Fake News

'Fake News' Is Easier to Trace and Debunk Than Ever Before

From Al Smith and Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump


Federal Bureau of Investigation

As pundits search for a scapegoat they can blame for Donald Trump's victory, one increasingly popular target is "fake news." Most of the discussion proceeds as though groundless stories transmitted from friend to friend are something invented in the Facebook era. You're lucky if people remember the dubious email forwards of a decade ago, let alone the orally transmitted tales of earlier generations.

But when I hear the phrase fake news, I think of the Eleanor Clubs. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of those: It's been seven decades since anyone was abuzz about them, and even then they were as fictional as the pope's endorsement of Donald Trump or that photo of a bare-chested, gay Mike Pence. But in the early 1940s, quite a few people believed in them. They were even investigated by the FBI.

The clubs—named for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal supporter of civil rights—were supposedly a subversive network of black servants working to overturn the racial caste system, so that one day whites would work for blacks instead of the other way around. Howard Odum, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, collected versions of this story from across the South (and sometimes from other parts of the country too) in his 1943 book Race and Rumors of Race. The details varied, but the core idea, in the words of one of his informants, was this: "I hear the cooks have organized Eleanor Clubs and their motto is: A white woman in every kitchen by Christmas." Mrs. Roosevelt was supposed to be the clubs' secret chief.

Did the Eleanor Club story injure Eleanor's husband at the polls? No: He kept carrying the South, as the Democrat usually did in those days. But then again, no one—as far as I know—tried to weaponize this particular tale against him. Other rumors were deliberately engineered to hurt particular public figures. These were known as whispering campaigns, and they have been deployed in political fights for eons.

In 1928, Irving Stone writes in They Also Ran, a host of rumors dogged the Democrats' Catholic nominee, Al Smith: "he was building a tunnel which would connect with the Vatican; the Pope would set up his office in the White House; the Catholics would rule the country, and no one could hold office who was not a Catholic; Protestant children would be forced into Catholic schools; priests would flood the states and be in supreme command; Smith would set himself up at the head of a Catholic party which would supersede the old Democratic party!" (These were transmitted not just orally but through the fake-news organs of the day: "A flood of letters, pamphlets and anonymous newspapers swept across the South, rehashing the worst libels against the Catholic church that had been circulated in the United States during the period of 1840–60. One Democratic chairman of North Carolina reported that the anti-Catholic literature that poured into the state must have cost at least half a million dollars.") Smith didn't just lose the election; he managed to lose several Southern states. Did the rumor-mongering swing many votes? Quite possibly.

The point isn't that this is the same as the fakery that flows through Facebook. We live in an entirely different media environment, with possibilities that hardly anyone could imagine in the '20s or '40s. If you told Al Smith that one day there would be Macedonian content farms targeting Trump fans because that's what brings more clicks, he would say, "No offense, my fellow American, but I don't know what the hell that means." 2016 is not 1928, and I'm all for careful efforts to see how this era's rumor transmission belts differ from their many, many precursors.

But that requires you to acknowledge that the precursors existed. It also requires you to think about the ways the internet has empowered not just liars but debunkers.

Consider this image, highlighted and marked up in one anti-fake-news jeremiad that's been floating around:


No, that isn't fake news. It's a true story from a mainstream newspaper, and the fellow sharing it—Mike Caulfield—is the same guy who wrote the jeremiad. His point involves the format, not the content: that the focus is not on "the source of the article, which is so small and gray as to be effectively invisible, but the friendly smiling face of someone you trust." Fake news is easier to believe, he suggests, if it is framed that way rather than as simply another headline.

That may be true. But instead of comparing a Facebook post to a traditional headline, let us compare it to those Eleanor Club yarns. Those too were shared by the friendly faces of trusted acquaintances. But they did not include any citation at the bottom, let alone the ability to click through and read more. They were also less likely to appear side by side with someone making the exact opposite claim. (For all the talk of filter bubbles today, what sort of bubble do you suppose the people spreading the Eleanor Club story lived in?) This may be the first time in human history when a whispering campaign can come with footnotes. Rumors are undeniably resilient, but they are far easier to trace, track, and debunk now than they were when Franklin Roosevelt or Al Smith was running for president.

