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Fake news is as old as mankind but media can help counteract it

Tuesday January 9 2018

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New technologies, coupled with our strange desire for lying, have made fake news a major trait of our generation. We cannot believe what we see, read or hear.

In the past, lies spread by word of mouth. Today, fake news spreads like fire. Let this be clear, there is no referendum in sight. This is fake news, unless I am a prophet.

In an age where the media and the population lack certainty, criteria and discernment as is seen in this internet age, it is vital to take extra care to ensure that the greater population can ascertain what is true from what is not.

The mystery and misery of lies have accompanied human nature since the Garden of Eden. It is the strange desire of the human race to inject anything good with an evil dose.

In 1981, Richard Skrenta, a ninth grader at Mount Lebanon High School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wrote the first virus. It was a joke that spread through floppy disks. Three years later, Fred Cohen coined the term ‘computer virus’ for it ‘infected’ machines in a somewhat similar fashion to that of viruses in the human body. 


This human malice and lies, something that accompanies human freedom, have triggered war, genocide, destruction, business, gain and losses, marriages and divorces.

Fake news is no news…and is not new. The term was already in use more than 120 years ago. The Merriam Webster dictionary cites ‘fake news’ from two American newspapers.

“Secretary Brunnell Declares Fake News About His People is Being Telegraphed Over the Country.” —Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 7 Jun. 1890

“The public taste…has no genuine appetite for ‘fake news’ such as were served up by a local syndicate a year or two ago.” —The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY), 2 May 1891

In 1782, to drum up support for the American revolutionary war, Benjamin Franklin wrote a news piece in a Boston newspaper purporting that the British had hired Native Americans to scalp colonists. The lie, widely believed, had the unfortunate outcome of spreading spurious lies about Native Americans and racial hatred in a society already distrustful of them.


The Sun newspaper, in London, reported in 1835 that John Herschel, a great British astronomer, using a telescope of vast dimensions to view the moon in 1835 when on an expedition in Cape Town, saw giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding conversations on the moon.

Newspaper sales skyrocketed upon publishing of the news, from 8,000 to 19,0000 copies, overtaking the Times of London to become the world’s bestselling daily newspaper.

The Sun’s editor and news reporter, Richard Adams Locke, knew that the only communication with the “Cape” was by letter. Thus, before his deception came to light, time would have elapsed and a fortune would have been amassed.

It was a great lie. Today we would call it ‘fake news’. It made money and it was used as a tool for social engineering and deceptive decision making. Its greatest misfortune was that it distracted the public’s focus on John Herschel’s real, painstaking work.


Fake news was one of the hidden triggers of the Spanish Civil War. On May 3, 1936, fake news made many believe that some nuns had poisoned workers’ children with laced sweets.

Convents and churches were burnt, nuns were attacked. A wave of violence was unleashed on Madrid. A few days later, President Niceto Alcala-Zamora was removed from power and replaced by Manuel Azaña.

The damage had been done. Fake news had radicalised a deeply polarised society. Spain would never see peace again. The civil war ended in 1939, having taken the lives of some 500,000 people.   

On April 1, 1957, the BBC ran a fake news story of a spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. The broadcast showed peasants plucking their spaghetti from a tree and laying them out to dry. The BBC was overwhelmed by calls from viewers who wanted to know how to plant and harvest their own spaghetti and had to confirm to the audience that it was untrue.


Late last year, Tony Robinson tweeted that a supposed attack, reported by Mail Online on Oxford Circus was by a Muslim. After widespread panic, the British Transport Police clarified that “there was no attack and that the mass evacuation that occurred on Oxford Circus was because of an altercation between two men, and not because of Islamic terrorism.”

Last year, it was reported by the Mail, Express and Telegraph newspapers that a majority of British ‘remainers’, had switched to show an overwhelming support for ‘hard’ Brexit. The news cited a study conducted by the London School of Economics and Oxford University. Despite the overwhelming political panic the story caused, it was soon discovered that the piece was, in fact, fake news.

Kenyan social media has been plagued by fake news: fake Transparency International investigative reports on opposition governors, closure of NGOs, political appointments, currency designs, etc. 

Fake news, old as it is, and laughable as it may be, is swallowed by the recipient hook, line and sinker. We have this irresistible belief in anything we read on social media. Once it is uncovered we start looking for the conspiracy behind.


Fake news shows itself a powerful companion to manipulation and persuasive literature. It fills the empty heads of people who cannot read more than three lines together.

Information is the backbone of society, the frame on which our democracy stands. The duty to ensure that such information is ascertainable, reducing information costs for the population, lies with the trustees of the fourth estate: the media.

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our times… It is only befitting to note that, though not new, it is indeed in need of novel solutions.

The best antidote is, perhaps, not to forward or pay attention to anything that says, “forwarded as received”.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi