Fake/Fact cubes

Anthropology: Socio-cultural Implications of Fake News and Mass Disinformation

Fake news and mass disinformation are increasingly popular subjects in public discourse, the media, and political debate. It is especially prominent during the current Covid-19 pandemic, prompting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), to warn that “we are not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic” (Wasserman, 2020). Misinformation, disinformation, and fake news need to be studied to understand how it spreads. It promotes scientific analysis of the underlying factors that influence public perception. This article will explore the meaning of fake news and mass disinformation, and overview the socio-cultural factors involved in the process.

Fake news and alternative science

Fake news is writing that presents itself as legitimate reporting of events. The term is a neologism (a recent term that is in the process of entering common use and the language due to cultural or technological changes). The term represents false or misleading information presented as news. Fake news and alternative science are forms of targeted misinformation that seem to have spread to the social media, political, and news landscape of recent years (Bonney, 2018). The aim of disinformation is often to damage the reputation of a person or entity. In addition to this, the aim of fake news often focuses on making money through advertising revenue.

Origins of fake news

The term became the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017. The same year, the United Kingdom House of Commons commenced a parliamentary inquiry into the “growing phenomenon of fake news”. In the United States, fake news has made some commentators concerned about fake news causing moral panic, mass hysteria, and damage to public trust.

However, the term was first used in the 1890s, and examples of it can be found throughout history. Stories that are meant to be misleading have been identified as far down the historical timeline as ancient Rome. Fake news and disinformation have been used to change people’s views, attitudes, and opinions, and make them question who they can trust. Stories that are not true have also been used to make money.

Article headline from The New York Times, 1938
The New York Times, October 30th, 1938 (libguides.valenciacollege.edu)

Examples of fake news throughout history

There are many examples of fake or false news and disinformation that have surfaced throughout history. The most famous and obvious examples of false news and disinformation were used during the 2nd World War by the Nazis to build anti-Semitic attitudes through the use of propaganda. However, fake news existed far earlier than this, with some examples being found as far back as 2000 years ago in Ancient Rome.

For example, around 2000 years ago, Octavian, who fought against Mark Antony in the Roman Republic’s civil war, launched a ‘fake news’ war. Octavian claimed that Antony, who was having an affair with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen, didn’t respect traditional Roman values, like faithfulness and respect. Octavian also said that Mark Antony was unfit to hold office because he was always drunk. His messages were in poetry and slogans printed on coins. Similar to today’s tweets and social media posts between political figures (Kaminska, 2017).

News (including fake news) was able to spread faster after the 15th century, and the invention of the printing press. Texts, such as documents and books were produced in larger quantities and much faster than handwriting. The new technology also allowed for fake news to spread faster, and reach far more people.

Another example of how fake news can be used to try and change people’s opinions was in the mid-1700s. During that time, fake news was spread about George II, the King of Great Britain and Ireland. The king relied on being seen as a strong leader while he was facing a rebellion.  The press printed fake news about the king being ill. The news was then republished by other printers, simultaneously harming the king’s image (A Brief History of Fake News).

The godfathers of today’s fake news – Pulitzer and Hearst

The term was first used in the 1890s, as sensational reports in newspapers were common. Rival newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and Willian Hearst competed to win the audience through sensationalism and reporting rumors as though they were facts. This practice became to be known as “yellow journalism” at the time. Today, yellow journalism is used as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

The sensational journalism battle between Pulitzer’s “New York World” and Hearst’s “New York Journal” peaked from 1895 to about 1898. During those years, the two newspapers were filled with sensational journalism to drive up circulation. Yellow journalism was represented by the American comic strip character “The Yellow Kid”. The cartoon featured Mickey Dugan, better known as the Yellow Kid. It symbolized sensationalized stories and the war between the headlines between the Pulitzer and Hearst newspapers. The character was created and drawn by Richard F. Outcault in the late 1890s, and appeared in the “New York World” and later in the “New York Journal”.