The bad news is that Facebook is filled with bullshit. The good news is that we now have amped-up, networked bullshit detectors. No discussion of "fake news" will get anywhere unless it takes both of those facts into account.

Bonus link: Needless to say, there's a lot of fakery in the "real" news too, starting with roughly 96 percent of all TV reports that contain the phrase "dangerous teen trend." For a rundown of mainstream-media hoaxes and flubs over the years, check out this column from Jack Shafer.

NEXT: Washington Task Force Suggests Making it Easier to Prosecute Killer Cops

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  1. “If white women had stayed in the kitchen instead of voting for Donald Trump, we wouldn’t be in this mess today!”


    1. I have to admit, I’ve heard more about uppity women over the last three weeks than I have during the ten years prior…

      1. Some “news” is best debunked by a good old-fashioned criminal prosecution, and we should certainly work for more debunking of the sort, so as once again to bring our nation to its full peak of strength and vigor. Surely no one here would dare to defend the outrageous “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated judge in America’s leading criminal “satire” case? See the documentation at:


  2. By the way, I believe it’s NOT fake news that Angela Merkel was pressuring Mark Zuckerberg to “do more” to clean up wrong-think on Facebook.

    1. Merkel just wanted to keep the populace well informed with the latest government approved thoughts.

      1. You know which other German leder tried to do this?

          1. leader hosen?

        1. Adam Weishaupt?

      2. No one has yet explained why Mark Zuckerberg is meeting with heads of state in the first place.

  3. “he was building a tunnel which would connect with the Vatican; the Pope would set up his office in the White House; the Catholics would rule the country, and no one could hold office who was not a Catholic; Protestant children would be forced into Catholic schools; priests would flood the states and be in supreme command; Smith would set himself up at the head of a Catholic party which would supersede the old Democratic party!”

    Eddie swoons.

      1. Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
        breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
        but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
        were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
        proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
        my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
        imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
        in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
        between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
        all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.

        1. HAMLET
          That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
          admit no discourse to your beauty.

          Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
          with honesty?

          Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
          transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
          force of honesty can translate beauty into his
          likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
          time gives it proof. I did love you once.

          Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

          You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
          so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
          it: I loved you not.

          I was the more deceived.

          1. Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
            Console you if I could. What can be said,
            Except that suffering is exact, but where
            Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
            For you would hardly care
            That you were the less deceived, out on that bed,
            Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
            To burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic

    1. Libertarians could learn a few things from the Catholics about how to manage your orphan labor.

      1. Fingerbang bang bang bang bang
        I’m gonna fingerbang, bang you into my life.
        Girl, you like to fingerbang and it’s alright.
        ’cause’ I’m the King of Fingerbang, yea, that’s right .
        I’ll just fingerbang, bang you every night.

        1. It ain’t Shakespeare, but I guess it will suffice.

      2. Especially Canadian Catholics.

  4. The Economist sent the following headline to my cellphone on the Monday before Election Day: “Hillary Has This in the Bag.”

    Fake news!

    1. What’s in the bag?

      1. Huma’s soul.

        1. It’s currently being delivered in a briefcase by Samuel Jackson.

  5. ‘Fake News’ Is Easier to Trace and Debunk Than Ever Before


    Remember the tidal wave of stories about “hate crimes” in the wake of the Trump-election?

    Reuters ran a piece about that including the story of a muslim woman in @ Louisiana; they were citing it as entirely credible on the same day that everyone else was running retractions

    they later changed the story after the fact – but a day later. nowhere in the piece was there any note saying that it had been updated or that there had been any corrections.

    this sort of thing happens constantly. People only ever believe the first version of the story they hear. Papers will run headlines with no more evidence than a unsourced video-clip or a few tweets. If they later amend or update “what actually happened”, there’s never any actual ownership of their first ‘hot take’ – just just memory-hole the first version and ‘update’ the story with the more-substantiated (and often less-sensational) facts.

