On March 7, the History Department sponsored a History Matters Panel on “Fake News: Then and Now.” Speakers included Courtney Fullilove, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of environmental studies, assistant professor of science in society; Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of East Asian studies; and Erik Grimmer-Solem, associate professor of history, associate professor of German studies.
Fullilove noted that the notion that newspapers delivered truth and objective information was novel to the 20th century and discussed how readers navigated 19-century American newspapers mixing fact and fiction. “Mid-19th century readers were liable to regard the news as a ‘humbug’ to be interrogated and debated rather than as a straightforward statement of fact,” she explained. Fullilove described the gradual emergence of modern standards of reporting in advertising-funded newspapers and the consolidation of large media companies to overcome capital barriers associated with distribution and new technologies such as the telegraph, considering some of the unintended consequences of regarding a free press as a marketplace.
Tan spoke about how the state controlled the flow of information in imperial and modern China. “The distinction between real and fake news rendered meaningless,” he said.
Grimmer-Solem discussed a news story that ran in a liberal German newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung following a fire in the Reichstag (German parliament) on Feb. 27, 1933. The news story repeated a government claim that the fire was started deliberately by the communists and that this justified the state of emergency that was declared on Feb 28, 1933 and that led to drastic curtailments of civil liberties.
“The paper ran the story on the assumption that the government must be telling the truth, thereby beginning the first of what would become a series of ‘fake news’ stories in Nazi Germany,” Grimmer-Solem said. “To this day it’s unclear who set the fire.”
As Germany’s newspapers came under the control of Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda in 1933, many German journalists and editors accommodated themselves to the new reality by willingly bringing their news reportage in line with the regime’s dictates. Papers that refused were banned or amalgamated with pro-Nazi papers. Editors and journalists in Germany needed to have Propaganda Ministry approval in order to practice their profession. They were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to the state and had a status similar to civil servants. Despite that, there were still some 2,500 newspapers in Germany in 1935. This gave a misleading appearance of variety and thus normality when in fact all politically sensitive reporting was being carefully censored and controlled. “Fake news” became a regular feature especially in the largest-circulation Nazi Party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, which among other things reported on “the Polish annihilation campaign” against the German minority in Poland just days before the German invasion of that country on Sept. 1, 1939. During the later stages of the war “fake news” led to a major credibility gap as the discrepancies grew between what was reported in the news and what was happening on the battlefield. “As a result, many more Germans began to get their news by listening to BBC radio broadcasts, which while a publishable offense, was so ubiquitous that it was only rarely prosecuted,” Grimmer-Solem explained.
Several Wesleyan faculty, students and staff attended the discussion including Bill Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian studies, professor of science in society. (Photos by Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19)