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7 Times Fake News Was Massively Successful

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7 Times Fake News Was Massively Successful

Author: Aaron Webber

Fake news is not new. Whether you call it rumor, propaganda, misinformation, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, fake news, lies, or something else, misleading information masquerading as news has been around as long as people have been able to communicate with each other.

Every day there are new fake stories, false narratives, scams, and lies that go viral online or are spread through tight communities. Sometimes they are harmless, sometimes they do actual harm and even cause deaths or generational trauma. Everyone has participated in fake news, from Roman Emperors and spiritual leaders to newspaper publishers and everyday people. What started out as a rumor can quickly spread to dangerous conspiracy and speculation. Examples include early Christians spreading fake news about Jews using Christian babies in demonic rituals, Emperor Octavian running a slander campaign against his rival Mark Antony, stories in 1835 about aliens on the moon, and many, many more. Fake news about the end of the world or an impending apocalypse is a recurring theme in fake news, especially in revivalist circles, cults, and evangelical American religions.

We could fill volumes of books on all the examples of fake news throughout history, but for this list, we will include a few examples throughout history that highlight how easy it is for fake news to take control of society.

#7 The Salem Witch Trials

Sign at the Witch House of Salem, Massachusetts
  • Occurred: 1692–1693

Of all the fake news stories on this list, this one is the one wrapped the most in myth and speculation. There have been numerous books and studies published about the causes and motivations behind the Salem Witch Trials and the panic and mania that surrounded them.

Among the most probable (and agreed upon) causes of the trials are greed and jealousy powered by religious fanaticism. There is no reasonable research that supports the idea that witches were actually operating in or near Salem, and certainly not among those executed.

Most of the accusations of witchcraft involved the families who owned or controlled the valuable land in the city. Young girls, for whatever reason, began to levy accusations of witchcraft against political and religious rivals in the town, and when the accusations gained attention, additional accusations followed.

Whatever the reasons for the original accusations, it quickly grew beyond anyone’s wildest predictions. In the end, during the 1692 and 1693 panic, more than 200 people ended up being accused of witchcraft, thirty were found guilty, nineteen were hanged, one died from torture, and five died in jail.

#6 War of the Worlds Broadcast

H.G. Wells (Herbert George Wells, 1866 – 1946)
  • Occurred: 1938

This is the only non-fatal fake news incident on this list. The day before Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles narrated an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds live on the CBS Radio Network. The drama included three parts: an introduction about the story that explained that it was fictional followed by a mock radio broadcast that included fake news bulletins about Martians landing on Earth and attacking humans, and finally a typical radio drama that finished the story.

Many people switched to the CBS station only after a previous show had ended on another station, which meant they missed the introduction and joined partway through the mock news broadcast. This caused many people to believe the broadcast was real and they panicked, thinking they were under attack by aliens. So many people were concerned, that police began to show up at the broadcasting studio and the employees had to struggle to keep them from breaking into the recording booth. They received calls from an angry mayor who said there were mobs in the street and many other calls from panicking civilians.

Orson Welles apologized for the incident, but not for the way he presented the program. This has led some to speculate that the format of the show was intentionally designed to create panic. Later commentary about the event downplays the panic and hysteria that is supposed to have occurred.

#5 American Pro-Slavery propaganda

The House of Representatives passed the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the United States on January 31, 1865.
  • Occurred: 1800’s–Today

Slavery as a concept and practice has existed for thousands of years. It has evolved and changed through the generations, taking different forms and being used to different extremes. Pro-slavery though has grown and evolved along with it. What makes American pro-slavery propaganda so unique is that it was inextricably intertwined with American spirituality, exceptionalism, and the new form of slavery present only in the Americas. In other words, American slavery supported and was used as evidence for American spirituality, and American spirituality supported and strengthened American slavery.

