Jacob Soll writes: The fake news hit Trent, Italy, on Easter Sunday, 1475. A 2 ½-year-old child named Simonino had gone missing, and a Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, gave a series of sermons claiming that the Jewish community had murdered the child, drained his blood and drunk it to celebrate Passover. The rumors spread fast. Before long da Feltre was claiming that the boy’s body had been found in the basement of a Jewish house. In response, the Prince-Bishop of Trent Johannes IV Hinderbach immediately ordered the city’s entire Jewish community arrested and tortured. Fifteen of them were found guilty and burned at the stake. The story inspired surrounding communities to commit similar atrocities.
Recognizing a false story, the papacy intervened and attempted to stop both the story and the murders. But Hinderbach refused to meet the papal legate, and feeling threatened, simply spread more fake news stories about Jews drinking the blood of Christian children. In the end, the popular fervor supporting these anti-semitic “blood libel” stories made it impossible for the papacy to interfere with Hinderbach, who had Simonino canonized — Saint Simon — and attributed to him a hundred miracles. Today, historians have catalogued the fake stories of child-murdering, blood-drinking Jews, which have existed since the 12th century as part of the foundation of anti-Semitism. And yet, one anti-Semitic website still claims the story is true and Simon is still a martyred saint. Some fake news never dies.
Over the past few months, “fake news” has been on the loose once again. From bogus stories about Hillary Clinton’s imminent indictment to myths about a postal worker in Ohio destroying absentee ballots cast for Donald Trump, colorful and damaging tales have begun to circulate rapidly and widely on Twitter and Facebook. In some cases they have had violent results: Earlier this month a man armed with an AR-15 fired a shot inside a Washington, D.C., restaurant, claiming to be investigating (fake) reports that Clinton aide John Podesta was heading up a child abuse ring there.
But amid all the media handwringing about fake news and how to deal with it, one fact seems to have gotten lost: Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since news became a concept 500 years ago with the invention of print — a lot longer, in fact, than verified, “objective” news, which emerged in force a little more than a century ago. From the start, fake news has tended to be sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices. And it has often provoked violence. The Nazi propaganda machine relied on the same sorts of fake stories about ritual Jewish drinking of childrens’ blood that inspired Prince-Bishop Hinderbach in the 15th century. Perhaps most dangerous is how terrifyingly persistent and powerful fake news has proved to be. As Pope Sixtus IV found out, wild fake stories with roots in popular prejudice often prove too much for responsible authorities to handle. With the decline of trusted news establishments around the country, who’s to stop them today? [Continue reading…]