I can’t think of a meme which has spread faster than “fake news” — unless it is the existence of “memes”, which is fake news dreamed up by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

In any case, fake news is hardly new; it used to be called yellow journalism, or propaganda, or press releases, or damned lies. Examples from the past are legion.

Early in his career, Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century writer, worked for a publication called The Gentleman's Magazine reporting the speeches in the British Parliament. Since reporters were banned from Parliament at that time, he just made them up from sketchy notes supplied by a colleague. They were extremely popular, no doubt because Johnson imbued them with flair lacking in the original.

In the 19th Century, newspapers which could not afford foreign correspondents just made up the news. Germany’s answer to Charles Dickens, Theodor Fontane, worked for a decade for the Kreuzzeitung newspaper as its London correspondent, even though he never set foot on British soil.

By the 20th Century, journalists and readers were more sophisticated, so purveyors of fake news had to be more skilful. Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in the Soviet Union during the Holdomor, the Ukrainian holocaust, reported on the amazing achievements of the Bolsheviks and ignored a famine created by Stalin which killed up to 12 million people. “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” he wrote. He was an early practitioner of news whose “fakeness” derives from omission.

I had a colourful relative from Boston who used to turn his hand to selling articles in the 1960s to the National Enquirer, the salacious American supermarket magazine.

One winter’s day he donned a gorilla suit and got his son, a photographer, to take a picture of him in a snow storm on the Blue Hill, a bump on the local landscape. The Enquirer ran it as “Yeti in Boston!!!!”. A few more sensational scoops like this followed, until he put on a trench coat and had his photo taken from behind as he disappeared into an office building: “Hitler Henchman Martin Bormann Sighted in Boston!!!!” That was the last time he dabbled in that line of work, as the FBI paid him a visit to ask for more information on the whereabouts of Mr Bormann, the world’s most sought-after Nazi fugitive. Now that is what I call real fake news, not the milquetoast half-truths in President Trump’s tweets.

So fake news is hardly new. But is it worse?

First of all, there is no doubt that fake news does exist. I mean fake, not in the sense of exaggerated, or slanted, or partial, or badly researched, but authentically fake, like the Rolex watches you can buy for $10 in Bangkok. For instance, several tabloids in the US and UK published a shocking story about a couple in Jackson, Mississippi, who sought IVF treatment and learned that they actually were twins separated at birth. But this was based on an article in a publication called the Mississippi Herald, which has no contact details or physical address, and had been set up only a few days before. It was 100% fake.

But the issue is whether fake news changes minds and has an impact on the electoral process. And this – despite all the hullabaloo – is far from certain.

The latest study of fake news on the internet suggests that the sense of crisis is overblown.

A survey of 14,000 internet users in the UK, Britain, France, Poland, Germany, Italy and Spain found that fake news and biased search algorithms do not sway public opinion. William Dutton, of Michigan State University, says that reader tend to cross check what they read on the internet. Admittedly, the study was funded by the search engine behemoth Google, but its conclusions make sense.

The argument that search creates “filter bubbles,” in which an algorithm guesses what information a user wants based on their information (location, search history), is overstated, his team found. In fact, internet users scan diverse information across multiple media, which challenges their viewpoints. And most users aren’t silenced by contrasting views; nor do they silence those with whom they disagree.

“The results from our study show that internet users interested in politics tend to be exposed to multiple media sources, to discover new information, to be skeptical of political information and to check information, such as that seen on social media, by using search,” says Dutton. “These findings should caution governments, business and the public from over-reacting to alarmist panics.”

So why are we so obsessed with “fake news”, if it is an ancient problem and if readers are sophisticated enough to know how to deal with it?

Three reasons come to mind.

The first is that “fake news” is a marketing opportunity for the media. The New York Times once promoted itself as the newspaper with “all the news that’s fit to print”. Now it splashes everywhere that “The truth is hard to find. But easier with 1000+ journalists looking”. Another of its newly-minted slogans is “Real news demands real journalism. Based on fact. Beholden to nothing but the truth.” The Times is even running TV ads depicting itself as an expert, not in news, but in truth.

The Washington Post is a bit more subtle. It has changed the slogan on its masthead to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. The Conversation, a website which has become hugely popular in the last couple of years, is appealing for donations based on the slogan “alternative voices, not alternative facts”. Even Wikipedia has seen the light. It has launched a new project, Wikitribune, with the promise “The news is broken and we can fix it.”

The assumption seems to be that if readers are scared of “fake news”, they will dig deep into their pockets to pay for real news.

The second is that governments are also taking it seriously. The cynic in me suggests it is an opportunity for them to make the news even more fake. The Czech government’s interior ministry, for instance, has opened a Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats to combat fake news. It is supposed to deal with extremists spreading anti-migrant sentiments, but it is easy to see how it could do more. Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to stop fake news by controlling it. He says that the government needs to “regulate the Internet because today certain players are activists and have a very important role in the campaign.” 

Closer to home, President Donald Trump is not only the most notorious source of fake news (according to his critics), but also the one who complains most about it. In his first 100 days, Trump tweeted “fake news” 32 times, topping his list of favourite phrases. Second at 16 times was “failing nytimes”. He tweeted his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” only 11 times. So, paradoxically, “fake news” has become a win-win marketing success for both Trump and the “failing nytimes”.

But the fundamental reason, perhaps, for the obsession with fake news is that our culture is paying the piper for its thorough-going agnosticsm. For decades universities have been teaching students that truth is relative (relative to what?), that the search for truth is just a power game, and that there are no ultimate certainties.

Fine. Have it your way. But there is a price to be paid for agnosticism. If you cannot trust your God, or your church, or even your own senses, why in the world should you trust the news?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.