Hoaxes: The Original Fake News

P.T. Barnum made a name for himself in the 1830s attempting to pull one over on the American people. Hoaxes may have become more sophisticated since then, but the intent is still the same: fool people for some sort of gain. Follow the evolution of the hoax on Trailblazers.
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Hoaxes in days past might not have had the same reach as they do today, but they still existed.

Looking back at them, they may seem quaint, but they were deadly serious at the time. How similar were they to what we’re going through today?

Find out on this episode of Trailblazers.

What you’ll hear in this episode:

● An early taste of fake news (0:00)

● Barnum’s humbugs (3:27)

● Newspapers: home of the original hoaxes (5:35)

● Penny presses and yellow journalism (8:52)

● Radio presents a new landscape for deception (11:05)

● A Satanic panic begins (12:56)

● Let’s talk about our deep memetic frames (14:49)

● The internet makes things MUCH worse (18:20)

● Trolls use new tech to make new hoaxes (20:23)

● Hoaxes and the 2016 election (21:54)

● The future of hoaxes (25:12)

“That kind of democratic notion of appealing to the audience and making the audience an expert, is really the Americanness of this part of the hoax. ”

— Kevin Young, author of Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News

Guest List

  • Robert Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar and the author of Barnum: An American Life.
  • Andie Tucher is a professor and the director of the Communications PhD program at Columbia University, and is currently working on a book about the history of fake news in America.
  • Kevin Young is the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine and author of Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News.
  • Whitney Phillips teaches in the Department of Communications and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University.
  • Matthew Gentzkow is Professor of Economics at Stanford University.

Walter Isaacson: On September 25, 1690, residents of Boston woke up to something that neither they nor anyone else in the young American colonies had ever seen before. A local newspaper, it was called Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestic and it’s publisher Benjamin Harris planned to publish it once a month unless a lot of occurrences would require it to appear more often. He would print only what we have reason to believe is true and he promised to correct any errors that might slip through.

Walter Isaacson: Public Occurrences was four pages long and contained a mix of topical stories, a fire that almost destroyed a local meeting house, human interest stories, the sad tale of a local widower who killed himself, and political attacks, mostly directed at British authorities. And then there was this sensational story, “If reports were true,” Benjamin Harris wrote, “the King of France once had a relationship with his son’s wife that was, shall we say, inappropriate.” Was it true? Unfortunately, readers of Public Occurrences never got a chance to find out.

Walter Isaacson: There was nothing written about it in the next issue because there was no next issue. British governors shut down the paper because it was published without their stamp of approval. Would be another 14 years before Boston saw another local newspaper, but Public Occurrences had established a template for American newspapers that would prove to be remarkably enduring. It would be a mixture of hard and soft news, a few political hatchet jobs and some spicy celebrity gossip from sources that were not necessarily reliable.

Walter Isaacson: But no one at the time really cared about sources. Truth was a noble goal for a newspaper to aspire to back then, but if it stood in the way of a good story, it would simply have to take a backseat. What began with Public Occurrences continues today on thousands of mainstream and not so mainstream media outlets. Fake news has a long and some might even argue glorious history in America, so to do hoaxes, chams and wild conspiracy theories. And the trailblazer who inspired much of it was a man widely known as the Prince of Humbug.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt off program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News.

Speaker 3: You must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. I happen to know the facts.

Speaker 4: All the secrets away.

Speaker 5: This is a [inaudible 00:03:22] radio alert. Normal broadcasting will be discontinued for an indefinite period.

Walter Isaacson: Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Connecticut in 1810 and spent much of his early life hustling for money. By the time he was 25, his resume included time spent running a newspaper, a boarding house, and a grocery store. But in the summer of 1835 something happened that changed Barnum’s life forever and made him not just a symbol of his age, but maybe even a virus as well. And it involved a remarkable woman named Joice Heth. Robert Wilson is the author of Barnum: An American Life.

Robert Wilson: Joice Heth was an elderly black slave woman and was being exhibited as the 161-year-old nurse made of George Washington. She had a shtick that she would do in front of audiences where she would tell stories of little George and she would sing what seemed to be ancient hymns.

Walter Isaacson: Joice Heth was old, but not 161-years-old, and of course she was never George Washington’s nurse name. But that didn’t stop Barnum from marketing her that way and putting her on display in cities across the Northeast. And wherever she went, people seem prepared to put logic aside and pay the money to see her. But Barnum’s hoaxes often came with a twist, one that both empowered and fooled his audiences at the same time. Kevin Young is the author of Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and fake News.

