A Short History of Fake News

Anna Chiara Doil
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Fake news is nothing new. In order to manipulate public opinion, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt skilfully twisted the facts. How has the spread of fake news evolved - and what's next in the world of disinformation?

When did it actually begin: the age in which we could no longer believe our own eyes? If you believe the words of Barack Obama, we are currently on a threshold: "We are entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time," the former President warns in a 2018 video message. Shortly afterward, the face of another man appears next to him in the frame. It belongs to director Jordan Peele who, with the help of artificial intelligence, put his own words into Barack Obama's mouth. The video, which points out the dangers of deepfakes, turns out to be a deepfake itself.

There are now a number of AI-generated videos online. IT experts, futurologists and lawyers, all discuss the possible dangers of deepfakes for our society and the technical possibilities of the digital age. And about the question of what it means when we can no longer distinguish the truth from the untrue because the naked eye can no longer spot the difference.

If you ask historians, the line between “real” and “fake” news was controversial long before videos could be manipulated with the help of artificial intelligence. “Lies, manipulation and deception have accompanied mankind since the beginning of time," confirms Barbara Zehnpfennig, Professor of the History of Ideas and Political Theory. In this respect, the means have changed, but not the behavior of people.


1247 BC

It was probably the first fake news campaign in history: after the Egyptians lost the great battle of Kadesh, the defeated Pharaoh Ramses II rewrote the story according to his own ideas: He had poems written that celebrated him as victorious and carvings done on the walls of his temples that depicted decisive scenes of the battle. The reliefs show Ramses II, the supposedly invincible, larger than life, who brings the opponent to his knees.

The early popes also invented their own truth: the Roman emperor Constantine gave them half of his empire, allegedly. A forged document served as evidence of the "Constantinian donation" and made the Vatican the powerful center of the Catholic Church. Paintings made the donation visible to the public and gave it additional credibility. It was not until the 15th century that the document was exposed as a forgery. It was not until the 19th century that the Catholic Church admitted that there probably was no donation.

750 AD

The Invention of the Printing Press

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century brought the first significant change in history. From now on, news could be reproduced without having to be laboriously copied by hand. However, the addressees could not only be informed with the printed products but also deliberately disinformed


In 1475, a child disappeared in Trento, Italy. After its body was found near a Jewish home shortly afterward, the Prince-Bishop of Trento had the entire Jewish community in the city arrested, tortured and fourteen men executed. At the same time, he was responsible for the media staging of the alleged crime: event reports, epigrams, and single-leaf woodcuts triggered a series of pogroms against Jews. Historians classify the fabricated stories of ritual murders of Jews as part of the basis of anti-Semitism.

The Invention of the Newspaper

The invention of the newspaper in the 17th century brought another media upheaval. The readership of printed matter grew and established the first daily and weekly newspapers as a powerful organ. However, a press code, that is, ethical standards for journalistic work, was established much later, in the 20th century.

The Great Moon Hoax is considered to be the first large-scale and deliberate forgery in the history of print journalism. For several weeks, the "New York Sun" reported a sensational discovery: the British astrologer John Herschel saw life on the moon through a modern telescope. Detailed drawings illustrated the alleged discoveries: human-like creatures with bat wings, upright beavers, and unicorns. The six-part series made the "New York Sun" the highest-circulation newspaper in the world.



In 1870, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck distorted the facts to drive the German Empire into war with France. He edited the text of the so-called Emser Depesche – a letter from the French government to the German emperor – so that it appeared that France had attacked him. The manipulated text was published by the press, thus making France look like the aggressor.

Film and Television

The 19th and 20th centuries brought forth further inventions: photojournalism, film and television changed the media world forever. The power of these new media was enormous - and was deliberately abused by the ruling classes for manipulation.

The First World War went down in history as the "War of Words". In terms of media, it also developed as a war of images: they were considered realistic images of reality and displaced the outdated battle pictures from newspapers. But many of the images were taken out of context or manipulated. This is also the case with this photo by Frank Hurley: it shows Australian soldiers storming out of their trenches to repel German planes. But Hurley had put it together from twelve separate pictures.