    All anyone remembers is the first bit. Maybe that’s not “fake news”, but its a very-popular M.O. in contemporary journalism. if people were forced to own their very first version of every story, maybe they’d be more responsible and do more digging before they actually published things.

    1. *another example of this sort of thing – also from Reuters…

      Remember the “EPA Gold King Mine-Disaster” in Colorado?

      EPA accidentally releases millions of gallons of toxic waste into river, which supplies water to nearby indian reservation…etc.

      Their day-1 coverage of the story basically put “EPA Causes Massive Spill” in the headline. The ‘story’ was that EPA fucked up badly.

      By day 2? The same exact links (with the OG headline still in the link text) brought you to a story about “National challenge of leaking mines dwarfs Colorado spill

      The story had been changed to, “EPA is overwhelmed by nationwide problem caused by irresponsible miners”.

      the new spin was that “EPA underfunded’ Corporations to blame”

      I pointed to the changing emphasis in the editing of the *very same story* here

      meaning – these were not ‘new’ stories adding color to their initial reporting. The initial reporting was itself being *overwritten* and replaced with the new ‘politically correct’ interpretations.

      It went so far as to adjust which quotes from EPA they’d highlight; in the early versions, they emphasized how EPA was downplaying the potential for environmental damage…. then in the revised versions, they highlighted that “they were highly concerned about people’s safety”.

      Its basically “digital historical-revisionism”. It happens constantly.

      1. And yet the people who do this are outraged when Trump calls them liars.

      2. Yes and yes.

      3. *footnote –

        i understand that my 2 examples here may be seen to contradict one another

        — the first claims that ‘all that matters is the first overhyped version’; the second suggests that the narrative-shaping after-the-fact matters more

        my point was more about emphasizing the mutability of news in the digital age,

        the ability to use narratively-convenient (if still-unverified) “facts” in an early version of a story is just byproduct of that process; because you can always (*to use a DJ expression) “fix it in the mix”. Its OK to fuck it up a little. You can cover your tracks later.

        In the first case, they got the narrative right but the facts wrong; in the second case they got the facts right but the narrative wrong.

        When historians/students go back and do research on “what was really said about those events”, they wont actually find the original coverage in *either case*. They’ll find the fixed and re-spun versions.

    2. I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had: “No, you’re confusing the difference between a successful DNS query that pulled the wrong result and a DNS query that failed”.

      The Reuters story wasn’t fake. It was a real news story reporting a lie based on shady facts.

      That’s a different thing than a malicious actor producing and writing a ‘story’ on a blog and having that story going viral.

      1. Yes. Thanks – that’s a helpful distinction.

        My point was to suggest that maybe “properly fake” news is not actually the problem.

        *e.g. I’m not sure the Podesta “Pizza=Pedophile Rape Ring” story really had quite as much potential for spreading “dangerous falsehood”…

        … as much as, say, many mainstream news outlets habit of passively suggesting that Hillary was “found innocent” by James Comey in his email-investigation findings

        Its not ‘fake news’ that concerns me; its the increasingly manipulative/deceptive practices in the way news is handled.

        1. I wasn’t disagreeing with you, but merely pointing out that while “fake news” can mean different things to different people, to me, it means that the story is a fabrication itself, you know, like a New Republic article, or The Onion.

          Its not ‘fake news’ that concerns me; its the increasingly manipulative/deceptive practices in the way news is handled.

          yeah, CNN went off the rails during this election, and it’s going to take years for them to earn back any trust from me. NPR is just biased, CNN was actively trying to manipulate an election.

