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Fake News - An Age Old Tradition

By Janine Erasmus

Fake news, disinformation, and wild claims have proliferated to the extent that we can be forgiven for thinking they are a relatively new development – but we would be wrong.

These are age-old tactics usually used by people pushing a specific agenda – and at least two centuries ago, fake news was already a thing. 

Way back in 1835, readers of the New York Sun newspaper were amazed to learn that the moon was inhabited – by no less than horned bears, flying bat-men, unicorns, mini zebras,

and more.

The Great Moon Hoax, as it became known, was publicised through a six-part series of articles in the newspaper, apparently written at the Cape of Good Hope by the entirely fictitious Dr Andrew Grant. Grant was described as a colleague of astronomer and mathematician Sir John Herschel, a real person who was indeed in Cape Town in January 1834 with the aim of cataloguing the stars, nebulae, and more in the southern sky.

Predictably, it was Herschel’s Cape Town observatory with its powerful telescope, where the fantastic discovery was made of much more than stars and nebulae. The articles were written in a scholarly style, describing the design, manufacture, and construction of the telescope, and given a credible background of first appearing in a supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science – but that august journal had not been published for some years.

That didn’t stop people from eagerly devouring the information. Dark red poppy-like flowers, forests of trees, white sand beaches, blue seas – the terrain was described in such detail as to keep the reader waiting for the next episode. It was a feat of extraordinary imagination. 

The series is widely accepted to have been written by English journalist and editor Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter educated at Cambridge University. Locke did indeed have an agenda – he wrote the articles as satire, intending to mock recent speculations on extraterrestrial life by the likes of Rev Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed that the solar system had an estimated 21.9-trillion inhabitants, with 4.2-million found on the moon alone. Another of Locke’s targets was Munich University astronomy professor Franz Gruithuisen, who in 1824 had published a lengthy treatise titled Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings (German).

Locke’s attempt at satire failed, simply because the story was so widely believed. It was not discovered until months later when the Sun published an admission, but the newspaper never retracted the series.

It is understandable that readers of that time knew no better – there was no internet, no publicly accessible sources of information, no awareness-raising of disinformation, no hoax-debunking sites. 

The serious tone of the piece hid its satirical nature, and very few readers were as critical and questioning as, for instance, Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote in 1846 about the hoax: “Immediately on the completion of the ‘Moon story’ (it was three or four days in getting finished), I wrote an examination of its claims to credit, showing distinctly its fictitious character, but was astonished at finding that I could obtain few listeners, so really eager were all to be deceived, so magical were the charms of a style that served as the vehicle of an exceedingly clumsy invention.”

But news consumers of today have no such excuse. In the first place, any frequent user of media will very likely have come across the terms misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation, seen examples of these phenomena, and read about their associated dangers. Sadly, we know that many users are personally motivated by pressures of social media to share information without questioning its veracity, in their quest for more likes, shares, and recognition.

“That the public were misled, even for an instant, merely proves the gross ignorance which (ten or twelve years ago) was so prevalent on astronomical topics,” wrote Poe sadly.

Dangerous misinformation

The Great Moon Hoax turned out to be relatively harmless – but other disinformation is not so.  

Perhaps the greatest and most well-known modern media hoax was the War of the Worlds event, created and perpetrated by US actor, director, and writer Orson Welles. In 1938 Welles aired a radio drama that purported to be a real-life, and live, account of an earthly invasion by Martians. It was an adaptation of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, now considered to be a science-fiction classic, and aired on CBS Radio in the evening of 30 October. 

Thousands of people were genuinely terrified. Published in 1940, Albert Cantrill’s research study of the phenomenon, titled The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, likened it to a broadcast in January 1926 in England which described a mob that “was said to have attempted demolition of the Houses of Parliament, its trench mortars had brought Big Ben to the ground, it had hanged the Minister of Traffic to a tramway post” and destroyed the BBC’s facilities.

After the broadcast, the newspapers and police and radio stations were besieged with calls from frantic citizens. “However, the panic created by Father Knox’s broadcast did not cause either as widespread or as intense a fear as the Orson Welles program.”

Listeners “ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings, hurried to inform neighbours, sought information from newspapers or radio stations, summoned ambulances and police cars. At least six million people heard the broadcast. At least a million of them were frightened or disturbed.”

Believing those were their last days, some people spent money they could not afford on tickets out of town, or protective equipment such as gas masks. Only afterwards did they hear the announcement that it was just a radio drama.

This is an extreme example of panic caused by disinformation, but surely people don’t react like this these days?

Think again.

Blue Whale terror

The Blue Whale challenge struck fear and worry into parents’ hearts over a period of years from 2015. The challenge was shared over social media and apparently consisted of 50 tasks over 50 days, beginning innocuously but ending with a call to commit suicide. The fear was especially intense in Russia, which struggles to this day with a high rate of teenage suicides, but there were reports from other countries (article in Spanish) too, though not from South Africa. Somehow those Russian tragedies became linked to Blue Whale, resulting in media reports (article in Russian) and a panic of national proportions in the country.

Fact-checking organisation Snopes has analysed the claims that Blue Whale groups played a role in these tragic young deaths, finding that none of them could be verified. An investigation by RadioFreeEurope also found no proven connection between the challenge and the teenage deaths: “… not a single death in Russia or Central Asia has been definitively tied to Blue Whale.”

This, and other incidents such as the Momo Challenge, is a frightening example of how fake news can create needless terror and illustrates the importance of checking to make sure that information is true before sending it on. Phenomena such as Blue Whale can target children and teenagers who are vulnerable, isolated, depressed, or easily influenced – leading to unimaginable consequences.

What to do

Promoting internet and media literacy is a good place to start. The first will teach users to use digital information and communication media to track down, evaluate, and sort out information, while the second will allow them to make the most efficient use of the information they have retrieved, by having the capability to evaluate and distinguish fake information and discard it, and recognising that spreading fake news is harmful.

However, it’s not only up to the user to mitigate the spread of fake news.

“While prevention education is crucial in addressing dangerous online hoaxes and challenges, there is also a critical role for industry, especially with regard to social media platforms,” wrote Dr Zoe Hilton, UK-based safeguarding expert and criminologist, regarding research findings conducted on behalf of TikTok into how young people engage with dangerous online challenges and hoaxes.

“There is a key role for platforms to act quickly to identify and remove dangerous challenges and hoax content to reduce the risk of exposure for younger users,” added Hilton.

“We highlight that there is a role for the mainstream media too. We recognise that journalists have a critical role in reporting information that is in the public interest, including things that impact the safety and well-being of children and young people.”

A multi-faceted approach is needed, therefore, especially when it comes to ensuring that no further harm is caused, and in all cases a degree of responsibility, curiosity, and judgement must be involved.

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