Trump administration’s media strategy could potentially be felt long after Donald Trump leaves the White House.


Well folks, I hope you guys are staying warm if you are in the swath of America suffering a cold spell. If you are like my parents and brother and live in the tropics, Congratulations! I hate you and I’m hoping the mojito you are drinking on your palm-ladened beach gives you the runs (jk, I love you all.) Stay warm and safe! Until next time…

…the ketchup is in the sauce


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