Fake News: Then and Now
In 1938, Orson Welles directed and narrated an episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air that allegedly resulted in mass panic, as many listeners mistakenly thought the episode was a legitimate news broadcast. Titled "The War of the Worlds," the broadcast was composed of a series of simulated news bulletins about an alien invasion. It is hypothesized that people who tuned into the broadcast after its introduction, in which it was stated that program was a fictitious drama, believed the broadcast to be actual news, leading to phone calls to the radio station and panic. The degree to which the panic was widespread may have been overstated and is now a topic of debate among historians.
Nearly 80 years later, fake news is still a real concern in American society, except its current iteration has different intentions: making money and political influence. Fake news is not a new problem, but it recently came to light due to its possible impact on the United States presidential election. According to this Washington Post article, independent researchers tracked the flood of fake news during election season and determined that misleading articles were spread online with possible goals of affecting the election and undermining the public's faith in American democracy. In addition to producing politically-charged propaganda, many fake news sites operate to profit from ad revenue.
Examples of fake news that circulated during and after the election:
- Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump (he didn't).
- Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS (she didn't).
- Ireland is accepting "Trump refugees" from America (it isn't).
A major fake news story that spun out of control after the election is detailed in this New York Times article. An Austin, Texas resident named Eric Tucker noticed and photographed several large buses near downtown Austin and independently decided they were related to reports of protests he had heard against the election of Donald Trump. He posted several of the photos on Twitter:
Mr. Tucker admitted that, although he ran a Google search to see if any conferences were being held in the area that could have accounted for the buses' presence, he "is a very busy businessman" and doesn't always have time to fact-check information he shares on social media. Several hours after his tweet was posted, it was shared with a pro-Trump Reddit community, ultimately causing the misinformation to go viral. Posts linking to the Reddit thread were shared more than 5,000 times each and linked by nearly 300,000 Facebook users. The initial tweet was retweeted and liked more than 5,000 times. The tweet reached President-Elect Donald Trump, who further legitimized the story when he tweeted:
It was later determined that the buses were actually connected to a conference for a company called Tableau, but the misinformation originally posted by Mr. Tucker had already exploded via social media. Mr. Tucker, realizing his error, even deleted the original tweet and posted an image of the tweet with the word "False" stamped over it, but to little avail: the incorrect story continued to be shared.
It's important that readers learn to differentiate between real and fake news. This detailed essay from factcheck.org lists several steps readers can take to ensure the material being read is legitimate, including:
- Consider the source: vet the site that's sharing the information.
- Read beyond the headline: clickbait uses controversial, sometimes shocking headlines to generate reader interest, but the content beyond the headline may reveal satire or non-factual information. The providers of the content have a vested interest in reader clicks: ad revenue.
- Check out authors and dates. Lists of winners of most legitimate journalism awards are available online. If the author claims to have received awards, verify this. Look for other material by the author to see a pattern of suspicious stories emerges. Check dates of events to see if something that happened in the past is being linked to current events.
- Fact-check independently. Factcheck.org, snopes.com, politifact.com, and similar sites offer neutral responses to claims in news stories and viral posts either proving or disproving those claims.
- Watch for content from satirical sites like the Onion. Even writers of satirical "news" have expressed concern that their pieces are being shared by readers who believe the content to be real.
- Be aware that confirmation biases exist, so try to read with an objective perspective.
Fact-check the content of public laws using official government publications such as U.S. Statutes at Large, U.S. Code, Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, and Congressional Record. HeinOnline has comprehensive coverage of these titles, and their validity is clear: all content in HeinOnline is composed of fully searchable, image-based PDFs which are exact replicas of the print publications. HeinOnline also contains a wealth of presidential documents in the U.S. Presidential Library, including full coverage of the Weekly and Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents.
For instance, get the full text of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, in the U.S. Statutes at Large by selecting this database from the list of available content on the HeinOnline welcome page. Browse by Popular Name, choose P from the A-Z index, and scroll to the title of the act. This brief video will show you how:
HeinOnline also contains more than 2,400 compiled federal legislative histories on all major public laws. These offer insight behind legislative intent and help to clarify ambiguous statutory language. Legislative histories contain bill versions, house reports, senate reports, and more. To find a compiled legislative history, enter the U.S. Federal Legislative History Library and browse by either Public Law No. or Popular Name:
Find the act's title, and click to expand available legislative histories:
There is a 17 volume set compiled on this controversial act.
Learn more about fake news by searching across all subscribed content. The phrase "fake news" generates nearly 200 results, with more than half from within the Law Journal Library. Sort by Volume Date (Oldest First) to track the phrase through history:
Note that text matching search terms are highlighted in yellow, and cited by information (when applicable) appears on the right side of each search result.
Search for "War of the Worlds" AND "Orson Welles" to learn more about the 1938 radio broadcast: