3. History

Sarah Gibbs


Ever heard the phrase “nothing is certain but death and taxes”? It’s a paraphrase of a statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin, the American inventor and politician. Ben could have added “disinformation” to his list, as it’s been around since the beginning of time. Check out some further historical examples of disinformation below, as described by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall in their book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread (2019).


It featured in the American War of Independence:

“In the decades immediately before and after the American Revolution […], partisans on all sides attacked their opponents through vicious pamphlets that were often filled with highly questionable accusations and downright lies” (p.152).


It made people think they could get a holiday home on the moon:

“In 1835, the New York Sun, a politically conservative but generally reputable newspaper, published a series of six articles asserting that the English astronomer John Herschel had discovered life on the moon. The articles claimed to have been reprinted from an Edinburgh newspaper and contained a number of alleged quotes from Herschel. They even included illustrations of winged hominids Herschel was said to have seen. Needless to say, there is no life on the moon—and Herschel never claimed to have found it. The articles were never retracted. (Compare these claims to ones made by a guest on Alex Jones’s Infowars radio show in June 2017 to the effect that NASA is running a child slavery colony on Mars)” (p.153)


Edgar Allan Poe Did it!

In 1844, “Edgar Allan Poe published a story in the Sun in which he described (as factual) a trans-Atlantic hot-air balloon journey by a famous balloonist named Monck Mason. This […] never occurred. (The article was retracted two days later.)” (p.153)


Supplemental Video: Fake News and Biography: Edgar Allan Poe—Buried Alive (https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/poe17-ela-fakenews/fake-news-and-biography-edgar-allan-poe-buried-alive/). PBS.



It started a war:

“[Disinformation and] [f]ake news arguably launched the Spanish American War. After the USS Maine—a US warship sent to Havana in 1898 to protect American interests while Cuba revolted against Spain—mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor, several US newspapers […] began to run sensational articles blaming Spain for the explosion and demanding a war of revenge. (The actual cause of the explosion was and remains controversial, but concrete evidence has never been produced that Spain was involved.) Ultimately, spurred in part by pressure from the news media, the US government gave Spain an ultimatum that it surrender Cuba or face war—to which it responded by declaring war on the United States.” (pp. 152-153)


It caused preventable deaths:

“A classic example of [disinformation] is the campaign by tobacco companies during the second half of the twentieth century to disrupt and undermine research demonstrating the link between smoking and lung cancer. […] Tobacco firms paid ‘experts’ to create the impression that there was far more uncertainty and far less consensus than there actually was. This campaign successfully delayed, for a generation or more, regulation and public health initiatives to reduce smoking.” (p.10)


If disinformation has always been around, why does the situation seem so much worse today? Read on to find out.


Supplementary Information

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