  6. Speaking of fake news

    Again, all of this is unnecessary. If you want to build infrastructure, build infrastructure. It’s hard to see any reason for a roundabout, indirect method that would offer a few people extremely sweet deals, and would therefore provide both the means and the motive for large-scale corruption. Or maybe I should say, it’s hard to see any reason for this scheme unless the inevitable corruption is a feature, not a bug.

    Now, the Trump people could make all my suspicions look foolish by scrapping the private-investor, tax credits aspect of their proposal and offering a straightforward program of public investment. And if they were to do that, progressives should indeed work with them on that issue.

    But it’s not going to happen. Cronyism and self-dealing are going to be the central theme of this administration ? in fact, Mr. Trump is already meeting with foreigners to promote his business interests. And people who value their own reputations should take care to avoid any kind of association with the scams ahead.

    Why bother with innuendo, when you can lie flat out, at top volume? Also, why wasn’t Krugabe a Berniebrah, considering his outright loathing for capitalism and private investment?

    1. “Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, is a white supremacist and purveyor of fake news. But the other day, in an interview with, um, The Hollywood Reporter,”

      I stopped there.

      God Krugman is an insufferable progressive asshole. He’s no liberal. He’s just your run of the mill progressive.

    2. If you want to build infrastructure, build infrastructure. It’s hard to see any reason for a roundabout, indirect method that would offer a few people extremely sweet deals

      I am going to take a wild guess that this was not his take on the 2009 ARRA, which was all about handing out money to politically-connected cronies under the guise of “reinvestment into infrastructure/economic-stimulus”

  7. As Jesse notes, fake news predates social media.

    I remember when I was in elementary school, kids on the playground were all discussing the news of the child actor who played “Mikey” in the TV commercials for Life cereal had died suddenly because he swallowed Pop-Rocks candy and Coke at the same time and his stomach exploded from the massive fizz.

    Years later, I was a freshman in college and a rumor started that the actor who had played Mikey was going to be a student on campus. I told the person who mentioned it what I had heard about his supposed death, and I was surprised when he said he remembered hearing the same story years ago — and he had been in elementary school on the opposite coast.

    Thinking about it as an adult, the story seemed specious all along. I think the worst that would have happened to Mikey would have been some burping.

    1. The elementary schools are rampant with clown killer stories right now. I blame Crusty.

    2. He liked it.

      The story that is.

      1. And here I was thinking, “Rufus won’t like it. He hates everything.”

    3. ^^^This and the one about Rod Stewart needing stomach pumped because he “overfilled” himself on semen….ugh.

      1. Alanis Moriset. I went to a funeral Sunday and my dad says “You know Clint Eastwood died this week, too.” I told my dad it was probably fake because I didn’t have a weeks worth of Reason articles about it.

      2. I remember that one, too. The exceptionally disgusting version I heard was the the reason he was “overfilled” was because he passed a big cup around the audience and some helpful gentlemen filled it for him.

        I suspect that story was the work of a young but “talented” person we now know as: “SugarFree”

      3. I remember the stories that Lady Gaga and Ciara were trannies.

        Never heard the one about Rod Stewart drinking semen. I want it to be true though.

    4. In elementary school I also heard that Mikey died. (Although I don’t remember Pop Rocks and Coke being the cause) I grew up in the Upper Midwest. So yes, even before the internet good stories had amazing legs.

  8. Speaking of fake, should Reason rebut Wilson’s screed in The Guardian?


    Don’t let these putzes set the narrative. Set them straight.

    1. Is Jason Wilson the first person to ever deliberately get a Tom Joad make-over? and will this new Joading trend take off with our youth?

      1. You can hear Billy Bragg playing behind his picture.

        1. Greetings to the new Joadette.

    2. Yes, libertarian connections with the far right, their support for a brutal economic doctrine, and preparedness to get into bed with the worst reactionaries mean that we will never see eye to eye.

      It’s a warm and cozy bed kept heated by the burning bodies of orphans.

      1. libertarian connections with the far right


        Normally, I’d assume he meant libertarian view on the economy, but he cites that separately, which implies that he’s referring to something else here….

