In 1835, the story that was trending in New York City involved the discovery of batlike creatures on the moon by a powerful telescope of “vast dimensions” located at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
According to the spunky New York Sun, the groundbreaking penny paper that published the exclusive story, the four-foot-tall talking creatures had wings composed of thin membranes, with short, glossy hair the color of copper. The story, complete with an artist’s rendering of life on the moon, ran in six parts, captivating readers still mesmerized by the real-life appearance of Halley’s comet.
Some readers doubted the report, but many believed it, and Sun sales shot to a world-record 19,000 copies daily. The story, of course, was a fake ― one of many in what writer Edgar Allan Poe called “the epoch of the hoax,” an era peppered by journalists who entertained rather than reported the facts. The stories were meant to sell newspapers rather than influence thinking. Its fraud eventually exposed, the Sun admitted to “diverting the public mind … from that bitter apple of discord, the abolition of slavery.”
Today, the epoch of the hoax is alive and well with a proliferation of misinformation and outright lies published on partisan websites and treated as gospel in traditional and social media. If the Sun’s intent was to give the country a respite from slavery, the goal of today’s partisan websites is to pollute and sway public opinion.
Several days before the presidential election, Fox News anchor Brett Baier, considered by many as a fair and balanced journalist, had to apologize on air for two false reports from “sources” about an imminent indictment against Democrat Hillary Clinton and her family’s foundation, and that Clinton’s email server had been hacked by five foreign intelligence agencies.
Radio host Sean Hannity, a vocal supporter of candidate Donald Trump, promoted the sensational story found on “YourNewsWire” that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama had deleted endorsements of Hillary Clinton from their Twitter accounts after FBI director James B. Comey announced the discovery of new Clinton emails. In his own tweet, Hannity suggested that Obama’s legacy might be “jail.” Hannity later apologized for the error.
Alt-right website EndtheFed touted the breaking news that “Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out for Backing Hillary.” The Denver Guardian, a phony website that bills itself “Denver’s oldest news source,” recently published “Breaking: President Obama To Issue Hillary a ‘Blanket Pardon’ To Avoid Future Prosecution.”
Britain’s online Daily Mail and the Maryland-based Tarpley.net blog are being sued by Melania Trump over stories claiming she once worked as a high-end escort. The Daily Mail retracted the story.
Most, if not all, of these stories trended on Facebook, the technology behemoth with 1.7 billion monthly users. Facebook apologized for running the Kelly story and tried to put the deception in context:
“A topic is eligible for Trending if it meets the criteria for being a real-world news event and there are a sufficient number of relevant articles and posts about that topic. … this topic met those conditions and the Trending review team accepted it thinking it was a real-world topic. We then re-reviewed the topic based on the likelihood that there were inaccuracies in the articles. We determined it was a hoax and it is no longer being shown in Trending. We’re working to make our detection of hoax and satirical stories quicker and more accurate.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insisted that the “small amount” of fake news that ran on the social network did not influence the election outcome. But with misinformation trending along with legitimate information on a popular network where 44 percent of Americans say they get their news, he may find it difficult to prove such a blanket statement. In 1844, Poe himself penned a story in the Sun about a European balloonist who crossed the Atlantic in three days in a gas balloon. The story turned out to be a fake, and the Sun retracted it two days later. Using Facebook’s criteria, Poe’s story if written today would have sailed easily through Facebook’s news feed.
By the end of the 19th century, the Sun and other big-city newspapers had moved from the era of fake stories to a time where accuracy defined a newspaper’s credibility. In 1897, the Sun published the most beloved editorial of all time: the classic “Is There a Santa Claus?” known fondly as “Yes, Virginia.” The editorial is about optimism that dares children to dream and is reprinted every year at Christmas in newspapers across the country.
For one day this year, “Yes, Virginia” will divert the public’s mind from that bitter apple of discord, the 2016 presidential election. After that, it will be business as usual, when far too many stories trending in news feeds will have as much credence as bat creatures on the moon.