War, Propaganda and Misinformation: The Evolution of Fake News
by Taylor Synclair Goethe | published Apr. 26th, 2019
As Hiram W. Johnson famously said, "The first casualty when war comes is truth."
Fake news, as defined by Time magazine, is a "false news [story], often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”
The term “fake news” is relatively new, but the issue of misinformation is as old as language itself. American journalism has a complicated relationship with the media, both due to our rights to freedom of the press and a historical involvement in war propaganda campaigns.
Emergence of Mass Media
In the past, reading the news was a rich man’s luxury. Paper and printing in early America was expensive. Elites who owned papers would cater the news coverage to the interests of their colleagues, as this was often their readership. Thus, early newspaper journalism was a relatively small industry that had minimal influence on common people’s day-to-day lives.
Daniel Worden, a professor in the School of Individualized Study with degrees in American Print Cultures and American Literary Studies, explained how developments in printing and papermaking technologies made print media more accessible to the working class.
“In the 1860s, we see the emergence of ‘story papers’ and ‘dime novels,'" Worden said. "This [was] possible due to developments in printing technology and use of wood pulp paper, which is cheaper than cloth."
The Civil War is considered the first technologically-documented war.
“The telegraph, which was used heavily by the press during the Civil War, had a long-lasting effect on journalism. Since telegraph operators charged by the word to transmit stories over the wire, reporters tried to prioritize facts and write more succinctly,” according to Futurity.
Even after the Civil War ended, the demand for consistent updates on the state of the government became popular. By the 19th century, a few newspaper barons arose and established a monopoly on the publishing industry — most notably, Joseph John Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
Yellow Journalism and Sensationalism in News
"War makes for great circulation," Hearst had said.
Yellow journalism, much like modern “clickbait” news, isn’t based on facts; rather, it focuses on sensationalism and crude exaggeration. Sensational-based print had the power to shift public opinion and beat the drums of war.
“Hearst knew that newspapers played an important role in shaping public opinion," Worden said. "He used it to push his perspectives on American expansionism."
Hearst championed the Spanish-American War and other affairs in order to protect the financial stakes of US fruit-picking companies that owned property in Guatemala. The press portrayed the war as heroic, righteous and manly to coax civilians into supporting it and enlisting.
According to Michigan State University, “The most significant piece of yellow journalism, and arguably the most influential, was the report of the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor. Although there was no evidence suggesting foul play, Hearst’s New York Journal ran the headline 'Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.' Almost every major newspaper in the country ran similar headlines, despite lack of evidence.”
Media continued to portray a romanticized version of war until photographic technology improved. Photojournalists recorded the horrors of the World Wars and, for the first time, American civilians began to understand what war really looked like.
"War makes for great circulation."
War Propaganda in the Media
“It’s understandable that when a country faces an existential threat, it will create a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. The country wants to make the enemy seem as scary as possible and make themselves the good guys,” Sarah Burns, a professor of Political Science, said.
She explained that countries at war attempt to "unify" by establishing a black-and-white understanding of morality. The opposition is often slandered through propaganda campaigns, the effects of which are often magnified by the press.
Professor of History Tamar Carroll explained that the US has engaged in both overt and covert propaganda campaigns in times of conflict.
“Overt propaganda would include the poster campaign in World War I and World War II ... and newsroom reels that would play before movies and encourage them to buy war bonds," Carroll said. "Then the US has participated in covert propaganda by trying to influence elections. For example, in Guatemala, there was a CIA-initiated coup. We dropped flyers literally from planes."
During the first World War, the military took over all radio communications and placed strict censorship guidelines on photography. Congress later passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which made it illegal to publish any “abusive language” against the government.
“By the end of the war's first year, 75 U.S. newspapers had lost their mailing privileges or been forced to change their editorial positions. World War II brought the creation of a military office of censorship. If the press wanted access, they had to apply for credentials from the office, which meant they had to play ball with the military,” according to PBS.
The post-WWII propaganda campaigns worked to exacerbate fears of communism back home. The Red Scare was a period of anti-Communist hysteria, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, that prosecuted innocent Americans on suspicions of being secret Soviet spies.
According to E-International Relations, “The use of print with easily de-codable and emotive images helped to redefine national identity as a virtuous and patriotic America, against a dangerous and destructive socialist East. The media distributed extreme propagandist slogans such as ‘Better Dead than Red!’ This type of politicized propaganda served to cause hysteria over communism and nuclear war.”
Eventually, it became clear that McCarthyism wasn't focused on national security but rather fear mongering and control. From here, the media started to gain a more independent identity from the government.
“The press had lessened the spread of anti-communist propaganda when they began covering McCarthy critically and questioned the motives and accuracies of his allegations,” Carroll said.
Misinformation in the Media Coverage
“A part of misinformation is withholding information,” Carroll said.
She explained that the media can take liberties on the information they choose not to report. This is often done because the story is deemed not newsworthy or due to the subject's relationship to the media.
