There is nothing new under the sun!
In the long history of misinformation, the current outbreak of fake news has already secured a special place, with the president’s personal adviser, Kellyanne Conway, going so far as to invent a Kentucky massacre in order to defend a ban on travelers from seven Muslim countries. But the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.
Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the sixth century AD churned out dubious information, known as Anecdota, which he kept secret until his death, in order to smear the reputation of the Emperor Justinian after lionizing the emperor in his official histories. Pietro Aretino tried to manipulate the pontifical election of 1522 by writing wicked sonnets about all the candidates (except the favorite of his Medici patrons) and pasting them for the public to admire on the bust of a figure known as Pasquino near the Piazza Navona in Rome. The “pasquinade” then developed into a common genre of diffusing nasty news, most of it fake, about public figures.
Although pasquinades never disappeared, they were succeeded in the seventeenth century by a more popular genre, the “canard,” a version of fake news that was hawked in the streets of Paris for the next two hundred years. Canards were printed broadsides, sometimes set off with an engraving designed to appeal to the credulous.
Speaking of the credulous, a Penn State study (emphasis mine):
Political Orientation Predicts Credulity Regarding Putative Hazards
Daniel Fessler, Anne Pisor & Colin Holbrook
Psychological Science, forthcoming
To benefit from information provided by others, people must be somewhat credulous. However, credulity entails risks. The optimal level of credulity depends on the relative costs of believing misinformation versus failing to attend to accurate information. When information concerns hazards, erroneous incredulity is often more costly than erroneous credulity, as disregarding accurate warnings is more harmful than adopting unnecessary precautions.* Because no equivalent asymmetry characterizes information concerning benefits, people should generally be more credulous of hazard information than of benefit information. This adaptive negatively-biased credulity is linked to negativity bias in general, and is more prominent among those who believe the world to be dangerous. Because both threat sensitivity and dangerous-world beliefs differ between conservatives and liberals, we predicted that conservatism would positively correlate with negatively-biased credulity. Two online studies of Americans support this prediction, potentially illuminating the impact of politicians’ alarmist claims on different portions of the electorate.
*So erroneous credulity seems adaptive - conservatives are more highly evolved!