        Religious liberty, maybe?

        1. Far.Right.

          Fascism is basically just libertarianism with less weed.

          1. “Fascism is basically just libertarianism with less weed.”

            Well that’s odd. I thought fascism was just Progressivism with stylish uniforms designed by Hugo Boss.

        2. It’s like you people don’t even comics.

          Super far right nazism is basically libertarianism plus roads. Duuuuh.

          Man, I gotta pace myself or my sarcasm supply will be exhausted by PM links..

          1. More like “Barry Douche,” amirite?

          2. Riiiight. Because libertarians love nothing better than authoritarian strongmen running government to the point where it not only robs people at the point of a gun and throws them into rape cages, but even sticks people in reeducation camps and gasses them. We also love us some military invasions and foreign occupations!

            Fuck, could these progressives possibly PROJECT any more than they already do?

          3. Libertarianism: All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

        3. If you believe far right people shouldn’t be rounded up and gassed, you’re in bed with the far right.

      2. It’s a warm and cozy bed kept heated by the burning bodies of orphans.

        I can almost see it.

        *rubs greasy accumulation of coal tar off of his monocle*

        Oooooh. I can see it now. Quite.

    3. When did we get in bed with big coal and big tobacco and where is my cut?

      1. From the beginning of time, and libertarians are idiots who do it for free. Because they are racist. Otherwise they vote against their own interest.

        1. I see nothing inaccurate in this statement. Carry on.

          1. It’s not the right time, but I think I can get a five article series in Salon out of that thesis.

            Maybe The Atlantic, but Connor Fridesdorf would probably just publish his own version.

      2. You haven’t been getting your monthly check from big coal? Jesus, you’re missing out. I mean, it’s not as much as I get from the KKKOCHTOPUS just for posting on this site, but it’s a nice bonus, especially with the holidays coming up.

    4. The fuck is it with Brit media discovering libertarians today?

      The Spectator has 5 stages of libertarian grief over Trump win.

      1. Easier said than done. It’s often said that, if you have two libertarians in a room, the only thing they’ll agree on is that there’s one libertarian in the room. It’s going to be a long four years.

        Well, he’s not wrong.

      2. Ah, the Brits. Didn’t we stop caring what they thought 240 years or so ago?

        1. Well, maybe after they burned Washington. So, 204. Or maybe you transposed the numbers.

          1. Both the Confederacy and the Union cared very much about Brit opinion, too.

    5. Interesting, their analysis boils down to “These guys are real cocksuckers but we can borrow an occasional rhetorical flourish from them to bludgeon our enemies. Remember, though, that they are scum.”

    6. Sometimes when I see a Reason headline and then read the linked article (the real source), the slant that Reason puts on it is not very honest.
      We usually call it out in the comments.

    7. Don’t let these putzes set the narrative. Set them straight.

      The accusation that Libertarians are “In Bed” with the far right is mostly based on the fact that libertarians (*mostly) support Free Speech – and tend to avoid

      What the left calls “being in bed with” is usually their mischaracterization of libertarian ‘failure to denounce’ people they despise

      e.g. they see Reason libertarians “failing to demand the execution” of the Malheur Occupiers …. and consider that tantamount as endorsing the armed overthrow of the government

      (*note: there are certainly libertarians out there MORE in agreement with the Malheur protesters – but what you’d find at Reason is more of the “giving them a fair hearing”-type of attitude – which the left sees as the same thing in the end)

      Meanwhile they themselves write paeans to the nobility of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters… and act aghast if you dare suggest that their behavior might actually be in any way similar to those Malheur-types

      (*worse actually – they opened fire)

      basically, they are so fucking partisan that anyone who demonstrates intellectual honesty is seen as a dangerous threat for daring to consider ‘both sides’ fairly.

    8. I saw he called Reason a libertarian publication yet still classed it as conservative — and in the number 1 spot, no less! *facepalm*

      I’d bet $100 this was written by yet another idiot who thinks libertarians are just Republicans who smoke pot.

