Fake news is not an Internet creation; it has existed since ancient times. The spread of dangerous disinformation is not new. In the 13th century BC, Ramses the Great spread lies and propaganda portraying the Battle of Kadesh as a stunning victory for the Egyptians. The battle was actually a stalemate. In 1475, a fake news story in Trent claimed that the Jewish community had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian infant named Simonino. The story resulted in all the Jews in the city being arrested and tortured. And, let’s not forget civilisation’s most dangerous encounter with lies, Nazi propaganda. The Nazis leveraged propaganda to win broad voter support in Germany and go on to implement radical programs under the party’s dictatorship in the 1930s; not to mention justify war and mass murder.
In comparison, today’s spread of fake news seems almost benign. Yes; Britain’s traditional tabloids nourished Brexit. They drew on the United Kingdom’s deep-suited ambivalence about the European Union. Yes; Fox News fed Trumpian populism and racism, and it drew on deep-seated anxiety among white working classes toward economic and social change sweeping the United States. But, new research shows that the impact of fake news on elections is minimal.
Three eminent political science researchers posted an analysis of the browsing histories of thousands of adults during the run-up to the 2016 election. They found that fake news indeed had a wide, yet weak reach. Although one in four Americans saw at least one false story, even the most eager fake-news readers – Trump supporters – consumed far more real news, from traditional tabloids and network websites. In fact, it appears that traditional tabloids are just as responsible as digital and social media for spreading deliberate misinformation.