The Yellow Kid, a cartoon strip character, holding up a glass in an oversized yellow shirt
The Yellow Kid, Richard Felton Outcault (1897)

Today’s fake news and disinformation – exaggerated news with shocking headlines

Yellow journalism got attention and sold papers. Nowadays, fake news is generally published in tabloids. Although social media have brought many changes to how fake news reaches and impacts society, historians highlight that there have always been concerns about truth and the role of the press (Mansky, 2018).

However, fake news today differs from the historical forms of shocking headlines and journalistic nonsense that was presented in traditional media outlets. It is not the newspaper publishers who try to misinform the audience, but people with ideological interests. It often involves distortion and deception of the news source, not just the content. Nowadays, it is often based on a viral video that is edited to misinform and deceive the viewer.

Finally, with social media, the presentation of news can make people more likely to fall for fake news. Many news stories are shared between people via friends and people they follow. Sharing, retweeting, and liking stories makes people more accepting of the messages they get, despite the fact that there is a lack of indication of the origins of stories shared on groups and forwarded in messages.

colored image of confusing health and science news headlines
Exaggerated and confusing health and science news headlines (fredhutch.org)

Types of fake news

According to Melissa Zimdars, a professor of communication at Merrimack College, fake news can originate from a wide range of sources that can be categorized into the following:

  • Satire sources – exaggeration or parody of current events
  • Clickbait sources – sensational headlines designed to attract readers and/or viewers
  • Unreliable sources – information based on rumor or hearsay
  • Fake/false sources – distorted or false headlines aiming to shock, or even offend people to generate online engagement such as likes, shares, or advertising funds (Valencia College, 2022).

Examples of fake news in modern days

False or misleading information intended to deceive readers into believing it is true information today can be effective in tricking people into believing it is a credible source. This can potentially have tragic results, such as incidents, like the one in Washington D.C. in 2016. In addition to this,  fake news can result in tragedies when aiming to fool world leaders.

‘Pizzagate’ theory and shooting

The story about “Pizzagate” (fake news story about Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign that proliferated on social media in the weeks between the shooting). The false story claimed that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair, John Podesta, ran a child sex ring in the basement of the Washington pizza shop, Comet Ping Pong. This false story was spread online under headlines such as “Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite” were shared on social media by many Donald Trump supporters and white supremacists (Lopez, 2016).

4chan is a message board with over 20 million unique visitors and 540 million page visits a day (Matthews, 2014). Among fake news, there have been hundreds of private photos of female celebrities posted by hackers to the messaging board. Such instances of violation of the privacy of celebrities has been a reminder of how huge of an influence a website can have, despite being the 303rd most popular website in the United States (semrush.com).

In December 2016, a 29-year-old North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch, came to Comet Ping Pong pizzeria with three guns after wrongly believing in a theory known as “Pizzagate” and aiming to save children trapped in a sex-slave ring in the basement of the restaurant (that did not even have a basement). Nobody was injured, and no children were rescued (Haag and Salam, 2017).

a woman holding up a sign saying "Pizzagate is real"

Fake news around COVID-19

The worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 has been a great opportunity for the spread of fake news and misinformation. Throughout the pandemic, there have been fake news and myths circulating about the virus, with no scientific evidence to back up their claims. Although it is not a criminal offense, it can have very serious repercussions and can affect people’s lives by putting them at risk through promoting fake tests and vaccines, misleading information about treatments, and promoting suspicion of the official guidelines and sources (Europol, 2021).

Myths such as “face masks and hand sanitizers don’t work”, “COVID-19 vaccines can alter DNA”, “COVID-19 vaccine can make people sick with COVID-19”, or “COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips” can deceive a large number of people into believing that vaccines and face masks are useless or are harmful (Harris, 2022).

Twitter post with fake news about Coronavirus
Twitter post about Coronavirus (buzzfeednews.com)

Why is fake news an important issue and how to separate fake news from the truth?