Kevin Young: Anytime there was a question about whether she was real or not, Barnum made that part of the show. So he’d say, come see for yourself, what do you think? And that kind of democratic notion of appealing to the audience and making, as I say, the audience an expert is really the Americanness of this part of the hoax.

Walter Isaacson: Joice Heth was one of many artful deceptions that Americans argued about in the decades before the Civil War. Most of these hoaxes involve science. Perhaps the most popular science hoax occurred in 1835, the same year as Barnum introduced Joice Heth. But this time the hoax was perpetrated by a newspaper. Over the course of six days, the New York Sun printed a series of articles falsely attributed to one of the leading astronomers of the day about the discovery of life on the moon.

Kevin Young: And the brilliance of the hoax is the way it unfolds over a few days, like every day they’d publish a little bit more and the first day it was pretty accurate to sort of astronomy at the time and then it goes further and further and by the end there’s my pet beavers, flying people. All these things that are observed and it became wildly popular.

Walter Isaacson: The fact that the great moon hoax appeared in the New York Sun was no accident. It caught the anti elitist wave that in 1828 had propelled Andrew Jackson, America’s first populous president, into the White House. Andie Tucher is a professor of communications at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Andie Tucher: The early part of the 19th century was the era of democratization and it was a time when ordinary people wanted to have everything that all the elites had always had, so they were interested in intellectual endeavors. They were convinced that they had the right to make their own decisions about what they thought was true or not. And along comes the Penny Press, a new kind of newspaper press that’s specifically intended for readers who were not elite. So these newspapers cultivated their audience by giving them the gift of letting them decide what was true or not.

Andie Tucher: They ran hoaxes and humbugs and they were not intended to deceive or to make anybody feel stupid. They were offered as an opportunity for people to engage in an intellectual exercise to think, do I really believe that this balloon crossed the Atlantic Ocean. So it was all kind of a game that everybody really enjoyed because it made them part of society.

Walter Isaacson: But America was changing in the latter half of the 19th century and the appetite for fake news was changing with it.

Andie Tucher: The late 19th, early 20th century, it was not until then that the idea that a newspaper was a product of professional processes of scientific verification became important. Part of it was a general social change, an intellectual change toward interest in the scientific method and society was becoming much more industrialized, capitalized, and people who were involved in making money and in leading the country needed information that was verifiable and trustworthy. And some newspapers began to see that there was profit in that.

Walter Isaacson: When Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times in 1896, he chose as his motto, all the news that’s fit to print. It was a signal to readers that his would be a respectable newspaper and there would be no space given to hoaxes, but the spirit of the Penny Press lived on in The Times great competitors, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Both the Penny Press and the Yellow Press were obsessed with boosting circulation at almost any cost. But beyond that superficial similarity, Andie Tucher says there was an important difference when it came to their attitude towards the truth.

Andie Tucher: The Yellow Press was not necessarily more truthful or less hoaxy than the Penny Press, but what it did was it insisted that it was truthful. In this case, it’s a little bit of a different slant. In the Penny Press in the early years, the idea was you can make up your own mind. This might be true and it might not. The Yellow Press said, this is all true. Everything we say is true, but we’re telling it to you in ways that you’re really going to enjoy reading about. So it’s a bit of a different take. But in both cases, both kinds of newspapers included a lot of stuff that was not true.

Walter Isaacson: By the 1930s, both the New York World and The Journal has ceased publication and the era of the Yellow Press had come to an end. Objectivity had become the secular religion for journalists who now had codes of ethics that they promise to obey. Hoaxes of the kind that had characterized American newspapers for a century were now largely confined to tablets that published sensational stories often accompanied by heavily doctored photographs. And there was now a new technology on the media landscape, radio.

Walter Isaacson: And with it, new opportunities for deception on. Sunday evening, October 30, 1938, the CBS Radio Network broadcasts a dramatic recreation of the HG Wells novel, War of the World, directed and narrated by Orson Wells.

Orson Welles: Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.

Walter Isaacson: The story depicts an alien invasion of earth and although the broadcast began with an announcement that this was not a true story, many listeners who tuned in late believed it might be real and they started to panic. They called the police, got out their shotgun. The extent of the panic touched off by the broadcast of War of the Worlds has been greatly exaggerated over time. But historian Andie Tucher thinks there’s still an important lesson to be learned about how people often respond to new technology.