In the 1820s, for example, many pro-slavery Americans believed that slaves, by their very nature, were incapable of taking care of themselves and that the white race had been appointed by God to care for their bodies, minds, and souls through slavery. In their mind, slavery was a tool given by god for the oversight and protection of the black race. Because slavery was therefore endorsed by God, writers in the 1830s spread the idea that American slavery was the best slavery in the history of the world. Saying,

“[W]e…deny that slavery is sinful or inexpedient. We deny that it is wrong in the abstract. We assert that it is the natural condition of man; that there ever has been, and there ever will be slavery; and we not only claim for ourselves the right to determine for ourselves the relations between master and slave, but we insist that the slavery of the Southern States is the best regulation of slavery, whether we take into consideration the interests of the master or of the slave, that has ever been devised.” The Liberator, August 29, 1935.

Whereas slavery was a political, social, or economic arrangement in the past, it was now fundamentally tied to the spirituality and evolution of both the master and the slave. Christian and Jewish churches all over the United States used scripture, fake news, and misinformation to fight against abolition, and once it was passed, to continue the oppression of black people. Political and cultural leaders today continue to spread this same misinformation today to justify the treatment of minorities and excuse the behavior of some people during the fight for equal rights. It is important to remember that any doctrine, philosophy, or morality that excuses slavery or the oppression of minorities today has its roots in pro-slavery propaganda and not science-based facts.

#4 Sinking of the USS Maine

The USS Maine.
  • Occurred: 1889

During the years leading up to the Spanish-American War, most businesses and President McKinley hoped to avoid war with Spain, which by that time was an empire in decline. Tensions were growing over the independence movement in Cuba and the United States sent the USS Maine to Cuba to help protect U.S. businesses there. She exploded in an accident on February 15, 1898.

For whatever reason, William Hearst who owned the New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer who owned the New York World, seized upon the event and blamed it on the Spanish in what has since been called a practice known as Yellow Journalism.

They published headlines calling for war against Spain, blaming the incident on Spain, and even offering a reward for those responsible for whoever “sent 258 American sailors to their deaths.” They invented accounts, embellished details, and even created entirely fictional stories about the sinking in order to push the narrative that Spain had intentionally sunk the USS Maine. This fake news drove an already uneasy American population into near-hysteria for declaring war. The fake stories and lies these two men spread were not a direct cause of the war, but they did significantly accelerate the events that forced the U.S. to declare war against Spain.

In the end, the sinking of the USS Maine led to the United States becoming the major power in the Caribbean, the seizing of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and led directly to the Philippine-American War.

#3 Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq

Bush Addresses Nation On 9/11 Anniversary.
  • Occurred: Early 2000’s

Saddam Hussein, the fifth president of Iraq, had used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. He actively worked on creating a biological weapons program and a nuclear weapons program during his presidency. The United States supported Iraq in this war and even invited Iraqi nuclear scientists to the U.S. to learn how to properly build and operate a nuclear bomb, and the CDC even sent samples of anthrax, West Nile virus, and botulism to Iraqi scientists for testing.  

After the Gulf War in 1991, international cooperation forbade Iraq from developing certain weapons systems. These included weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). United Nations inspection teams in the years since did not find any evidence of WMDs in Iraq, or that they had any capability of creating any.

This didn’t stop the United States from using WMDs as a pretext for war. In the years prior to the Iraq War, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and other top U.S. leaders used WMDs as an excuse for invading Iraq. As a result, Iraq invited extra UN inspections, which did not find any evidence of WMDs. The United States and the United Kingdom tried to use legal reasoning for military intervention, but other members of the United Nations disagreed. The United States invaded the country anyway. No WMDs were ever found.

 In the years since the invasion, it has been described as, at best, a mistake, and at worse, a war crime and violation of human rights. In the hysteria following the September 11, 2001 attacks, most Americans were looking for any excuse for revenge or military response in the Middle East. Whatever the real reasons for the invasion of Iraq, WMDs provided the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the frenzy.

