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202

A History of Fake News

Oct 15, 2021
Weird World
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23
minutes
The News
Donald Trump
Politics
History of language
Weird history
European history
Russia
Business
Romans

The term "fake news" came to prominence in late 2016, but the idea of fake news is as old as time.

In this episode, we explore how fake news has been created over the years, for what purpose and by who, and ask ourselves whether it is harder than ever to tell the truth from a lie.

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[00:00:00] It is so dishonest. It is so fake. You know, I've really started this whole fake news thing. Now they've turned it around. And then now they're calling, you know, stories put out by diff- by Facebook, fake and they're fake, what could be more fake than CBS and NBC and ABC and CNN. 

[00:00:19] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:27] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:36] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The History of Fake News.

[00:00:44] For most people, the first person you will think about when you hear the words “fake news” will be the man whose voice you heard at the start of the episode, the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. 

[00:00:59] But while he might have popularised, and even weaponised, the term, as we will discover the concept goes back a lot further than Donald Trump.

[00:01:11] So, in this episode we are going to explore the weird, interesting, and dangerous world of Fake News, what “Fake News” actually means, who is creating these fake news stories, and for what reason, and we'll see that for as long as people have spread real news they've understood the power of fake news.

[00:01:34] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:39] The term Fake News really came into the public eye in late 2016, after the US election.

[00:01:49] There were 20 times more Google searches for the phrase “fake news” in February 2017 than a year beforehand.

[00:01:58] The Collins Dictionary made “fake news” its word of the year for 2017. 

[00:02:05] In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries had selected “post-truth” as its word of the year.

[00:02:13] There seemed to be an assault, an attack on the authenticity of the media. 

[00:02:20] Its posterboy, the person most famous for it, might have been Donald Trump, but he has been followed by leaders from all over the world in attacking the truthfulness of the media.

[00:02:34] From the US to Brazil, Hungary to the Philippines, political leaders have attacked the media for publishing what they claim to be fake, untrue, stories.

[00:02:47] And it’s not, of course, just authoritarian leaders. 

[00:02:50] Politicians in almost every country in the world have seen how effective labelling a story as “fake” can be, and this tactic has been deployed to cast doubt over the authenticity of news stories.

[00:03:07] So, were these politicians bravely pointing out something that no politician had been brave enough to do, was the news really becoming more fake, or is the news not fake at all?

[00:03:21] Well, in many cases, as we both know, the news stories are not fake, the stories just do not reflect well on the political leader, and simply claiming that they are not true is, unfortunately, an effective tactic to distract attention from reality, from the truth.

[00:03:41] But in other cases, the stories are fake. They are not true. They are lies. 

[00:03:47] And these stories, the “real” fake news, will be the centre of today’s episode.

[00:03:55] So what do we actually mean by “fake news”? 

[00:04:00] It is a term that has come under some criticism because it is broad, and can be interpreted to mean a wide range of ideas. 

[00:04:10] It can refer to misinformation, which is information that is simply incorrect, but might not be intended to cause harm.

[00:04:21] It can also refer to disinformation, information that is false and intended to mislead people and cause harm.

[00:04:30] And it can be misinformation that turns into disinformation.

[00:04:36] So, who is creating “fake news”, and for what purpose?

[00:04:41] Let’s dive first into the why, then the who, and we will see that these reasons, these incentives to create fake news, have been around since the dawn of time.

[00:04:55] The reasons for creating fake news are essentially threefold, they can be put into three broad categories.

[00:05:04] Firstly, for political gain. You want people to believe certain things, which will influence their opinion on a subject, and they will vote or behave differently.

[00:05:17] Secondly, for money. You want to make money, and making fake news is an effective way of doing so.

[00:05:26] And thirdly, to disrupt society. You get some sort of joy, satisfaction, or political benefit from causing chaos, making people believe things that are not true, and making it harder for people to distinguish between truth and falsehoods.

[00:05:47] With our first reason, for political gain, this is as old as time.

[00:05:53] Going back all the way to 33BC in Ancient Rome, there was a power struggle between Octavian and Mark Anthony. 

[00:06:03] After Julius Caesar’s death, both wanted power. 

[00:06:07] Mark Anthony was away in Egypt, while Octavian was in Rome.

[00:06:13] To win power, Octavian knew that he needed to have the public on his side, and he put out a vicious propaganda campaign portraying Mark Anthony as a drunk womaniser who had been corrupted by his affair with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen.

[00:06:32] He was having an affair with Cleopatra, they had even had three children together, but a lot of what was written about Mark Anthony simply wasn’t true.

[00:06:44] Octavian had arranged for coins to be made with slogans about Mark Anthony’s behaviour, and the news spread throughout Rome about his bad behaviour, and unsuitability for the position of Caesar.

[00:07:02] Public opinion turned against Mark Anthony, Rome declared war against Cleopatra, and after Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s suicide Octavian became emperor, becoming Augustus Caesar.

[00:07:16] So, there is Octavian, over two thousand years ago, understanding the power of fake news for political gain.

[00:07:25] And ever since, fake stories have been used for political gain, often with far more tragic consequences than one man failing to become emperor.

[00:07:38] On Easter Sunday in 1475, in Trento, in modern-day Italy, a young boy went missing. 

[00:07:46] A priest told his congregation that he believed the boy had been killed by Jews, who had drunk the boy’s blood to celebrate Passover. 

[00:07:58] Before long someone else claimed that the boy’s body had been found in the basement of a Jewish house.

[00:08:06] The entire Jewish community of Trento was arrested and tortured. 15 of them were burnt at the stake, publicly burned in front of the town’s residents.