Besides radio, film as a medium played an important role in the propaganda of the Nazi regime. Pseudo-documentaries such as "Feldzug in Polen" (1940) or "Jud Süß" (1940) were not a representation of reality but rather a tool for political-ideological indoctrination of the masses. In addition, there were films in which propaganda and entertainment elements were skillfully mixed. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary in February 1942: "Entertainment today is also important in terms of state policy, if not decisive for the war."

The Internet and Social Media

The Internet and social media have brought about an upheaval of inestimable proportions. They are a virtual space in which many of the past's physical, legal and technical boundaries no longer apply. In the past, the message was tied to a specific sender and a limited number of recipients, explains philosopher Barbara Zehnpfennig. The Internet has dissolved this binary structure; it is a network of everyone with everyone. Today, anyone can spread news, write comments or create a virtual avatar like me. This creates new opportunities - but also new risks. And anyone can become a target.

In the fall of 2017, pornographic videos appeared on Reddit, in which the faces of porn actresses were exchanged with those of famous women. The anonymous user with the username “deepfake” brought new technology into the mainstream: within a short time, tens of thousands of users got together and exchanged AI-generated images and videos.



In June 2019 – a few months before the Canadian parliamentary elections – deepfakes appeared on YouTube in which the head of the Conservative Party was vilified. Although many viewers thought the clips were real, YouTube did not delete them. When asked, the author stated that it was satire.

No deepfake, but a cheapfake: Donald Trump shared a video of his campaign opponent Joe Biden via Twitter in September 2020, which was subsequently edited. It shows Biden playing a song on his phone before a public appearance in Florida and bobbing along to the music. In the video which Trump distributed, the actual song was replaced by a song critical of the police by the hip-hop group N.W.A. A strategic move: Trump had already repeatedly claimed that his democratic challenger belongs to the “radical left” and advocates violence against the police.


The deepfake Experiment Logo


The Green politician Konstantin von Notz considers the “climate hysteria” to be exaggerated, the FDP member Wolfgang Kubicki speaks out in favor of a wealth tax, and the CDU State Minister Dorothee Bär, a true Bavarian, prefers Kölsch to Bavarian beer? No, something cannot be right here either. The videos that the FreeTech Academy team produced for the documentary "The Deepfake Report" are AI-created forgeries. The experiment confirms: videos are no longer safe from manipulation.

Victor Riparbelli ist CEO von Synthesia, einem KI-Anbieter für Videogenerierung

Mistrust Your Own Eyes

Be it murals or leaflets, newspaper illustrations, or photos: every medium that was used to spread the news was also used to spread fake news. Technology has improved – and so has the quality of fake-news. Now it's the turn of web videos. According to a recent VAUNET study on the media usage of Germans, 14- to 69-year-olds watched 59 minutes of online-videos per day in 2020 - and the trend is rising sharply. The fact that this potential can also be misused for the opposite purpose - targeted disinformation - is not surprising, but rather the logical continuation in the history of reporting, says Barbara Zehnpfennig.

Nevertheless, the philosopher Barbara Zehnpfennig sees a difference between "old" misinformation and "new" deepfakes. Because today's technology is not only easy to use and available to everyone, it is also constantly improving. All that without having to actively contribute anything. Thanks to the use of algorithms that train themselves, the forgeries of the future can be delegated to machines. "At this point, it is possible for technology to take on a life of its and get out of hands," says Zehnpfennig.

However, humanity does not see itself at the mercy of this development. There is a race between deception and exposure after all. “As soon as something new emerges, technology is also used to expose it,” says the philosopher.

Videos can also be manipulated

While we have become more vigilant about manipulated images and misinformation in texts over the last few decades, videos are still considered credible sources. They seem closer and less controversial because they give the audience the feeling of being directly involved in what is happening. If you watch a video of a speech by Barack Obama, you witness what has been said: we hear what he says and how he says it. We recognize his voice, his facial expressions, and gestures. And we do not initially suspect that someone else is speaking to us.
But the days when videos were infallible are over. In 2017, AI researcher Ian Goodfellow said in an interview that it was "a historic godsend" that mankind has been able to rely largely on video over the past few decades to ensure that an event happened. However, Goodfellow pointed out that this era is drawing to a close. It, therefore, remains correct what the fake Obama predicted in the 2018 video: "Moving forward we need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet."

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