“Fear of foreigners” headlines from the 1920s warned Americans about the peril of alien invaders from Europe. During 1941, our country declared war against Japan and hysteria swept across the nation; truth became the first casualty of war and anyone who “looked” like the enemy became the enemy with sightings of “Jap” planes over our Valley.
About 10 years ago, a food-poisoning outbreak ignited a frenzy to find the source. Tomatoes were tried and convicted without verified evidence. What did these stories have in common? Fake news.
We have always lived with sensationalism but untrue stories have impacted humanity in brutal ways. Religious wars have tarnished history, demonizing others in the name of spiritual beliefs. Those different than us – Jews, Catholics, non Christians, blacks, minorities – have been scapegoats and targets of false accusations.
With the invention of the printing press, information could be broadly circulated, along with the ability to spread unfounded opinions and perspectives. As newspapers grew, so did “yellow journalism” – the printing of bogus stories to ignite emotions for one side or the other.
A flagrant example was the Hearst newspapers and exaggerated imagery that sparked the Spanish-American war. The bogus and racist imagery of the “yellow peril” vilifying Asians impacted immigrants, including my grandparents, as they arrived in America.
Fake news has always been part of America’s history of immigrants. Foreigners have often been denigrated and smeared. The tabloid-journalism industry soon discovered hyperbole sold well. The Irish in the 19th century, Asians in the 1870s, Germans at the beginning of 1900s and numerous others have all been targets of nativism, a belief that “self-identified citizens” had favored status as opposed to newcomers.
Governments found fake stories powerful propaganda tools. In times of crisis, they cranked up the media machine to build a campaign supporting exclusionary polices, even if the news was fabricated. I grew up with racist images of Asians as evil and ugly. Blacks have often been pictured as ignorant and animal-like. Mexicans are depicted as lazy and stupid clowns.
Portraits of others, especially non-whites in American history, have created long-lasting and embedded stereotypes the public could never “un-see” – biasing a nation for generations.
An ironic twist from false news was a growing demand for objective reporting and the birth of modern journalism. Trust was instilled between reporters and the public; stories did not have to be sensational to be profitable.
We now live in a different media world with web-generated information. Yellow journalism has returned with a vengeance with no regard for accuracy and objectivity. Objective journalism found in our newspapers has been decimated by fake news online. We have lost the trusted filters of journalists. Real news recedes as false news grows, untruths blur our understanding of what is real or bogus.
A recent example was the man who entered a Washington, D.C., pizzeria and shot at employees. Based on information he had read online, he believed the site housed an international Satanic child sex ring with the Democratic party as the evil center. Fringes of the internet now must be taken seriously.
These stories are no longer about someone else or about a foreign land. Fake news must be taken personally. It is an attack on each and every one of us. It now spreads like a virus and reaches more and more people with no geographic limits.
Fake news stories no longer are harmless gossip; they injure and inflict long-lasting damage. If you scratch the personal family histories of many in this Valley, you’ll find hurt and pain generated by phony stories and berating images.
Defamation can strike close to home and the pocketbook, even in agriculture. Remember the tomato hysteria of 2008? (Sadly, fake news also quickly strikes and rapidly departs, the public soon forgets and moves on to the next fake story – except those left behind to clean up the damage).
If you grew tomatoes in the summer of 2008, you’ll remember the early reports of salmonella outbreaks in New Mexico in the month of May. As people fell ill, a race to find the source ensued, tomatoes initially suspected and the inuendoes quickly translated into guilty verdicts.
The media was hungry to find the smoking gun; the public demanded to know and fake stories conveniently filled the void. Tomatoes were purged.
Even though the outbreak was a thousand miles away, California tomato growers were convicted. It was guilt by association; prices plummeted for all tomatoes. Fields had to be plowed under, a year’s harvest terminated and destroyed. Jobs were lost, millions of dollars lost to this “red scare.”
Only later was it discovered that raw peppers grown in Mexico were the true source of contamination. Too late. But spurious stories have no mercy and no conscience.
Fake news will always be with us; the speed of impact is new and much more widespread. Journalism has tried to respond with fact-checking but they are often too slow (ironically, as they should be, in order to get things right). Besides, the voracious appetite for so-called “news” often implies by the time corrections are made, it’s too late, and the public has moved on.
We then must be as diligent as ever. Dispel falsehoods quickly. Unmask counterfeit stories. Identify biased information sources. Uncover word fakery.
Above all, we must recognize the personal nature of concocted stories. We must take personal responsibility to respond to falsehoods. Individuals matter more than ever in the new wired landscape We are all part of networks and have different neighbors not bound by geography. A new social fabric makes fake news possible and therein lies one line of defense.
Like a virus, we must take measures to reduce the spread of this evil. We can start with our own sensational act of exposing online falsehoods. “That’s not true” may be our best answer to fake news.
David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and the award-winning author of eight books, including “Epitaph for a Peach” and “A Sense of Yosemite.”