Andie Tucher: A lot of times you look back on hoaxes and humbugs and you say, how could people have fallen for that? But new technologies always seem to have a little whiff of the uncanny about them, and radio still did. Radio was different than others. Other technologies, they were industrial, they were clunky. You could see them, you could hold them, you developed a photograph and you could see it coming out of the chemical bath. Radio was different. Radio was just voices coming out of the air and it was a little bit creepier than others had been and a little bit more concerning about what it might do, how it might maybe get into people’s brains.

Walter Isaacson: By the 1950s, television was starting to make its way into America’s homes and brains. From the rigged game shows of TV’s early days to the pseudo reality shows of today, television has provided a springboard for hundreds of hoaxes, frauds, and even some humbugs. Television networks were not generally inclined to perpetrate hoaxes themselves. Their licenses were too valuable to risk by doing that, but they helped amplify them to connect with much larger audiences. Man actually did land on the moon in 1969 on live TV, but many people still believe it was a hoax.

Walter Isaacson: In the 1970s, it was a widely publicized hoax about Paul McCartney’s death. Then it was what has come to be known as the satanic panic. Whitney Phillips teaches in the Department of Communications and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University.

Whitney Phillip…: The satanic panics have been kind of bubbling up in the ’60s and ’70s. Essentially, that believes that the devil is here on earth and is threatening to destroy God’s creation. And the panic started to grow when there seemed to be corroborating corresponding evidence suggesting that there was a vast cabal of criminal satanists doing the devil’s work here on earth and that they were hiding in plain sight. They were everywhere in society.

Walter Isaacson: If you were looking for evidence that Satan was on the rise in America in the 1970s and ’80s, there was a lot you could point to. Although almost all of it wasn’t true. There were rock groups, books and TV shows that seemed to celebrate satan. And even though it happened before the coming of the internet, Whitney Phillips believes there’s a great deal we can learn about how hoaxes are spread online today by studying the satanic panic. The first lesson Whitney Phillips believed we can learn is why people cling so tightly to their ideas, even if there’s no evidence to support them.

Walter Isaacson: She says you have to look at what she calls their deep memetic frames.

Whitney Phillip…: Deep refers to deep stories. Basically the things that people feel to be true in the world. Frames of course frames what you are able to see, what you’re potentially even able to cognize based on your own experiences, your political ideology, your identity, all of these things. Memetic refers to the fact that these stories that people tell, these world-building stories, they don’t just get handed to you. They’re remixed by countless other participants. People choose the stories. They align with their sense of self.

Whitney Phillip…: So deep memetic frames refers to basically what people are seeing the world through. And when someone encounters a narrative that lines up with their deep memetic frame that’s going to resonate with them because it’s knowledge consistent. It makes sense to them based on what they believe to be true about the world. The people who believed in the satanic panics weren’t stupid. They were seeing the world in a certain way. Their world view was informed by these frames and the information they were receiving.

Whitney Phillip…: They had every reason to feel that it was evidence. They were using critical thinking. They weren’t duped, they weren’t dumb, they weren’t none of that. That’s not how this works.

Walter Isaacson: The second lesson that Whitney Phillips believes we can learn from the satanic panics of the 1970s and ’80s is how critical technology is to spreading false information. People who believed in a satanic takeover of America did not have the internet to share their ideas with fellow believers, but they did have video and audio cassettes that they could record on and then share.

Whitney Phillip…: The satanic panics were spread. Really, they started to be disseminated when there was this initial shift from you could only consume media to suddenly being able to produce your own media. And that gave people a lot of freedom to be able to inject all kinds of polluted, strange narratives into broader national narratives that ultimately could be picked up by a radio network or a TV network where people were recording videotapes or recording audio cassettes, and then they would spread across the entire nation.

Whitney Phillip…: Nothing nearly as quickly as what we see now, but that’s why in the 1980s you started seeing all of these fears around satanism and those fears were able to spread because people were amplifying it through their own individual, more localized networks. But those localized networks were connected to other localized networks which were connected to other localize networks. And so information was able to travel, maybe not in five seconds, but it certainly was able to make its way from coast to coast. And when that information was good and positive, then awesome.

Whitney Phillip…: But when the information was in any way polluted, which was often the case during the satanic panics, then you would see the same proliferation of these kinds of problematic narratives that you see now.

Walter Isaacson: By the 1990s, it would no longer be necessary to connect with members of your network by shipping cassettes through the mail. The worldwide web presented the greatest opportunity for the quick and easy dissemination of information and misinformation that we’ve ever seen. Andie Tucher.

Andie Tucher: Like every new technology, it has liberated people. It has made for new opportunities, but it’s also very unaccountable in ways that I think are unprecedented. The possibility of anonymity, the possibility of speed, the possibility of reach. All of this has outstripped our means of knowing how to think about it and how to even whether to control it or if not, how.