[00:08:19] Even though the story was recognised as completely false, it simply didn’t happen, the news was spreading fast. 

[00:08:28] The Gutenberg printing press had been invented in 1440, and it was easier and cheaper than ever before to print pamphlets containing simple text.

[00:08:40] The papacy had tried to get involved to stop the rumours, but it was too late. 

[00:08:47] The story tapped into pre-existing anti-semitic feelings, anti-Jewish sentiment, and even though it was proved to be fake, it almost didn’t matter - the damage was done.

[00:09:01] People believed what they wanted to believe.

[00:09:04] And indeed, to this day there are still some anti-Semitic websites that claim this story is true.

[00:09:12] Now, while we don’t know for sure the motivations of the priest who started these rumours, it is probable that he did so for a combination of anti-semitic and political reasons.

[00:09:26] And this was, of course, not the first, the last, or the most tragic time the Jewish community has been targeted by fake news for political gain.

[00:09:37] No greater example of this exists than during the rise of the Nazis, and the successful portrayal of the Jewish community as being responsible for a large part of Germany’s problems.

[00:09:50] Stories were printed by the Nazi propaganda machine portraying Jews as an obstacle in the way of a united Arian population, and at the same time stories were suppressed, they were hidden, about the atrocities that were being committed as part of the Holocaust.

[00:10:11] It’s hard to find a group in recent history that better understood the power of manipulating the media, and with more tragic consequences, than the Nazis.

[00:10:23] But there are other examples of politicians and countries using fake news for political gain that we look back on with a certain acceptance.

[00:10:35] In 1917, during World War I, the British government gave one particular fake news story to the press. The story claimed that Germans were using the bodies of dead British soldiers to make soap and margarine - a butter-like substance.

[00:10:55] The story was completely false, but was published by newspapers such as The Times and The Daily Mail. It was intended to build support for the ongoing war effort by portraying the German enemy as completely barbaric and inhumane.

[00:11:14] So, fake news for political gain is as old as time, it just so happens that in the 21st century it is easier than ever to spread it.

[00:11:25] We’ll explore this further in a minute, but let’s first look at the second motivation for fake news: to make money.

[00:11:33] This too has been a motivation for fake news since the dawn of “news”. This is not the time or the place to fully explore how news has changed through the ages, but the purpose of news has not always been simply to inform.

[00:11:51] Before the invention of the printing press in 1440, there was a very different concept of “news”. 

[00:11:59] In Europe, you might hear information at a church service from a priest, or there would be a town crier, someone who would stand in a square and read out official information in a loud voice.

[00:12:13] A little bit of slightly pointless but quite interesting vocabulary is that the way a town crier would announce their presence in English is by saying “Hear Ye - Oyez, Oyez, Oyez”, “Oyez” actually derives from the old Norman word for “to listen”.

[00:12:33] As literacy rates started to increase, and it was cheaper to print information on pamphlets, information was increasingly shared in written form, but there was not the same concept of “objective” journalism, of simply reporting the facts. 

[00:12:51] The purpose of news was often to entertain and amuse, not simply to inform.

[00:13:00] By the early 19th century, newspapers were printing increasingly fake stories to try to sell more copies.

[00:13:08] In 1835, for example, The New York Sun published a story over six days reporting that a famous astronomer had looked through his telescope and discovered life on the moon.

[00:13:23] The article described the animals he had seen through the telescope, and included detailed pictures of this society on the moon.

[00:13:33] It did wonders for newspaper sales, it sold a lot of copies.

[00:13:38] Of course, it was completely fake, completely invented, and - as an indication of how unimportant the newspaper thought this was - the newspaper never actually printed an apology admitting it was fake.

[00:13:52] Fast forward almost 200 years, and although the technology has changed, the desire to make money from fake news hasn’t.

[00:14:02] For example, in the run up to the 2016 US election there was a headline with the title “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for President, releases statement”.

[00:14:17] This was completely untrue, it was completely fake, and had been created by a group of teenagers in Macedonia, in Eastern Europe.

[00:14:29] They weren’t interested in getting Donald Trump elected. They couldn’t care less who was in the White House.

[00:14:35] They simply wanted to attract people to their website, which had advertising, which would make them money.

[00:14:42] The Pope Francis article wasn’t the only one. 

[00:14:46] They would pump out dozens of articles that they knew would trigger people’s reactions, especially Trump supporters, they would then post them in pro-Trump Facebook groups, there would be thousands of comments on the posts, which would mean Facebook’s algorithms would show them to more people, it would be shared, millions of Americans would click on the link and go to the website, and the teenagers would make tens of thousands of dollars in advertising.

[00:15:17] Now, this is an extreme example, because it was a completely fake article, a story that had no basis in truth. 

[00:15:26] Even more reputable news organisations are guilty of writing sensational headlines and stories because they know that they will get clicks, and resonate with a certain demographic. 

[00:15:39] The Guardian, for example, a left-leaning newspaper in the UK constantly publishes articles on Amazon and its tax payments, mentioning only certain types of taxes that Amazon pays, and always forgetting to mention other types of taxes that it pays, because it knows that this will resonate with its audience.

[00:16:01] On the other end of the political spectrum, the right-leaning UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph is full of negative articles about the European Union or Joe Biden, again not always mentioning the full truth about the subjects of its articles, because it too is a business that makes money from advertising and newspaper sales.

[00:16:25] I’m sure you can think of similar examples from your country.

[00:16:29] And our third, debatably most dangerous motivation for creating fake news is to cause trouble and confusion. 