      His brief description is actually laughable. Reason regularly shills for oil and tobacco companies? Seriously? Talk about your “fake news.” This guy could be the poster boy for that.

  9. Your mom is an urban legend!

  10. The only fake news I’ve seen is this sudden collective pants-shitting over fake news.

    1. No shit. They act like this is all new. Anyone connected to the internet for more than 90 days ought to be savvy about the prevalence of BS. One would have to be as e.illiterate as, say, Hillary Clinton and company to fall for that election propaganda. We’ve been advertised at and propagandized at our while lives ffs. They think we haven’t noticed or learned anything. Smug fucking assholes.

    2. Bingo. Like every lefty talking point or issue it is manufactured out of thin air.

  11. And, of course, Krugabe is so far gone he doesn’t even bother to do any handwaving about venality and corruption on the part of our public servants nobility. Such a thing as corruption or insider dealing is inconceivable in a true public works project.

    1. He’s just panicking because the wrong people are going to benefit.

  12. Clinton violating the law with her emails-fake, Russian hacking of her email server-real. This shit’s easy.

    1. Simplified: If Hillary, the Obama administration, or the DNC tells you to report something – REAL!!!
      Anything else: Fake, if it negatively impacts perceptions of goodthinkers or TEH NARRATIVE!!!

      1. Absolutely. Interesting that they don’t appreciate the fact that the single biggest fake story was the proven Russian hacking horseshit. Maybe it was the Russians but if it was they got it right through blind luck because they have zero proof.

  13. Its basically “digital historical-revisionism”. It happens constantly.

    I found the Memory Hole one of the less convincing aspects of 1984; it would be impossible to round up all the newspapers in all the schools and libraries (for example) and replace them with “corrected” versions.

    It’s getting easier.

    1. The Memory Hole is less difficult if there are a legion of reports, techies, and minions eagerly climbing over each other to lick your authoritarian jackboots.

    2. I think Aldous Huxley was correct in his criticism of 1984. The most lasting tyranny will be the one people ask for.

      1. If you refuse to comply you get 1984 so they were really both right.

  14. The details varied, but the core idea, in the words of one of his informants, was this: “I hear the cooks have organized Eleanor Clubs and their motto is: A white woman in every kitchen by Christmas.” Mrs. Roosevelt was supposed to be the clubs’ secret chief.

    Chief, or Chef?

  15. “…As pundits search for a scapegoat they can blame for Donald Trump’s victory…”

    Couldn’t be themselves and that pathetic hag they offered as a candidate! Nope, can’t be!

  16. Maybe I’m just cynical, but I wonder if the brouhaha over “fake news” isn’t a JournoList-inspired campaign with several purposes: protect the MSM rice bowls (“Only we can be trusted!!”), attack the non-mainstream news sources that helped Trump and hurt Hillary, and perhaps as a pre-emptive strike against the next scandal that will threaten the establishment.

    1. The campaign to coronate Her with a crown failed spectacularly. Unfortunately, the machine didn’t go away. It turned its eye-of-Sauron to the effort of damning everyone and everything that is perceived to have derailed it.

      The MSM is not taking this rebuke well. As it spirals into irrelevance, we can both cheer and despair. There is a legitimacy vacuum that has formed as the old guard of the fourth estate relinquished their scruples. Not very much that is filling that void is good, but they only have themselves to blame. The media needs to own the collateral damage that has been done to the public before anyone will begin to trust them again. They’ve become such masters of spin and deflection that what’s a thousand more articles to deflect blame away from themselves?

  17. Too lazy to research it, but was the “Pope endorses Trump” fake story a pro Trump story or an Anti trump story? Because it could go either way.

  18. Fake news certainly is easier to trace. If the source says NYT, LAT, WAPO, CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, NPR, AP, Reuters… it’s probably fake. For most of these outlets, for at least the last two decades, real news is uncharted territory.

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