Donald Trump appears to have a straightforward definition of fake news: Stories that are critical of him or his presidency are “fake,” while those that praise him are “real.”
In my recent research, I’ve been reverse-engineering fabricated news articles from the 19th century to analyze their logic, and I’ve discovered that
fake news is effective because it tells you something about the world that you, in a way, already know.
This may sound counterintuitive. But a look into the work of a 19th-century fake news writer helps explain this phenomenon — and what’s going on today.
How to make a 19th-century fake news story
One such fake correspondent was Theodor Fontane, a German pharmacist-turned-journalist who would go on to write some of the most important German Realist novels. (If you’ve never heard of Fontane, think of him as the German Dickens.)
In 1860, Fontane — struggling to make ends meet — joined the staff of the Kreuzzeitung, an ultra-conservative Berlin newspaper. The paper assigned him to cover England, and for a decade, he published story after story “from” London, spellbinding his readers with “personal” accounts of dramatic events, like the devastating Tooley Street Fire of 1861.
But during the entire decade, he never actually crossed the English Channel.
The stunning thing — and the part that resonates today — is how Fontane pulled it off. Fontane’s story about the Great Fire illustrates his process. By the time he decided to write about the fire, it had already been raging for days, and reports about it were in virtually all the papers.
Fontane sifted through these existing accounts to get a sense for what readers already knew about the catastrophe. He cut up the old articles, picked out the most relevant passages, and glued them together for his own account — this becomes clear from mapping his piece onto these sources. Then, to elevate the drama, he wrote some new passages with details and characters that were completely fabricated, such as a “companion” with special privileges who allegedly helped him cross the police cordon roping off the burning area.