[00:16:38] You will, no doubt be familiar with the Russian troll farms pumping out fake news articles to try to influence the 2016 and 2020 US elections. 

[00:16:51] Whether or not they did influence them is another question, but it seems pretty clear that they tried.

[00:16:58] Part of this was no doubt for political reasons, but it was also to cause chaos and increase distrust in American institutions. 

[00:17:09] It seems to have worked. 

[00:17:10] Trust in the media is at an all-time low in America, with only 46% of Americans saying that they trust the media to tell them the truth.

[00:17:22] Naturally, this decline can’t completely be attributed to the spread of fake news, but it certainly has not helped the situation.

[00:17:32] So, what is the future of fake news? Is it poised to become more and more of a problem, or have we learned how to spot the difference between true and false?

[00:17:44] Certainly there are some new technological developments that will make it harder than ever to spot the difference between truth and falsehood.

[00:17:54] For example, deep fakes, faked videos or audio clips that are made to look and sound like someone, but are completely computer generated.

[00:18:05] You might have heard this one of Barack Obama: 

[00:18:08] we're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time, even if they would never say those things. How about this?

[00:18:18] Simply president Trump is a total and complete dipshit. Now, you see, I would never say these things, at least not in a public address, but someone else would. 

[00:18:31] Creepy, right?

[00:18:33] You might think, well, I guess you need to have a large studio and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment to create something like that.

[00:18:42] You don’t.

[00:18:43] Just listen to this.

[00:18:45] This isn't actually me. This voice isn't real. I didn't record this. 

[00:18:49] Ok, I’m back again, this is actually me. 

[00:18:53] Can you tell that was fake? 

[00:18:55] Maybe you could, but the point is that I was able to do it pretty easily, only from clips of my voice, which is freely available on the Internet.

[00:19:06] And it did sound a lot like me.

[00:19:09] So figuring out the difference between what is real and what is fake is becoming harder than ever before.

[00:19:17] And it isn’t just technology like deep fakes that make Fake News harder to fight.

[00:19:23] The fact that half the world’s population has a smartphone means that anyone, anywhere can start a rumour, they can spread information that can reach millions of people in an instant means this means that these fake news stories can be read or watched by hundreds of millions of people before they are taken down.

[00:19:46] And even when they are removed, or proved to be false, as in the case of the Jewish community in Trento which was accused of killing a young boy, the damage is often done.

[00:19:58] So, what can be done to solve this? 

[00:20:01] Governments, as you will no doubt have seen in the news, are increasingly putting pressure on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to stop the spread of fake news stories. 

[00:20:13] Their response has typically been that they are a platform, not a media company.

[00:20:19] They also point out that there is not just one type of “fake news”, and figuring out what is fake and what is not is a difficult task. 

[00:20:30] They are right. 

[00:20:31] This is not to say that they shouldn’t even try, but distinguishing between what is true and what is false is not easy, and the line is rarely as clear as the story about finding civilisation on the moon or the Pope endorsing Donald Trump for president.

[00:20:50] So, to summarise, fake news is nothing new. 

[00:20:54] Since the dawn of time people have understood the power of lies to deceive people and acquire power. 

[00:21:02] It started out with whispers in the Roman Forum, the Gutenberg Printing Press made spreading it easier still, TV and radio made it even easier, and social media and communication apps have made it easier than ever before.

[00:21:20] So, while the man most commonly associated with the term Fake News might be long gone from The White House, as we’ve heard today, Fake News is nothing new, and the line between fact and fiction is more blurry than ever.

[00:21:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The History of Fake News.

[00:21:44] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:48] A final point, which I think is quite an amusing one, is that Donald Trump wasn’t even the first US presidential candidate in 2016 to use the term Fake News. It was Hillary Clinton, who used it on 8 December 2016, a full month before Donald Trump first used it.

[00:22:09] So, Trump’s claim to have invented the term fake news is, itself, fake news.

[00:22:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:22:20] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:30] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] It is so dishonest. It is so fake. You know, I've really started this whole fake news thing. Now they've turned it around. And then now they're calling, you know, stories put out by diff- by Facebook, fake and they're fake, what could be more fake than CBS and NBC and ABC and CNN. 

[00:00:19] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:27] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:36] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The History of Fake News.

[00:00:44] For most people, the first person you will think about when you hear the words “fake news” will be the man whose voice you heard at the start of the episode, the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. 

[00:00:59] But while he might have popularised, and even weaponised, the term, as we will discover the concept goes back a lot further than Donald Trump.

[00:01:11] So, in this episode we are going to explore the weird, interesting, and dangerous world of Fake News, what “Fake News” actually means, who is creating these fake news stories, and for what reason, and we'll see that for as long as people have spread real news they've understood the power of fake news.

[00:01:34] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:39] The term Fake News really came into the public eye in late 2016, after the US election.

[00:01:49] There were 20 times more Google searches for the phrase “fake news” in February 2017 than a year beforehand.

[00:01:58] The Collins Dictionary made “fake news” its word of the year for 2017. 

[00:02:05] In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries had selected “post-truth” as its word of the year.

[00:02:13] There seemed to be an assault, an attack on the authenticity of the media. 

[00:02:20] Its posterboy, the person most famous for it, might have been Donald Trump, but he has been followed by leaders from all over the world in attacking the truthfulness of the media.

[00:02:34] From the US to Brazil, Hungary to the Philippines, political leaders have attacked the media for publishing what they claim to be fake, untrue, stories.

