Telegrams to Tweets: A History of Fake News, How It Relates to You, and How to Understand It

April 24, 2019
Jared De Vore

The rise of social media’s significance during and after the 2016 presidential election cannot be overstated, though its place in American politics is certainly a storied one. Campaigning through websites like Facebook and Twitter presents campaign officials with a unique and interactive manner through which to reach younger voters, in addition to allowing grassroots candidates more realistic chances at getting their names out there and recognized. However, the internet’s influence is often used for more malicious means. The media’s sensationalist headlines and a skeptical president have left Americans feeling betrayed and untrusting.

The concept of fake news is not in its infancy; rather, it is in a rebranding phase. The prior reign of ‘Yellow Journalism’ gave way to perceivably decades of fairly honest journalism on behalf of the American mainstream media. One issue with how we consume news in the modern world is that it is no longer through a legitimate medium, and is instead through Facebook pages which are being operated by seemingly anonymous sources. The true issue, though, lies within the fact that people simply choose whether they want to believe what they read is true or false. Why is this important? Well, because the power of trust can make a world of difference.

Imagine a different timeline where the President of the United States gets wind of The Zimmerman Telegram (the famous telegram intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence in 1917, which consisted of Germany reaching out to the Mexican government in an attempt to establish Mexico as an ally during World War I) and for whatever reason, refuses to believe that it is true. Not only does that massively alter the outcome of the war, it brings actual warfare to the border of the United States, and perhaps even within our borders. This is certainly an exaggerated example of fake news (or the perception of fake news) yielding catastrophic results. But there does exist one prime example of fake news in America: War of the Worlds.

War of the Worlds was a radio broadcast in 1938 which reportedly sent the United States into a panic. The broadcast was a play, not meant to harm anyone, but according to newspapers left people rushing the streets in fear for their lives. Or did it? Recent reports have contested, with solid evidence, that the boisterous reaction of American citizens to presumably fake news, was indeed fake news. Well, if the fact is that fake news is an enduring concept and the public blindly believes what they read, how can this be combatted? More importantly, what methods can be taught in the classroom to ensure that students can employ a dependable technique to determine the reliability of a news article which they may be reading?

There are a few methods which teachers can employ to combat this trend. The most effective method for utilizing primary source analysis skills with regards to social media is for the teacher to deconstruct the weaponization of hyperbole. The hyperbole, on behalf of both the current President and all news organizations, has been of ever-increasing importance since the turn of the century and the implementation of the 24-hour news cycle, rendering fact-checking more important in everyday America. The ideal manner of fact-checking would consist of, as boring as it can be, reading news articles and weighing the content of the article based upon the hyperbole expressed in the headline. A profitable news company relies on sensationalism that often does not exist, and therefore the writers will typically employ rhetoric in the headline which writes checks that the body of the article simply cannot cash. Students would likely learn not to distrust the media and would instead learn to rationalize the business side of reporting with the journalism side.

Students and teachers should also read the same story from various news sources in order to identify how each source spins the article in a certain manner while still retaining the facts of the case. This would nurture an understanding relationship of a potential pitfall of capitalism while breeding new respect for the independent, unregulated media that we are lucky to enjoy. Students will come away with a deeper understanding of how journalism is much more than a headline, and that there is always more than one side to a story.

Jared De Vore holds a B.A. from the University of Arkansas and loves to write in his spare time.

For resources to fight the fake news invasion, click here.

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