It is clear that fake news is threatening and dangerous to society. People deserve accurate and credible information that provides the truth. It is not only frustrating but time-consuming for the readers. In addition to this, fake news can negatively influence readers and result in acts that can be harmful. As a consequence, there can be threats being spread, leading to hostility and even terrorism. Finally, being exposed to fake news creates distrust in all news (Walden University, 2021).

There are some basic tips that can be used to identify fake news. According to Michigan State University, readers should use critical thinking to spare the fake news from the truth. The Michigan State’s Critical Thinking Check highlights the following points that are helpful in identifying false information:

  1. Statement of ethics or corrections – reputable sources and news sites have a statement of ethics or corrections that can be viewed by readers and/or viewers.
  2. Listed and named sources, studies, references, etc. – articles that are based on accurate information should include the name of a source for its information.
  3. Identifying editorials vs news – editorials are someone’s opinion, reputable news clearly identifies editorials.
  4. Reporter’s body of work – a large body of work focusing on the same area is more credible than random topics.
  5. Researching other sources to verify the information – finding more than one reputable source is important to verify whether the information can be considered credible (Valencia College, 2022).
Guide showing five steps on how to spot fake news
Guide on how to spot fake news (epthinktank.eu)

Cultural significance in Anthropology

The language of fear and persuasion has been used for many years by political marketers. Today, social media have intensified its impact (Rampersad and Althiyabi, 2019). Social Sciences studies (including Anthropology) examining the impact of sociocultural factors provide significant insights into societies and the extent of the influence of the media on people. They have shown that social media and technology affect how people perceive the world around them. Fake news and misinformation can create a threat to cultural representation, critical literacy, discourse, and cultural misinformation on the internet (Butler and Gut, 2021).


BBC. A Brief History of Fake News. Available: BBC Bitesize

Bonney, K., M. (2018) Fake News with Real Consequences: The Effect of Cultural Identity on the Perception of Science. Available: ucpress.edu

Butler, J. and Gut, S. (2021) If it’s on the Internet, it Must be True: The Socio-Cultural Impact of Fake News.  Available: upenn.edu

Center for Information Technology and Society (CITS). “A Brief History of Fake News”. Available: ucsb.edu

Europol (2021) COVID-19: Fake News. Available: europa.eu

Haag, M., and Salam, M. (2017) Gunman in ‘Pizzagate’ Shooting is Sentenced to 4 Years in Prison. Available: nytimes.com

Harris, R. (2022) Coronavirus & Fake News – Know the Facts! Available: Rebecca Harris

Kaminska, I. (2017) A Lesson in Fake News from the Info-Wars of Ancient Rome. Available: A ft.com

Lopez, G. (2016) Pizzagate, the Fake News Conspiracy Theory that Led a Gunman to DC’s Comet Ping Pong, Explained. Available: Vox

Mansky, J. (2018) It’s Been Part of The Conversation as Far Back as the Birth of the Free Press. Available:  Smithsonian Magazine

Matthews, D. (2014) Your Guide to 4chan, the Site Where Jeniffer Lawrence’s Hacked Photos Were Leaked. Available: Vox

Rampersad, G. and Althiyabi, T. (2019) Fake News: Acceptance by Demographics and Culture on Social Media. Available: andfonline.com

Semrush.com. 4chan.org December 2021 Traffic Stats. Available: Semrush

Valencia College (2022) Fake News: Separating Truth From Fiction. Available: LibGuides at Valencia College

Walden University (2021) Fact Check: How to Decipher Online News and Information: What is Fake News? Available: Academic Guides at Walden University

Wasserman H. (2020) Cultural Factors Behind Disinformation Pandemic: Why This Matters. Available: theconversation.com

Yarbrough, P., H. (2019) Yellow Journalism to Fake News: Media Lies Against Justice Kavanaugh. Available: commdiginews.com

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