[00:02:47] And it’s not, of course, just authoritarian leaders. 

[00:02:50] Politicians in almost every country in the world have seen how effective labelling a story as “fake” can be, and this tactic has been deployed to cast doubt over the authenticity of news stories.

[00:03:07] So, were these politicians bravely pointing out something that no politician had been brave enough to do, was the news really becoming more fake, or is the news not fake at all?

[00:03:21] Well, in many cases, as we both know, the news stories are not fake, the stories just do not reflect well on the political leader, and simply claiming that they are not true is, unfortunately, an effective tactic to distract attention from reality, from the truth.

[00:03:41] But in other cases, the stories are fake. They are not true. They are lies. 

[00:03:47] And these stories, the “real” fake news, will be the centre of today’s episode.

[00:03:55] So what do we actually mean by “fake news”? 

[00:04:00] It is a term that has come under some criticism because it is broad, and can be interpreted to mean a wide range of ideas. 

[00:04:10] It can refer to misinformation, which is information that is simply incorrect, but might not be intended to cause harm.

[00:04:21] It can also refer to disinformation, information that is false and intended to mislead people and cause harm.

[00:04:30] And it can be misinformation that turns into disinformation.

[00:04:36] So, who is creating “fake news”, and for what purpose?

[00:04:41] Let’s dive first into the why, then the who, and we will see that these reasons, these incentives to create fake news, have been around since the dawn of time.

[00:04:55] The reasons for creating fake news are essentially threefold, they can be put into three broad categories.

[00:05:04] Firstly, for political gain. You want people to believe certain things, which will influence their opinion on a subject, and they will vote or behave differently.

[00:05:17] Secondly, for money. You want to make money, and making fake news is an effective way of doing so.

[00:05:26] And thirdly, to disrupt society. You get some sort of joy, satisfaction, or political benefit from causing chaos, making people believe things that are not true, and making it harder for people to distinguish between truth and falsehoods.

[00:05:47] With our first reason, for political gain, this is as old as time.

[00:05:53] Going back all the way to 33BC in Ancient Rome, there was a power struggle between Octavian and Mark Anthony. 

[00:06:03] After Julius Caesar’s death, both wanted power. 

[00:06:07] Mark Anthony was away in Egypt, while Octavian was in Rome.

[00:06:13] To win power, Octavian knew that he needed to have the public on his side, and he put out a vicious propaganda campaign portraying Mark Anthony as a drunk womaniser who had been corrupted by his affair with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen.

[00:06:32] He was having an affair with Cleopatra, they had even had three children together, but a lot of what was written about Mark Anthony simply wasn’t true.

[00:06:44] Octavian had arranged for coins to be made with slogans about Mark Anthony’s behaviour, and the news spread throughout Rome about his bad behaviour, and unsuitability for the position of Caesar.

[00:07:02] Public opinion turned against Mark Anthony, Rome declared war against Cleopatra, and after Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s suicide Octavian became emperor, becoming Augustus Caesar.

[00:07:16] So, there is Octavian, over two thousand years ago, understanding the power of fake news for political gain.

[00:07:25] And ever since, fake stories have been used for political gain, often with far more tragic consequences than one man failing to become emperor.

[00:07:38] On Easter Sunday in 1475, in Trento, in modern-day Italy, a young boy went missing. 

[00:07:46] A priest told his congregation that he believed the boy had been killed by Jews, who had drunk the boy’s blood to celebrate Passover. 

[00:07:58] Before long someone else claimed that the boy’s body had been found in the basement of a Jewish house.

[00:08:06] The entire Jewish community of Trento was arrested and tortured. 15 of them were burnt at the stake, publicly burned in front of the town’s residents.

[00:08:19] Even though the story was recognised as completely false, it simply didn’t happen, the news was spreading fast. 

[00:08:28] The Gutenberg printing press had been invented in 1440, and it was easier and cheaper than ever before to print pamphlets containing simple text.

[00:08:40] The papacy had tried to get involved to stop the rumours, but it was too late. 

[00:08:47] The story tapped into pre-existing anti-semitic feelings, anti-Jewish sentiment, and even though it was proved to be fake, it almost didn’t matter - the damage was done.

[00:09:01] People believed what they wanted to believe.

[00:09:04] And indeed, to this day there are still some anti-Semitic websites that claim this story is true.

[00:09:12] Now, while we don’t know for sure the motivations of the priest who started these rumours, it is probable that he did so for a combination of anti-semitic and political reasons.

[00:09:26] And this was, of course, not the first, the last, or the most tragic time the Jewish community has been targeted by fake news for political gain.

[00:09:37] No greater example of this exists than during the rise of the Nazis, and the successful portrayal of the Jewish community as being responsible for a large part of Germany’s problems.

[00:09:50] Stories were printed by the Nazi propaganda machine portraying Jews as an obstacle in the way of a united Arian population, and at the same time stories were suppressed, they were hidden, about the atrocities that were being committed as part of the Holocaust.

[00:10:11] It’s hard to find a group in recent history that better understood the power of manipulating the media, and with more tragic consequences, than the Nazis.

[00:10:23] But there are other examples of politicians and countries using fake news for political gain that we look back on with a certain acceptance.

[00:10:35] In 1917, during World War I, the British government gave one particular fake news story to the press. The story claimed that Germans were using the bodies of dead British soldiers to make soap and margarine - a butter-like substance.

[00:10:55] The story was completely false, but was published by newspapers such as The Times and The Daily Mail. It was intended to build support for the ongoing war effort by portraying the German enemy as completely barbaric and inhumane.

