Man-bats on the moon: Some silly and serious thoughts on fake news

Jennifer Cohron
Posted 3/3/17

For six days in August 1835, New Yorkers were captivated by a series of newspaper articles that described the latest discoveries of astronomer Sir John Herschel.

From his post on the Cape of Good …

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Man-bats on the moon: Some silly and serious thoughts on fake news

Posted

For six days in August 1835, New Yorkers were captivated by a series of newspaper articles that described the latest discoveries of astronomer Sir John Herschel.

From his post on the Cape of Good Hope, Herschel had observed life on the moon with a high-powered telescope. Until the telescope was destroyed in an unfortunate accident, Herschel and his team of scientists had seen a lunar surface covered in forests, oceans and beaches and populated with blue unicorns, beavers that walked upright and four-foot tall man-bats.

The Apollo 11 crew found no evidence of this fantastical civilization when they landed on the moon over 130 years later because it was a figment of reporter Richard Adams Locke’s imagination. Edgar Allan Poe later claimed that Locke had plagiarized his short story, "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall."

Locke’s motivation seems to have been to poke fun at quack astronomers who were making outrageous claims of their own in the early 19th century. It also increased sales of “The New York Sun,” Locke’s employer.

“The Sun” never printed a retraction, and there was no backlash from the thousands of readers who had been duped.

“The moon hoax foreshadowed what would eventually become a central concern about the mass media: its ability, because of its enormous reach, to shape and influence popular belief,” an online article from the Museum of Hoaxes states. “Later hoaxes, such as the 1938 War of the Worlds ‘panic broadcast,’ would provide even more dramatic and disturbing examples of this power. But in 1835 the mass media was still new enough that most people seemed intrigued rather than concerned by this display of its power.”

Fake news is no laughing matter in 2017.

Reporters from CNN and The New York Times didn’t think it was funny when they were excluded from a White House press briefing last week because the new president believes they generate fake news.

Delta Airlines didn’t think it was funny in December when over 800,000 people, including a CNN broadcaster, retweeted cellphone footage of two Arab-American men being kicked off a plane for speaking Arabic, and #boycottDelta became a top trending topic on Twitter. One of the men is a YouTube prankster who has previously posted controversial videos that have been discredited, and Delta claims the men were being disruptive when they were removed from the plane.

The Daily Mountain Eagle’s publisher didn’t think it was funny several years ago when advertisers and readers believed posts and satirical news stories from a fake Twitter account were sanctioned by the paper and threatened to pull their support.

Several people who were frightened by a Facebook post last week that a young man had been beaten and robbed on the interstate by someone impersonating a police officer didn’t think it was funny when the Walker County Sheriff’s Office posted on its page that the incident never happened.

(To be clear, the person who filed the original report has said publicly that she did not knowingly provide false information to police and has asked for prayers for all involved.)

The topic of fake news came up in almost every session of the Alabama Press Association’s Journalism Summit several weeks ago. I sat in on a lively discussion that included the executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, AP’s national political reporter and the opinion editor of the Plainsman, Auburn University’s student newspaper.

I plan to share some of the thoughts shared in the session in a future column. For now, I think it’s important for readers to know that editors and reporters from the national to the local level are concerned about the threat fake news poses to the media’s credibility as well as to public safety.

Members of the media certainly have some soul-searching to do, but the public also has a responsibility to be discerning, especially when it comes to information shared online.

A recent blog post from The News Literacy Project on the Delta Airlines incident offers this advice: “If a tweet, photo or story sparks your ‘outrage’ meter, take a step back and ask: ‘Is this true? What evidence is there? Have you heard all sides?’”

Or as President Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying on a popular Internet meme, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.