Fake News exhibition opens at museum with very real facts about its history

A show opening at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford today reveals how the printing press relayed false information long before the internet came along

David Barnett
Thursday 23 November 2017 19:55 GMT
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A hundred years ago this doctored photograph duped many into believing there were fairies in Bradford
A hundred years ago this doctored photograph duped many into believing there were fairies in Bradford (Photographs by National Science and Media Museum / SSPL)

When the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg on the night of 14 April 1912, the crew of the ship used telegraphy technology to not only call for help but to provide updates on the situation in the Atlantic Ocean. Unverified and unsigned telegrams were despatched to Fleet Street. Newspapers duly reported that everything was under control and the Titanic, deemed to be unsinkable, was going to survive its brush with catastrophe.

Those on board the vessel, however, were not so confident. The press was unable to keep up with what was a rapidly developing situation, going only with the information they had to hand. The effect was one of the earliest examples of what some might call “fake news”.

A new exhibition starting today at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford looks at fake news in all its forms. It features both historical instances and up-to-the-minute examples – some of which are still developing.

“It is unusual for a museum to stage an exhibition on a topic that’s still very much happening right now,” says John O’Shea, the museum senior exhibitions manager. “We are always thinking about our visitors and their understanding of a subject, and what we can do to inform them and encourage them to think about it.”

Newspapers in the US were also unduly upbeat about the Titanic disaster
Newspapers in the US were also unduly upbeat about the Titanic disaster (National Science and Media Museum)

This month “fake news” was named Collins Dictionary’s word of the year. It defines the expression as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. That’s certainly how US President Donald Trump regularly deploys it, usually as an alternative to “this news outlet has published something that I disagree with”. That is arguably how many of us use the term. Its usage, according to Collins has increased 365% in the past year.

But as this exhibition is at pains show, fake news is far more nuanced than that. “What we refer to now as fake news has been around ever since human communication began,” says O'Shea. “We still talk of Chinese whispers, when the meaning of something is altered or lost through retellings, or shaggy-dog stories, tall tales that have been added to or exaggerated. Stories have always been embellished in certain ways to push a particular agenda.”

But the modern understanding of fake news deals more with the technology that is behind our media, adds O'Shea. “There’s something fundamentally new ... the infrastructure of the internet, overlaid with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed ... have come together to carve out a media which is not the media we were accustomed to in the 20th century”. All this new technology and media, he says, has been “mashed up with some pretty potent political and social events in the past few years, which has created what I see as a perfect storm for fake news.”

A pre-Photoshop attempt to doctor an image in 1932, putting a policeman in the frame
A pre-Photoshop attempt to doctor an image in 1932, putting a policeman in the frame (National Science and Media Museum)

The show identifies five factors which contribute to the spread of fake news: political gain; misreporting; going viral; financial gain; and “not letting the truth get in the way of a good story”.

The Titanic disaster is a prime example of misreporting, which does not have to be malicious in intent. The museum has worked with the Peace Studies department at the University of Bradford, contributing papers from its archive showing that telegrams stating that all the passengers from the Titanic had been rescued were reported as fact in newspapers, before the full extend of the tragedy came to light.

“That was more than 100 years ago and this situation has accelerated so much today,” says O’Shea. He points to recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire or the Manchester Arena bombing; social media was abuzz with theories, witness accounts and first-hand reports, many of which were taken up by the mainstream media.

The problem with unverified stories being shared, even with the best intentions, is it creates a fog of misinformation, such as at the Manchester incident when people began to share posts and tweets about missing children, some of which had already been found, some of which were just not true.

“People want to help in a situation like that,” says O’Shea, “and often all they can do is share social media posts. But if those posts are later discredited or proved unfounded, and have been picked up by mainstream media, then people begin to distrust the media.”

See those extra heads in the background? Not real
See those extra heads in the background? Not real (National Science and Media Museum)

Going viral is another defining trait of fake news. Although stories can be spread around the world in a heartbeat today, it’s not necessarily a new thing. Part of the exhibition will focus on the story of the Cottingley Fairies, which took place a century ago not far from Bradford city centre, when two young girls faked some fairy photographs using their father’s camera (which is on display at the museum).

They did it mainly for a joke, but it got out of hand after one of the girl’s mothers showed the photographs at a meeting of the Theosophical Society, from where they made their way to noted writer Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and then became a topic of national debate. Going viral in the early 20th century took years rather than seconds but the principle was the same: people shared the photographs around, not checking the veracity of them, either wanting to believe they were real, or just because they were a novelty.

It’s long been believed that the motto of Fleet Street was “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”, and to illustrate this the exhibition points a news story earlier this year that Jeremy Corbyn had refused to bow his head to the Queen at the state opening of Parliament. It was accompanied by photos and videos of the apparent snub; only later did it emerge that protocol doesn’t require bowing to the Queen in these situations (David Cameron didn’t do it, examination of footage revealed), but that didn’t matter, the story was already out.

Jeremy Corbyn was wrongly berated for not bowing to the Queen even though protocol did not require it
Jeremy Corbyn was wrongly berated for not bowing to the Queen even though protocol did not require it

The final two criteria for a story to be fake news often go hand in hand: as a political tool, and must to make profit. For one of the many examples of the first, there was the row in January at Donald Trump’s inauguration when Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, claimed the turnout had been the largest ever for such an event. This was duly reported, until social media users compared the photos with those of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

Veles in Macedonia was a hub for 100 fake news websites during the US elections
Veles in Macedonia was a hub for 100 fake news websites during the US elections

And staging fake news for profit is exemplified particularly well by the Macedonian town of Veles which, in 2016, was the base for more than 100 websites publishing plagiarised news of the US elections. How does that make money? Easier than you’d think. It took only a relatively few people to click on the stories before the algorithms operated by social media sites such as Facebook kicked in; if I click on a story, Facebook will decide that you might like it also, and nudge you towards it. And if you read it, then your friends might also be interested. Before long these Macedonian websites with stolen news were clocking up astonishing hits, which then attracted Google ads, earning the website owners a nice profit.

Trump’s name comes up a lot in stories about fake news, probably because he’s so eager to bandy the term about when something attracts his ire. And that’s something that should concern us, says O’Shea. “Donald Trump has many times used the term as a derogatory one and as a hammer to attack the press, which is a classic tactic of authoritarian leaders.”

Sean Spicer paid lip-service to Donald Trump’s desire to have outdone Barack Obama inauguration crowd size
Sean Spicer paid lip-service to Donald Trump’s desire to have outdone Barack Obama inauguration crowd size (Getty)

The good news is a number of new media organisations are trying to encourage us to think about where news comes from, who puts it out, and whether anyone can gain politically, financially or ideologically by it, before we share it around social media and thus give it a sheen of respectability and trustworthiness.

But we live in a fast-moving world, one which will mean the museum exhibition will doubtless change and be updated before the end of its run in January. People have been conditioned to trust the press in the past, which is why we blithely share stories. But that trust is crumbling, especially among younger people who do not have the tradition of reading a daily newspaper. The emergence of news platforms where the line between journalism and people simply sharing what they believe is – or want to be – true is blurring so much that fact and fiction are often indistinguishable.

‘Fake News’ runs at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford until 28 January. Entry is free. Visit: scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk

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