[00:11:14] So, fake news for political gain is as old as time, it just so happens that in the 21st century it is easier than ever to spread it.

[00:11:25] We’ll explore this further in a minute, but let’s first look at the second motivation for fake news: to make money.

[00:11:33] This too has been a motivation for fake news since the dawn of “news”. This is not the time or the place to fully explore how news has changed through the ages, but the purpose of news has not always been simply to inform.

[00:11:51] Before the invention of the printing press in 1440, there was a very different concept of “news”. 

[00:11:59] In Europe, you might hear information at a church service from a priest, or there would be a town crier, someone who would stand in a square and read out official information in a loud voice.

[00:12:13] A little bit of slightly pointless but quite interesting vocabulary is that the way a town crier would announce their presence in English is by saying “Hear Ye - Oyez, Oyez, Oyez”, “Oyez” actually derives from the old Norman word for “to listen”.

[00:12:33] As literacy rates started to increase, and it was cheaper to print information on pamphlets, information was increasingly shared in written form, but there was not the same concept of “objective” journalism, of simply reporting the facts. 

[00:12:51] The purpose of news was often to entertain and amuse, not simply to inform.

[00:13:00] By the early 19th century, newspapers were printing increasingly fake stories to try to sell more copies.

[00:13:08] In 1835, for example, The New York Sun published a story over six days reporting that a famous astronomer had looked through his telescope and discovered life on the moon.

[00:13:23] The article described the animals he had seen through the telescope, and included detailed pictures of this society on the moon.

[00:13:33] It did wonders for newspaper sales, it sold a lot of copies.

[00:13:38] Of course, it was completely fake, completely invented, and - as an indication of how unimportant the newspaper thought this was - the newspaper never actually printed an apology admitting it was fake.

[00:13:52] Fast forward almost 200 years, and although the technology has changed, the desire to make money from fake news hasn’t.

[00:14:02] For example, in the run up to the 2016 US election there was a headline with the title “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for President, releases statement”.

[00:14:17] This was completely untrue, it was completely fake, and had been created by a group of teenagers in Macedonia, in Eastern Europe.

[00:14:29] They weren’t interested in getting Donald Trump elected. They couldn’t care less who was in the White House.

[00:14:35] They simply wanted to attract people to their website, which had advertising, which would make them money.

[00:14:42] The Pope Francis article wasn’t the only one. 

[00:14:46] They would pump out dozens of articles that they knew would trigger people’s reactions, especially Trump supporters, they would then post them in pro-Trump Facebook groups, there would be thousands of comments on the posts, which would mean Facebook’s algorithms would show them to more people, it would be shared, millions of Americans would click on the link and go to the website, and the teenagers would make tens of thousands of dollars in advertising.

[00:15:17] Now, this is an extreme example, because it was a completely fake article, a story that had no basis in truth. 

[00:15:26] Even more reputable news organisations are guilty of writing sensational headlines and stories because they know that they will get clicks, and resonate with a certain demographic. 

[00:15:39] The Guardian, for example, a left-leaning newspaper in the UK constantly publishes articles on Amazon and its tax payments, mentioning only certain types of taxes that Amazon pays, and always forgetting to mention other types of taxes that it pays, because it knows that this will resonate with its audience.

[00:16:01] On the other end of the political spectrum, the right-leaning UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph is full of negative articles about the European Union or Joe Biden, again not always mentioning the full truth about the subjects of its articles, because it too is a business that makes money from advertising and newspaper sales.

[00:16:25] I’m sure you can think of similar examples from your country.

[00:16:29] And our third, debatably most dangerous motivation for creating fake news is to cause trouble and confusion. 

[00:16:38] You will, no doubt be familiar with the Russian troll farms pumping out fake news articles to try to influence the 2016 and 2020 US elections. 

[00:16:51] Whether or not they did influence them is another question, but it seems pretty clear that they tried.

[00:16:58] Part of this was no doubt for political reasons, but it was also to cause chaos and increase distrust in American institutions. 

[00:17:09] It seems to have worked. 

[00:17:10] Trust in the media is at an all-time low in America, with only 46% of Americans saying that they trust the media to tell them the truth.

[00:17:22] Naturally, this decline can’t completely be attributed to the spread of fake news, but it certainly has not helped the situation.

[00:17:32] So, what is the future of fake news? Is it poised to become more and more of a problem, or have we learned how to spot the difference between true and false?

[00:17:44] Certainly there are some new technological developments that will make it harder than ever to spot the difference between truth and falsehood.

[00:17:54] For example, deep fakes, faked videos or audio clips that are made to look and sound like someone, but are completely computer generated.

[00:18:05] You might have heard this one of Barack Obama: 

[00:18:08] we're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time, even if they would never say those things. How about this?

[00:18:18] Simply president Trump is a total and complete dipshit. Now, you see, I would never say these things, at least not in a public address, but someone else would. 

[00:18:31] Creepy, right?

[00:18:33] You might think, well, I guess you need to have a large studio and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment to create something like that.

[00:18:42] You don’t.

[00:18:43] Just listen to this.

[00:18:45] This isn't actually me. This voice isn't real. I didn't record this. 

[00:18:49] Ok, I’m back again, this is actually me. 

[00:18:53] Can you tell that was fake? 

[00:18:55] Maybe you could, but the point is that I was able to do it pretty easily, only from clips of my voice, which is freely available on the Internet.

[00:19:06] And it did sound a lot like me.

[00:19:09] So figuring out the difference between what is real and what is fake is becoming harder than ever before.

