Fake News

Fake News: Disinformation, Deception, and Magical Thinking Over Time

Artistic rendering of the Winsted Wild Man by Louis Biedermann. From the San Francisco Chronicle, 16 Apr. 1933, p. 8.

There are many definitions of fake news in use today. The phrase is commonly used to refer to provocative, misleading news stories that spread quickly on web sites designed to promote disinformation. It is also used to describe government-sponsored propaganda, or news parodies that get picked up and repeated on social media. While fake news is a hot topic today, it is not a new phenomenon. History provides many examples of people and institutions who purposely manipulated public sentiment for monetary or moral reasons.

This exhibit describes 4 such examples of mis/disinformation: the Winsted Wildman, a Connecticut version of Bigfoot; the Cottingley Fairies, a widely believed hoax aided by photography; controversy around the smallpox vaccine and manipulation of public sentiment for and against the vaccine; and finally attempts by the cigarette industry to both legitimize smoking in women when it was once taboo and also later efforts to discredit research linking cigarettes to cancer. 

Themes have emerged while researching and writing about these stories. We, the audience, often play an equal or greater role in the spread of misinformation than the producer of fake news. We are driven by a need to believe, and time and again we do. We are the ones who take stories and spread them to others, lending credence to the stories as we repeat them. Stories seem to thrive based on appeals to emotion in us, and stories do better when they somehow fit into widely-accepted beliefs, or have the endorsement of a celebrity. Often there is an economic motive behind fake news stories. It can be difficult to overcome fake news with scientific research. A small seed of doubt is all that is often needed to overcome strong evidence.