“There’s a tendency, when reporters are embedded with soldiers, to see the point of view of the troops and military and not necessarily the civilians or another side,” Carroll said.
Vietnam is considered the "first television war" according to Britannica.
At the height of the Vietnam War, an estimated 600 journalists were in Vietnam reporting from either wire services, radio or television. The U.S. Military Assistance Command helped with transportation of journalists and allowed for the first frontline coverage of war.
Before Vietnam, the press maintained an amicable relationship with the presidency and refrained from reporting on their personal lives. The press chose not to report on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's rampantly-growing illness or John F. Kennedy's many extramarital affairs.
“Watergate was a turning point," Carroll said. "Nixon had already lied about [the] Vietnam War and its expansion. Then, Watergate revealed corruption at the highest levels and increased speculation of authority.”
Although the media changed its tactics and now reports on a candidate’s personal life and character more, the press often takes the president's word on updates for foreign conflicts. One key example was George W. Bush’s false claim that there were “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq — a claim which served to escalate the Iraq War.
Huffington Post wrote that “such criticism is well-deserved, given that the U.S. media — with a few notable exceptions — helped promote the Bush administration’s flimsy case for invading a country that had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, thus beginning a nine-year war that killed more than 115,000 Iraqi civilians and 4,488 U.S. service members.”
The press made similar mistakes during the 2016 election with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's emails. Andrea Hickerson is the department chair for the School of Communication. She explained that the media’s obsession of being the first to “break” the story has stopped them from thinking critically about the information and their sources.
“We have lost a lot of context with [a 24/7 news cycle]. It [the desire for breaking news] forces us to reduce complex stories into sound bites and digestible media,” Hickerson said.
"It [desire for breaking news] forces us to reduce complex stories into sound bites and digestible media."
Clinton’s emails were taken by Russian hackers and leaked to Wikileaks in an effort to invalidate her candidacy for president. Quick-paced newsrooms fell for the bait and didn’t investigate the source of the materials or the intentions of its release.
“Russia timed [the release of Clinton’s emails] to distract Americans from the AccessHollywood tape," Carroll said. "[Clinton’s emails coverage] reflects pressure to work quickly within the 24/7 news cycle. Many stories were published without key context about the Russian espionage campaign."
New Media Ethics in the Digital Age
Fake news is much more wide reaching and damaging in the new digital media era.
“Estimates say that at least 40 percent of Americans saw fake news leading up to the  election. So it’s true fake news is not a new phenomenon, but sharing it on social media allows for it to travel at a higher speed,” Carroll said.
Social media has revolutionized the way people obtain and digest information. On one hand, it makes information more accessible and allows for more timeliness in reporting. On the other hand, a lot of news is spread through second-hand sourcing without the fact checking required in professional publications.
“We are more likely to believe news if someone we trust tells us about it," Hickerson said. "So if a friend shares fake news on social media, we will believe it.”
"We are more likely to believe news if someone we trust tells us about it."
According to the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of adults get their news from Facebook. Burns explained that social media’s algorithms have a lot to do with the spread of fake news. Social media is designed to keep people’s interest for as long as possible. Fake news is often written sensationally and captures readers' interest. Unlike news media, social media is not under the same restrictions to screen or regulate the accuracy of the content posted on their sites. News that is sensational, radical or fake can be favored if it generates enough user traffic — social media then becomes a breeding ground for radicalization and foreign interference.
“Showing multiple perspectives is good journalism," Carroll said. "On the other hand, not everyone’s opinions are equally valid and shouldn’t be given equal space. American journalism has done too much of that. Reporting on climate change deniers shouldn’t get equal coverage because they are objectively wrong.”
America’s freedom of speech laws have made censorship of radical and fake news difficult. Even talk show hosts who frequently spread extremist propaganda and falsehoods, like Alex Jones, are hard-pressed to face severe legal issues. It is up to private social media companies to ban users that spread hateful and radical news. Alex Jones was eventually banned from all major social media platforms, yet many fake news accounts that bring heavy traffic are still unlikely to face repercussions any time soon.
“The issue with social media is that it mixes genres," Carroll said. "When I read print news, I have a different expectation with the New York Times than with a tabloid magazine like the National Enquirer. But when we read social media, all that is collapsed into one feed.”
Fake news is not a recent or uniquely-American problem; though, it has been exacerbated by the advances of technology. Burns recommends some ways to avoid being caught up in the fake news wave.
“Please put ad blockers on all your media," Burns said. "[And] a good trick is to find two sources to verify the truth of a fact, and to make sure the second source is from a trusted site."
Will American laws adapt to the threat of fake news in the digital age? Will the Russian interference of 2016 make news media more vigilant to the influences of foreign adversaries? Is the average American even equipped to tell if the news they read is real or fake? These are questions that will surely be answered in the upcoming years. However, the youngest generation to come out of social media, Gen Z, have shown more social media cautiousness, according to TIME.
Perhaps the issue of fake news will be stagnated by the fresh perspectives of incoming generations.