[00:19:17] And it isn’t just technology like deep fakes that make Fake News harder to fight.

[00:19:23] The fact that half the world’s population has a smartphone means that anyone, anywhere can start a rumour, they can spread information that can reach millions of people in an instant means this means that these fake news stories can be read or watched by hundreds of millions of people before they are taken down.

[00:19:46] And even when they are removed, or proved to be false, as in the case of the Jewish community in Trento which was accused of killing a young boy, the damage is often done.

[00:19:58] So, what can be done to solve this? 

[00:20:01] Governments, as you will no doubt have seen in the news, are increasingly putting pressure on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to stop the spread of fake news stories. 

[00:20:13] Their response has typically been that they are a platform, not a media company.

[00:20:19] They also point out that there is not just one type of “fake news”, and figuring out what is fake and what is not is a difficult task. 

[00:20:30] They are right. 

[00:20:31] This is not to say that they shouldn’t even try, but distinguishing between what is true and what is false is not easy, and the line is rarely as clear as the story about finding civilisation on the moon or the Pope endorsing Donald Trump for president.

[00:20:50] So, to summarise, fake news is nothing new. 

[00:20:54] Since the dawn of time people have understood the power of lies to deceive people and acquire power. 

[00:21:02] It started out with whispers in the Roman Forum, the Gutenberg Printing Press made spreading it easier still, TV and radio made it even easier, and social media and communication apps have made it easier than ever before.

[00:21:20] So, while the man most commonly associated with the term Fake News might be long gone from The White House, as we’ve heard today, Fake News is nothing new, and the line between fact and fiction is more blurry than ever.

[00:21:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The History of Fake News.

[00:21:44] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:48] A final point, which I think is quite an amusing one, is that Donald Trump wasn’t even the first US presidential candidate in 2016 to use the term Fake News. It was Hillary Clinton, who used it on 8 December 2016, a full month before Donald Trump first used it.

[00:22:09] So, Trump’s claim to have invented the term fake news is, itself, fake news.

[00:22:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:22:20] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:30] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] It is so dishonest. It is so fake. You know, I've really started this whole fake news thing. Now they've turned it around. And then now they're calling, you know, stories put out by diff- by Facebook, fake and they're fake, what could be more fake than CBS and NBC and ABC and CNN. 

[00:00:19] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:27] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:36] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The History of Fake News.

[00:00:44] For most people, the first person you will think about when you hear the words “fake news” will be the man whose voice you heard at the start of the episode, the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. 

[00:00:59] But while he might have popularised, and even weaponised, the term, as we will discover the concept goes back a lot further than Donald Trump.

[00:01:11] So, in this episode we are going to explore the weird, interesting, and dangerous world of Fake News, what “Fake News” actually means, who is creating these fake news stories, and for what reason, and we'll see that for as long as people have spread real news they've understood the power of fake news.

[00:01:34] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:39] The term Fake News really came into the public eye in late 2016, after the US election.

[00:01:49] There were 20 times more Google searches for the phrase “fake news” in February 2017 than a year beforehand.

[00:01:58] The Collins Dictionary made “fake news” its word of the year for 2017. 

[00:02:05] In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries had selected “post-truth” as its word of the year.

[00:02:13] There seemed to be an assault, an attack on the authenticity of the media. 

[00:02:20] Its posterboy, the person most famous for it, might have been Donald Trump, but he has been followed by leaders from all over the world in attacking the truthfulness of the media.

[00:02:34] From the US to Brazil, Hungary to the Philippines, political leaders have attacked the media for publishing what they claim to be fake, untrue, stories.

[00:02:47] And it’s not, of course, just authoritarian leaders. 

[00:02:50] Politicians in almost every country in the world have seen how effective labelling a story as “fake” can be, and this tactic has been deployed to cast doubt over the authenticity of news stories.

[00:03:07] So, were these politicians bravely pointing out something that no politician had been brave enough to do, was the news really becoming more fake, or is the news not fake at all?

[00:03:21] Well, in many cases, as we both know, the news stories are not fake, the stories just do not reflect well on the political leader, and simply claiming that they are not true is, unfortunately, an effective tactic to distract attention from reality, from the truth.

[00:03:41] But in other cases, the stories are fake. They are not true. They are lies. 

[00:03:47] And these stories, the “real” fake news, will be the centre of today’s episode.

[00:03:55] So what do we actually mean by “fake news”? 

[00:04:00] It is a term that has come under some criticism because it is broad, and can be interpreted to mean a wide range of ideas. 

[00:04:10] It can refer to misinformation, which is information that is simply incorrect, but might not be intended to cause harm.

[00:04:21] It can also refer to disinformation, information that is false and intended to mislead people and cause harm.

[00:04:30] And it can be misinformation that turns into disinformation.

[00:04:36] So, who is creating “fake news”, and for what purpose?

[00:04:41] Let’s dive first into the why, then the who, and we will see that these reasons, these incentives to create fake news, have been around since the dawn of time.

[00:04:55] The reasons for creating fake news are essentially threefold, they can be put into three broad categories.

[00:05:04] Firstly, for political gain. You want people to believe certain things, which will influence their opinion on a subject, and they will vote or behave differently.

[00:05:17] Secondly, for money. You want to make money, and making fake news is an effective way of doing so.

[00:05:26] And thirdly, to disrupt society. You get some sort of joy, satisfaction, or political benefit from causing chaos, making people believe things that are not true, and making it harder for people to distinguish between truth and falsehoods.

[00:05:47] With our first reason, for political gain, this is as old as time.

