It goes without saying that social media has a lot to answer for. In a world where information is largely in the hands of the people and regulation seems to be non-existent, this feels like the age of fake news.
However, as British journalist and satirist Ian Hislop discovers in his BBC documentary Fake News: A True History, deceit is a game that the media has played for centuries. Whether motivated by money or malice, outlets across the globe have been blurring the line between fact and fiction long before Donald Trump discovered Twitter.
As Hislop delves into past confusion in an attempt to explain the chaos of the present, he meets individuals on both sides of the fake news debate and discovers the stories throughout history that have taken lying to new levels. From the beginning, it is clear that Hislop is the ideal host to navigate the cesspool of fake news, often labelled the most sued man in British history in his role as editor of Private Eye magazine, a publication known for its uncensored criticism and signature brand of satire.
Hislop begins his journey back in 1835 when New York tabloids were growing in popularity within working class, urban communities due to their low-cost and street-side accessibility. With this new and eager audience, however, came a preference for quantity over quality and publications began to churn out stories that, in hindsight, seem downright ridiculous.
As Hislop recounts, it was The New York Sun’s editor, Richard Adams Locke, and his infamous moon hoax story that proved truth was a concept very much open to interpretation. As he revisits the series of six articles published by the tabloid, Hislop himself is perplexed by the seemingly unquestioning way readers accepted Locke’s tales of lunar man-bats, unicorns and a crystal-covered surface. Not only that, but the shameless falsification of the writer Dr. Andrew Grant, a supposed contemporary of the astronomer Sir John Herschel, affirmed that the value of expert opinion could be cemented by a mere title in the by-line. In essence, the combination of convincing writing and a credible author left no doubt in the minds of New Yorkers that the obviously outlandish claims were true.
Though it is easy to feel smug about the gullibility of our ancestors, the combination of rapid scientific advance and the dawn of mass media in the mid-1800s was, according to Hislop, the perfect recipe for duping even the most discerning reader. It’s a recipe that is not entirely foreign to our current context, with the constant growth of digital media and instantaneous nature of news creating an equally volatile and murky landscape.
While in many cases the news might be fake, and entertainingly so, there are circumstances where the consequences of these stories are very much real, prompting questions of accountability for those with a penchant for deception. As Hislop notes, for many in the public eye, fake news has become a term for real news that they simply don’t like, a way to dismiss information without the need for any explanation. Throughout history, the fabrication of stories has weaponised news to the extent of perpetuating wars, destroying reputations, and perhaps most disturbingly, creating a sceptical, anti-intellectual audience unwilling to trust even the most credible of sources.
So, what will it take to end this fake news epidemic once and for all? And if this 21st-century resurgence does continue, what does it mean for the world of news and the very concept of truth? Hislop’s doco answers these, and many more questions, but more importantly prompts countless others and reminds his audience of the unparalleled power of words to convince.
Fake News: A True History airs on Sunday 1 November at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.