These days, everybody and his friend is yipping about fake news as if millennials invented it last Tuesday, and … OMG! Ain’t it awful? Well, here’s a real news flash! There’s always been fake news, and this current crop of journalists and their Internet Overlords (If it isn’t trending on Twitter, it didn’t happen.) are just the latest incarnation. I’m pretty certain some of the hieroglyphic accomplishments of the Pharaohs are embellishments, and we know for a fact that more than a few of the stories Herodotus (the Father of History) told were not necessarily factual. The thing is Herodotus knew what every journalist since, discovers: the truth is a moveable feast. Let me demonstrate. Here are two sentences that say the same thing – except they don’t.
After extensive public dialogue, Mayor Quimby and his supporters have stepped up to tackle the homeless crisis in our city.
Bowing to extensive public pressure, Mayor Quimby and his cronies have finally stepped up to do something about the homeless problem that plagues our city.
See what I mean?
Two of the greatest purveyors of less-than-the-truth journalism were the 19th century dynamic duo of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. They fought it out in 1890s New York to see who could grab the most readers (read “followers”) with clickbait headlines and salacious stories that would make BuzzFeed blush. These two crazy kids were so good at manipulating public perception that Joe is now considered the Father of Modern Journalism (Yeah, he’s the guy the award is named after.) and Willie started a war.
But the Big Kahuna of fake news is Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches.) This little ditty was published in 1487, just about the time Gutenberg’s printing press was radically changing European society (think: early Renaissance Internet.) It was written to raise public awareness about the presence of witches in the world and offered some proactive advice on how to deal with them – notably, burning them alive. However, it was just one clergyman’s (read: “influencer’s”) personal opinion, and it had no basis in fact or even the religious doctrines of the time. It was disavowed by every authority on the planet from Martin Luther to the Pope (Even the Inquisition said it was hogwash!) but, unfortunately, the public fell in love with it. Then, as the Reformation gathered steam and European society broke into two conflicting camps, Malleus Maleficarum became the go-to text to beat the other side with. In those days, labelling someone a witch immediately discredited them and anything they had to say. (Ring any contemporary bells?) It was a bestseller for over 200 years, second only to the Bible, and was considered unassailable truth until the Enlightenment came along and said, “WTF were we thinking?” Even today, many people believe in demonic possession and tons more believe that witchcraft is some ancient pagan religion. (BTW, Wicca is no more an ancient religion than I am. It was made up by a retired British civil servant, Gerald Gardner, in the 1950s.)
Yes, in the 21st century, fake news is serious, not because it’s there (It’s always been there) but because gullible people have immediate Internet access to other gullible people all over the world. The problem is, back in the time of Herodotus, or even Joe Pulitzer, stupidity was a retail commodity, confined by geography. These days, geography doesn’t matter, and stupidity is being traded wholesale in every corner of this big, round world.
The only solution is don’t believe everything you think.