“Fear of Foreigners” headlines from the 1920s warned Americans about the peril of alien invaders from Europe. In 1941, our country declared war against Japan, and hysteria swept across the nation. Truth became the first casualty of war.
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, and tomatoes were tried and convicted without evidence.
What did these stories have in common? Fake news and false accusations.
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.
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.
A flagrant example was the bogus and racist imagery of the “yellow peril” vilifying Asians, which affected 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, and tabloid journalism discovered hyperbole sold well. The Irish in the 19th century, Asians in the 1870s, Germans at the beginning of 1900s and others have 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 campaigns supporting exclusionary policies, even if the news was fabricated. I grew up with racist images of Asians as evil. Blacks have often been pictured as ignorant. Mexicans depicted as lazy. Portraits of others, especially nonwhites in American history, have created negative stereotypes, biasing a nation for generations.
With the birth of modern journalism and the demand for objective reporting, trust was instilled between the media and the public. But now we live in a different world with web-generated information. Yellow journalism has returned with a vengeance with no regard for accuracy and objectivity. Trusted filters of journalists have been blurred with false news, challenging our understanding of what is real or bogus.
Last month, a man with a gun confronted employees of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria he believed was the site of an international child sex ring that was conspiring with the Democratic Party. He had read that “story” online.
These fake news stories must be taken personally. They are an attack on each and every one of us. They reach more and more people and with no geographic limits. They no longer are harmless gossip; they injure and inflict damage.
Remember the tomato hysteria of 2008? If you grew tomatoes then, you’ll remember the early reports of salmonella outbreaks in New Mexico. As people fell ill, a race to find the source ensued, and innuendos quickly translated into guilty verdicts. Fake stories filled the void. Tomatoes were purged.
Even though the outbreak was a thousand miles away, California tomato growers were convicted. Tomato prices plummeted; fields were plowed under, a year’s harvest destroyed. Jobs and millions of dollars were lost to this “red scare.” Later it discovered that raw peppers grown in Mexico were the source of contamination. Too late. Spurious stories have no mercy and no conscience.
Fake news will always be with us, but the speed is new, the impact much more widespread. Journalism has tried to respond with fact checking, but it’s often too slow, ironically because the fact-checkers take the time to get it right.
We must be diligent. Dispel falsehoods quickly. Unmask counterfeit stories. Identify biased information sources. Recognize “alternative facts” for what they are – lies.
We must take personal responsibility to respond to falsehoods. Individuals matter more than ever in this 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.
We must each take measures to reduce the spread of this evil. We can start with our own sensational act of exposing online falsehoods. Saying “that’s not true” may be our best answer to fake news.
David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.