[00:05:53] Going back all the way to 33BC in Ancient Rome, there was a power struggle between Octavian and Mark Anthony. 

[00:06:03] After Julius Caesar’s death, both wanted power. 

[00:06:07] Mark Anthony was away in Egypt, while Octavian was in Rome.

[00:06:13] To win power, Octavian knew that he needed to have the public on his side, and he put out a vicious propaganda campaign portraying Mark Anthony as a drunk womaniser who had been corrupted by his affair with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen.

[00:06:32] He was having an affair with Cleopatra, they had even had three children together, but a lot of what was written about Mark Anthony simply wasn’t true.

[00:06:44] Octavian had arranged for coins to be made with slogans about Mark Anthony’s behaviour, and the news spread throughout Rome about his bad behaviour, and unsuitability for the position of Caesar.

[00:07:02] Public opinion turned against Mark Anthony, Rome declared war against Cleopatra, and after Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s suicide Octavian became emperor, becoming Augustus Caesar.

[00:07:16] So, there is Octavian, over two thousand years ago, understanding the power of fake news for political gain.

[00:07:25] And ever since, fake stories have been used for political gain, often with far more tragic consequences than one man failing to become emperor.

[00:07:38] On Easter Sunday in 1475, in Trento, in modern-day Italy, a young boy went missing. 

[00:07:46] A priest told his congregation that he believed the boy had been killed by Jews, who had drunk the boy’s blood to celebrate Passover. 

[00:07:58] Before long someone else claimed that the boy’s body had been found in the basement of a Jewish house.

[00:08:06] The entire Jewish community of Trento was arrested and tortured. 15 of them were burnt at the stake, publicly burned in front of the town’s residents.

[00:08:19] Even though the story was recognised as completely false, it simply didn’t happen, the news was spreading fast. 

[00:08:28] The Gutenberg printing press had been invented in 1440, and it was easier and cheaper than ever before to print pamphlets containing simple text.

[00:08:40] The papacy had tried to get involved to stop the rumours, but it was too late. 

[00:08:47] The story tapped into pre-existing anti-semitic feelings, anti-Jewish sentiment, and even though it was proved to be fake, it almost didn’t matter - the damage was done.

[00:09:01] People believed what they wanted to believe.

[00:09:04] And indeed, to this day there are still some anti-Semitic websites that claim this story is true.

[00:09:12] Now, while we don’t know for sure the motivations of the priest who started these rumours, it is probable that he did so for a combination of anti-semitic and political reasons.

[00:09:26] And this was, of course, not the first, the last, or the most tragic time the Jewish community has been targeted by fake news for political gain.

[00:09:37] No greater example of this exists than during the rise of the Nazis, and the successful portrayal of the Jewish community as being responsible for a large part of Germany’s problems.

[00:09:50] Stories were printed by the Nazi propaganda machine portraying Jews as an obstacle in the way of a united Arian population, and at the same time stories were suppressed, they were hidden, about the atrocities that were being committed as part of the Holocaust.

[00:10:11] It’s hard to find a group in recent history that better understood the power of manipulating the media, and with more tragic consequences, than the Nazis.

[00:10:23] But there are other examples of politicians and countries using fake news for political gain that we look back on with a certain acceptance.

[00:10:35] In 1917, during World War I, the British government gave one particular fake news story to the press. The story claimed that Germans were using the bodies of dead British soldiers to make soap and margarine - a butter-like substance.

[00:10:55] The story was completely false, but was published by newspapers such as The Times and The Daily Mail. It was intended to build support for the ongoing war effort by portraying the German enemy as completely barbaric and inhumane.

[00:11:14] So, fake news for political gain is as old as time, it just so happens that in the 21st century it is easier than ever to spread it.

[00:11:25] We’ll explore this further in a minute, but let’s first look at the second motivation for fake news: to make money.

[00:11:33] This too has been a motivation for fake news since the dawn of “news”. This is not the time or the place to fully explore how news has changed through the ages, but the purpose of news has not always been simply to inform.

[00:11:51] Before the invention of the printing press in 1440, there was a very different concept of “news”. 

[00:11:59] In Europe, you might hear information at a church service from a priest, or there would be a town crier, someone who would stand in a square and read out official information in a loud voice.

[00:12:13] A little bit of slightly pointless but quite interesting vocabulary is that the way a town crier would announce their presence in English is by saying “Hear Ye - Oyez, Oyez, Oyez”, “Oyez” actually derives from the old Norman word for “to listen”.

[00:12:33] As literacy rates started to increase, and it was cheaper to print information on pamphlets, information was increasingly shared in written form, but there was not the same concept of “objective” journalism, of simply reporting the facts. 

[00:12:51] The purpose of news was often to entertain and amuse, not simply to inform.

[00:13:00] By the early 19th century, newspapers were printing increasingly fake stories to try to sell more copies.

[00:13:08] In 1835, for example, The New York Sun published a story over six days reporting that a famous astronomer had looked through his telescope and discovered life on the moon.

[00:13:23] The article described the animals he had seen through the telescope, and included detailed pictures of this society on the moon.

[00:13:33] It did wonders for newspaper sales, it sold a lot of copies.

[00:13:38] Of course, it was completely fake, completely invented, and - as an indication of how unimportant the newspaper thought this was - the newspaper never actually printed an apology admitting it was fake.

[00:13:52] Fast forward almost 200 years, and although the technology has changed, the desire to make money from fake news hasn’t.

[00:14:02] For example, in the run up to the 2016 US election there was a headline with the title “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for President, releases statement”.

