Fake news is nothing new since governments and powerful individuals have always used information as a weapon to boost their support and suppress dissidence.
During Roman times, disinformation was widespread. Conspirators used fake news about Julius Caesar appointing himself emperor to engender support for his assassination. Subsequently, Octavian famously used a campaign of disinformation to aid his victory over Marc Anthony, who eventually killed himself.
It was the time of the Second Triumvirate and the alliance between Octavian, the powerful heir of Julius Caesar, and his right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), was disintegrating. Mark Antony had claimed the Eastern Roman Empire as his realm and had settled with Cleopatra in Egypt while Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), had remained in Rome, where he ran a campaign of misinformation portraying him as a drunkard, a womanizer, and a mere puppet of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. He published a document claiming to be Marc Antony’s will which contained such provocative claims that it turned the Roman people against Antony. A war was declared and the two sides met in battle in 31BC at Actium, Octavian’s victory and the subsequent suicide of Antony and Cleopatra left him as the sole ruler of Rome, and he would become Rome’s first emperor, taking the name Augustus.
Here is another example: in 1475, in the city of Trent in northern Italy a preacher by the name Bernardine of Feltre gave sermons in which he claimed that the local Jewish community had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian infant named Simonino. drained his blood and drunk it to celebrate Easter.
Consequently all the Jews in the city were arrested and tortured and fifteen of them were sentenced to death and burned at the stake When the Pope Sixtus IV attempted to stop the story, it had already spread beyond anyone’s control. The political exploitation of this fake story can be credited as the start of similar false narratives about cannibalistic Jewish rituals that appeared in other major European cities and resulted in the continuous persecution of the Jewish communities.
In the United States, Benjamin Franklin embellished stories of Indians who scalped civilians and were in league with the British Empire, or during the era of slave-owning in the United States, supporters of slavery propagated fake news stories exaggerating slave uprisings and the crimes committed by slaves.
During the First World War, anti-German propaganda spoke about an alleged “German Corpse Factory” where the German dead soldiers were cooked to get the fat and use it use to make nitroglycerine, candles, lubricants, soap, and boot polish.
In 1835 the Sun published a series of articles claiming the discovery of an alien civilization on the moon. As the series progressed the newspaper added more and more details to the story, while its circulation increased enormously, even after the stories were revealed to be a hoax (the Great Moon Hoax).
“The War of the Worlds” is a 1938 episode of an American radio drama anthology serie. Directed and narrated by actor and filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of Herbert George Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898), presented as a series of alarming news bulletins describing an alien invasion taking place across the United States. Although preceded by a clear introduction that the show was a drama, it became famous for causing mass panic.