#2 Lancet MMR autism fraud

Eastern Colorado VA Receives Shipments Of Covid-19 Vaccines.
  • Occurred: 1998

Positions and arguments against vaccines have been around as long as vaccines themselves. Most opposition against any man-made medicine or remedy had its roots in religious and spiritual beliefs, with some purporting that diseases were the will of god and that to prevent or eradicate them was to fight against god’s designs. These beliefs influenced the new-age anti-vaccination movement that had a significant resurgence in the 1990s and 2000s.  

Before 1998, anti-vaccination was generally viewed as a fringe position. Evidence was already beginning to mount showing the effectiveness of vaccines and kept dangerous religious and spiritual beliefs at bay. In 1998, however, Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent paper titled “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children” in the medical journal, The Lancet. This paper made several false claims linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Subsequent investigations disproved and discredited the paper, and The Lancet retracted it shortly after. Wakefield had many conflicts of interest when publishing the paper, he had manipulated evidence, and broken several ethical codes. But the damage had already been done, experts have called Wakefield’s fraud “perhaps the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years”.

Investigative journalist Brian Deer published his own series of reports in 2011 which stated “It has taken the diligent skepticism of one man, standing outside medicine and science, to show that the paper was in fact an elaborate fraud.”

This wasn’t Wakefield’s first foray into fraud, either. He actually planned to sell testing kits for a fake syndrome he pretended to discover. And, at the time of the publishing of his paper, he held the patent to a rival vaccine to MMR that would become more popular if the one he wrote about was discontinued.

Whatever the reason for his fraud, Wakefield became an anti-vaccination advocate soon after and conspiracy theorists, religious organizations, and others took the implication of the paper at face value. They have targeted American conservative groups like the Tea Party movement which have adopted the cause as their own. Additional fraudulent and misleading studies and information were produced to support the anti-vaccination position.

Because of their efforts, stemming in large part from the Lancet MMR autism fraud, the United States has seen a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases. Measles already lost its elimination status, and in 2019 there were 465 cases alone. Wakefield continues to spread conspiracy theories and dangerous medical advice. Thousands of people have died and many more suffer because of this fake news. 

#1 Stop the Steal

Trump supporters hold “Stop The Steal” rally In DC amid ratification of the presidential election.
  • Occurred: November 2020–Present

The attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 United States presidential election was an elaborate plan to prevent the legal election of President-elect Joe Biden and instead reinstate President Donald Trump for his second presidential term.

With help from his political allies, local supporters, news organizations, and his campaign employees, Trump promoted several conspiracy theories and false claims that the election had been stolen through manipulated voting machines, fraud by the electors, communist plans, and more. Fringe news personalities online spread fake information and showed videos of what they said was evidence of fraud in the electoral process.

The Stop the Steal conspiracy began immediately after Joe Biden won the election on November 4, 2020, and culminated in the United States Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, in which Trump encouraged his supporters to storm the capitol to prevent the casting of electoral votes and keep Trump in office. It has been described as an attempted coup d’état.

Trump and his supporters filed 63 lawsuits in an attempt to prevent the election of Joe Biden, but none were successful. Trump and members of his inner circle have been indicted on charges of defrauding the United States, and many of his political supporters have been convicted of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the January 6th Capitol attack.

Allegations of voter fraud and fake evidence of election manipulation combined with misinformation and fake news on social media increase the frenzy surrounding the election fraud allegations. Several protests and movements were instigated by extremist groups which successfully blurred the line between mainstream conservatives and far-right religious and violent extremists. The Stop the Steal movement was a fertile bed from which other conspiracy theories grew.  

As a result of his attempt to remain in power, Trump faced a second impeachment, restrictions on his future political campaigns from his own party, and his third and fourth criminal indictments. Yet, the stop the steal conspiracy remains very much a popular rallying cry among American conservatives, with many believing that Trump is either still president, innocent of any charges, or that the election was actually stolen from him. Trump maintains that the election was stolen.

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