The first time I heard the phrase “fake news,” Orson Welles came to mind.

For you young’uns, that was 1938; in a “War of the Worlds” broadcast, Welles reported a Martian invasion. This radio version of H.G. Wells’ (no relation) sci-fi blockbuster had been written and performed as what we now call “breaking news.” Problem was, people bought the realism. The country went into panic mode over an innocent fake.

Then, in 1948, The Chicago Daily Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” proved more jumping the gun (or wishful thinking) than an intentional fake.

Neither “innocent” nor “intentional” quite describes the often-defamatory fake news fueling the supermarket tabloids, which most people take with several grains of salt.

And now, fake news is the go-to when debunking something nasty, embarrassing or just plain wrong.

I searched for a “fake” etymon. Most logical seems the Arabic “fakir,” referring to a holy class of beggars who faked infirmities to increase donations. But who knows?

The phrase first bothered me when employed, dismissively, by then-President-Elect Donald Trump. Negative stories — from biggies like a dossier on his supposed behavior while in Russia to reports of fiscal mischief — were waved away.

“Fake news, never happened,” he proclaimed.

“Absolutely fake,” echoed campaign mastermind Kellyanne Conway, with a bright smile.

The same disclaimer was soon a part of the Clinton contingent’s narrative.

How convenient. How effective.

These stories circulated thick and fast, making investigation difficult. Besides, on occasions when fake proved true, nothing happened. Maybe some wiggles, but no retractions, no apologies, few rebuttals.

This phenomenon has been dubbed a “Web plague” because the news usually originates on Facebook or Twitter. Entire sites, I’m told, are devoted to fake news gulped down by the gullible.

The genre is hardly new. Remember the “grapevine,” where a story not only embellishes but gains credibility as it travels? Sometimes, on TV at least, fake/false news actually helps law enforcement extract information or a confession.

Fake news in the form of hoaxes peppers history. The Loch Ness monster. The Beatles played backward, revealing “Paul is dead.” Crop circles. Certain people still believe that Shakespeare was really Christopher Marlowe, the moon landing happened on a Hollywood sound stage, the Royal Family masterminded Princess Diana’s demise, and President Obama was born in Africa.

The quintessential literary example would be Aesop’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” illustrating how fake news can bite back.

This is superdangerous, because the “news” — unlike Orson’s Martians — may be based on a kernel of truth. Remember, sadly, that not all Americans are serious news consumers. Sure, they watch TV while gulping down a microwaved breakfast sandwich, maybe glance at the headlines on an app. But they don’t attempt to separate fake from fact. So, like a bee collecting pollen, the semi-cognizant move the story along, as in “Didya hear about … ?”

Before you can say I’m-a-monkey’s-uncle (based on “fake” evolutionism), the story acquires legs.

What fun for the perps!

However, now that fake news is a real issue, pranksters, instigators and n’er-do-wells circulate stories anonymously or from fake sources, at will. Also, with fake news a fact, the central characters of factual but unflattering news can always cry, “Fake!”

Look, Americans have always run with slogans, slang, memes, emojis — from “Tippicanoe and Tyler, too” to “The Pepsi Generation.” From smiley faces to “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again.” No different with fake news, a hot topic which, after a bitter presidential campaign when truth really was stranger than fiction, the concept became the, uh, “new normal.”

This, too, will pass. Or not. Consider “fake foods” like Cheetos, invented in 1948, staining fingers in 36 countries, raking in $4 billion annually. Honestly.

 

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