Walter Isaacson: In its early days, the internet seemed ideally suited for combating the dissemination of lies and punishing people trying to perpetrate hoaxes. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, the web has ushered in what is arguably the most prolific era of hoaxing since the Penny Press of the 1830s.

Andie Tucher: There is a lot of activity on the internet and in social media that is dedicated to can I get people to pay attention to this? Can I fool them? Some of it is mischievous or malicious and others of it is the same kind of genial, I want some attention, let’s get some attention, let’s get people talking. So there’s all sorts of stuff out there. The question is when you encounter something, how do you categorize it? How do you approach it? Do you look at it as something you want to figure out? Do you look at it as a piece of information that has been corroborated and verified in a professional way?

Andie Tucher: That’s what makes it so challenging and hard. Are you supposed to treat this thing as a hoax or not? And then what about the next page you’d pull up, what’s going on there? There are opportunities here for mischief and for mendacity that are unprecedented.

Walter Isaacson: The technology that underlies online hoaxing continues to evolve in ways that make them ever more difficult to detect. One of the newest techniques uses artificial neural networks and deep learning to manipulate and distort video so that one person’s voice and image can be replaced by those belonging to someone else. You can be seen to say and do things you’ve never done or said. They’re known as deepfakes. So far, celebrities and politicians have been their main targets because there’s a lot of voice and video available online for the AI to learn from.

Walter Isaacson: But over time, anyone could become a victim of a deepfake. Whitney Phillips.

Whitney Phillip…: So a lot of people are making a lot of money off of propagating these theories, not because they believe them, but because YouTube’s algorithms reward them for doing so. So you’ve got a lot of people who are not, they’re not believers in good faith. And that’s a harder nut to crack because they’re just making a living, like this is their job is that they make money off of telling lies. I don’t have any problem criticizing those folks because they’re knowingly and willingly spreading information that’s harmful and that is destroying democracy and that is eroding the left and the right’s ability to interact with each other in a meaningful generative way.

Whitney Phillip…: I don’t have a lot of patients or sympathy for them.

Walter Isaacson: In the 2016 presidential election, those mercenary trollers joined forces with actual political partisans and at least one foreign government to spread so-called fake news into the campaign. Some of these stories like what became known as pizza gate accusing Hillary Clinton of running a pedophile ring out of that pizza parlor or the Pope endorsing Donald Trump were seen and shared millions of times on social media. But how effective were they? Matthew Gentzkow , an economist at Stanford University, set out to answer that question by looking at who was reading and sharing these stories and whether they actually played a role in determining how people voted.

Walter Isaacson: His conclusion, it didn’t change many minds because those minds were already made up.

Matthew Gentzkow : It’s a very small and concentrated group of people who are seeing these stories and the people seeing them have been overwhelmingly people who already support the candidate in question. So most of those fake news stories supporting Donald Trump were seen by people who already supported Donald Trump. And we know from lots of psychology research and studies of people’s behavior and other contacts, if you’re a big fan of Donald Trump already and you see some story that sounds like something that makes him look good, your motivation to go double check, triple check whether it’s really true is not so high.

Matthew Gentzkow : But there were also stories on the other side that favored Clinton in the election. And so I think a lot of this is it’s sort of cheerleading by people who already support a particular candidate.

Walter Isaacson: Matthew Gentzkow’s conclusion that these well-publicized fake news stories did not significantly impact the 2016 election is reassuring, but he cautions that the fact that hoaxes are so easily perpetrated online can damage our politics in other ways.

Matthew Gentzkow : I think whether something is strictly speaking in the fact checker sense true or false is less important than what kind of attitude, what kind of viewpoint, what kind of beliefs it leaves people with at the end of the day. Whatever you think the actual direct effect of people seeing these stories was, the impact of the discussion and coverage of it, the whole media circus surrounding fake news has been much bigger. That has had the effect of significantly, I think, undermining people’s trust in media, undermining people’s trust in what they see.

Matthew Gentzkow : And that crisis of trust is much more important, I think, probably than any effect of these things could be. So this is a period of time when the potential for cynicism and the potential for losing confidence in the basic institutions of democracy is enormous. And that’s not just happening in the US. It’s happening in many, many countries around the world. So that’s the thing I’d have my eye on.

Walter Isaacson: There never has been a time when hoaxes have not been part of American life, and there never will be. But both the frequency and the intensity of the hoaxes has changed over time as new technology comes into play and social and cultural tensions rise and fall.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more on any of the guests on today’s show, you can head to our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.