In the 1930s, Upton Sinclair was one of the most prominent writers in the United States. But no amount of fame could protect him, when he ran for governor of California, from “one of the most well-orchestrated smear campaigns in American history,” instigated by political and business interests hostile to the muckraking revelations in Sinclair’s books, such as The Jungle, making him a victim of “a forerunner of [the] ‘fake news’” that’s so pervasive today.
Nor was he the first American to be misrepresented by his adversaries: John Adams and others in colonial and post-colonial times often felt abused by an unfettered free press.
Call it fake news, propaganda, disinformation–it’s been with us in some form or another as long as the written word and doubtless in the oral tradition before that, in whispering campaigns and word-of-mouth slander.
But what’s happening today is different.
The disinformation campaigns of the past were hard to execute – they required significant effort and money, brick-and-mortar operations, were often limited to print, and even on radio and TV were centrally orchestrated. The near-zero cost of publishing and distributing has made creation and dissemination of misinformation a lot easier at scale.