[00:14:17] This was completely untrue, it was completely fake, and had been created by a group of teenagers in Macedonia, in Eastern Europe.

[00:14:29] They weren’t interested in getting Donald Trump elected. They couldn’t care less who was in the White House.

[00:14:35] They simply wanted to attract people to their website, which had advertising, which would make them money.

[00:14:42] The Pope Francis article wasn’t the only one. 

[00:14:46] They would pump out dozens of articles that they knew would trigger people’s reactions, especially Trump supporters, they would then post them in pro-Trump Facebook groups, there would be thousands of comments on the posts, which would mean Facebook’s algorithms would show them to more people, it would be shared, millions of Americans would click on the link and go to the website, and the teenagers would make tens of thousands of dollars in advertising.

[00:15:17] Now, this is an extreme example, because it was a completely fake article, a story that had no basis in truth. 

[00:15:26] Even more reputable news organisations are guilty of writing sensational headlines and stories because they know that they will get clicks, and resonate with a certain demographic. 

[00:15:39] The Guardian, for example, a left-leaning newspaper in the UK constantly publishes articles on Amazon and its tax payments, mentioning only certain types of taxes that Amazon pays, and always forgetting to mention other types of taxes that it pays, because it knows that this will resonate with its audience.

[00:16:01] On the other end of the political spectrum, the right-leaning UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph is full of negative articles about the European Union or Joe Biden, again not always mentioning the full truth about the subjects of its articles, because it too is a business that makes money from advertising and newspaper sales.

[00:16:25] I’m sure you can think of similar examples from your country.

[00:16:29] And our third, debatably most dangerous motivation for creating fake news is to cause trouble and confusion. 

[00:16:38] You will, no doubt be familiar with the Russian troll farms pumping out fake news articles to try to influence the 2016 and 2020 US elections. 

[00:16:51] Whether or not they did influence them is another question, but it seems pretty clear that they tried.

[00:16:58] Part of this was no doubt for political reasons, but it was also to cause chaos and increase distrust in American institutions. 

[00:17:09] It seems to have worked. 

[00:17:10] Trust in the media is at an all-time low in America, with only 46% of Americans saying that they trust the media to tell them the truth.

[00:17:22] Naturally, this decline can’t completely be attributed to the spread of fake news, but it certainly has not helped the situation.

[00:17:32] So, what is the future of fake news? Is it poised to become more and more of a problem, or have we learned how to spot the difference between true and false?

[00:17:44] Certainly there are some new technological developments that will make it harder than ever to spot the difference between truth and falsehood.

[00:17:54] For example, deep fakes, faked videos or audio clips that are made to look and sound like someone, but are completely computer generated.

[00:18:05] You might have heard this one of Barack Obama: 

[00:18:08] we're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time, even if they would never say those things. How about this?

[00:18:18] Simply president Trump is a total and complete dipshit. Now, you see, I would never say these things, at least not in a public address, but someone else would. 

[00:18:31] Creepy, right?

[00:18:33] You might think, well, I guess you need to have a large studio and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment to create something like that.

[00:18:42] You don’t.

[00:18:43] Just listen to this.

[00:18:45] This isn't actually me. This voice isn't real. I didn't record this. 

[00:18:49] Ok, I’m back again, this is actually me. 

[00:18:53] Can you tell that was fake? 

[00:18:55] Maybe you could, but the point is that I was able to do it pretty easily, only from clips of my voice, which is freely available on the Internet.

[00:19:06] And it did sound a lot like me.

[00:19:09] So figuring out the difference between what is real and what is fake is becoming harder than ever before.

[00:19:17] And it isn’t just technology like deep fakes that make Fake News harder to fight.

[00:19:23] The fact that half the world’s population has a smartphone means that anyone, anywhere can start a rumour, they can spread information that can reach millions of people in an instant means this means that these fake news stories can be read or watched by hundreds of millions of people before they are taken down.

[00:19:46] And even when they are removed, or proved to be false, as in the case of the Jewish community in Trento which was accused of killing a young boy, the damage is often done.

[00:19:58] So, what can be done to solve this? 

[00:20:01] Governments, as you will no doubt have seen in the news, are increasingly putting pressure on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to stop the spread of fake news stories. 

[00:20:13] Their response has typically been that they are a platform, not a media company.

[00:20:19] They also point out that there is not just one type of “fake news”, and figuring out what is fake and what is not is a difficult task. 

[00:20:30] They are right. 

[00:20:31] This is not to say that they shouldn’t even try, but distinguishing between what is true and what is false is not easy, and the line is rarely as clear as the story about finding civilisation on the moon or the Pope endorsing Donald Trump for president.

[00:20:50] So, to summarise, fake news is nothing new. 

[00:20:54] Since the dawn of time people have understood the power of lies to deceive people and acquire power. 

[00:21:02] It started out with whispers in the Roman Forum, the Gutenberg Printing Press made spreading it easier still, TV and radio made it even easier, and social media and communication apps have made it easier than ever before.

[00:21:20] So, while the man most commonly associated with the term Fake News might be long gone from The White House, as we’ve heard today, Fake News is nothing new, and the line between fact and fiction is more blurry than ever.

[00:21:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The History of Fake News.

[00:21:44] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:48] A final point, which I think is quite an amusing one, is that Donald Trump wasn’t even the first US presidential candidate in 2016 to use the term Fake News. It was Hillary Clinton, who used it on 8 December 2016, a full month before Donald Trump first used it.

[00:22:09] So, Trump’s claim to have invented the term fake news is, itself, fake news.

[00:22:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:22:20] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:30] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]