Who started the expression "fake news"? Who or what historical episode made it popular?

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    – tchrist
    Mar 13, 2017 at 14:28

5 Answers 5


The earliest example I could find is from 1890, in the Daily Tobacco Leaf-Chronicle from Tennesse; it is a headline:

The Indian Situation Was Never So Grave as Reported.

There’s an example from the previous year uses the verb fake in to fake news, in The American Bookseller (emphasis mine in all quotes):

Mr. A. V. Philip is an enterprising Englishman who publishes a paper called "The Egyptian Gazette." Being, like many worthy British subjects, somewhat deficient in imagination, and lacking the ingenuity required to fake news, perhaps too being afflicted with a taste for literature, he brightened up the pages of his Gazette by republishing the latest feuilletons of the most popular French writers.

From then on fake news keeps appearing in the in the press across the US, and it is always about the press too. Here’s a couple of early examples from the 1890s. The first two may be related:

The Verdict of the Press on Joseph Pulitzer and His Newspaper.
From the Chatham Courier.
THE SUN charges the World with manufacturing news in its own office purporting to be cable news of interviews with prominent scientists in Europe […]
Of all unfortunate and foolish things a newspaper may do, that of destroying public confidence in itself is most unfortunate and most foolish, And it can accomplish this end in no other way more quickly or more completely than in the matter of “fake” news.
(The Sun, New York, September 3, 1892.)

New York dailies would better sing lower about “fake” news, foreign or domestic. The most of them are no about using it at times, and with some of them the times come most almighty close together. (Democratic Northwest, Napoleon (Ohio), September 8, 1892.)

A bill has been introduced in the Connecticut Legislature providing for the punishment of persons who send “fake” news to newspapers. The evil complained of has grown to great proportions lately. Three or four centers of humbug Connecticut news send tales to New York papers and to Connecticut papers that will pay for such service.
(The Morning Call, San Francisco (Calif.), April 10, 1983.)

Google Ngram shows fake news has a long history, but the occasional occurrences prior to 1889 turn out to be false news. Fake news had a first period of relative popularity between the 1910s and the 1940s; and then it started growing again in the age of the internet, and exploded right after 2000. The Google Ngram goes until 2008 only, so not sure how it compares with present popularity.

enter image description here

Of course fake news is just a newer name for what was known before (and still is) as false news (Google Ngram): enter image description here

An early example of first false news, in Calendar of State Papers, domestic series, of the reign of Charles II, 1672:

Proclamation forbidding the spreading of false news, and licentious talking on matters of State and government, many persons having lately assumed liberty, in coffee-houses and elsewhere, to defame the proceedings of State […]

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    @Mari-LouA I'm doing that. There are hardly any false positives; fake fake news.
    – Jacinto
    Mar 13, 2017 at 9:39
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    Scary that rises in usage previously came just before major wars!
    – Tony Linde
    Mar 13, 2017 at 9:39
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    @Tony, yeas, but I'm checking, and most examples have little to do with the wars.
    – Jacinto
    Mar 13, 2017 at 9:40
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    @Jacinto Perhaps with the crises which were harbingers of war? Mar 13, 2017 at 9:53
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    But your second citation, to fake news is using fake (1889) as a verb i.e. to falsify, which is interesting nevertheless, it indicates how old the verb fake is.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 13, 2017 at 11:23

According to the website Source Watch, the catchphrase "fake news" became mainstream as a result of an article in TV Guide written by David Lieberman, and published, 22 February 1992.

A search of the Nexis media database indicates that the term was initially used more broadly. In May 1989 Adweek writer Barbara Lippert panned ads in which former newsreader Linda Ellerbee appeared "in a fake news setting" hustling Maxwell House coffee. In August that year Ad Day's Ed Buxton criticized the use of "the fake news bite" where reporters re-enacted news events as part of a news story. However, it was a cover article by David Lieberman titled "Fake News" in the February 1992 edition of TV Guide that popularized the term

enter image description here (image)

A 1992 article from Z Magazine confirms

There is NO more wide-reaching print media message-bearer than TV Guide. The cover story, "Fake News," says not only did the government lie to pursue its Gulf War aims, the government and corporations lie regularly to pursue their aims, and do it with the connivance of the media so it appears that the lies are honest...

During the George W. Bush administration, 2001-2009, the expression reappeared in a 2005 article posted in PRWatch, run by the progressive watchdog organisation CMD. The author refers specifically to the 1992 Lieberman's article

Fake News? We Told You So, Ten Years Ago

MediaLink, a PR firm that distributed about half of the 4,000 VNRs [video news releases] made available to newscasters in 1991, conducted a survey of 92 newsrooms and found that all 92 used VNRs supplied free by PR firms and subtly slanted to sell a clients' products and ideas while appearing to be "real" TV news. On June 13, 1991, for example, the CBS Evening News ran a segment on the hazards of automatic safety belts. According to David Lieberman, author of a 1992 article titled "Fake News," the safety belt tape "was part of a 'video news release' created by ... a lobby group largely supported by lawyers."

In a 2006 report titled Disguised as News, John V. Pavlik, author and professor of Journalism and Media Studies in Rutgers University, denounced the use of abusive and deceitful VNRs. He claimed

Fake news has a long and inglorious history in the U.S. and around the world. Since at least the mid-1800s, showmen such as P.T. Barnum have staged for publicity purposes what historian Daniel Boorstin a century later dubbed “pseudo-events.” Perhaps the most potentially deceptive form of fake news, the video news release (VNRs), emerged in the 1980s as a video version of the traditional news or press release […]

“FakeNews,” a landmark article about VNRs, was published as a cover story in TV Guide on Feb. 22, 1992. Author David Lieberman argued that newscasters should not “pretend out of pride that what they broadcast is real news, instead of labeling it for what it is.” He added that “There’s a good chance that some of the news they [the public] see will be fake. Not that it’s necessarily inaccurate. Just that it was made to plug something else. And it’s something the PR community has grown skillful at providing.”

Then in the early 2000s, the phrase “fake news” began to be increasingly associated with the conservative Fox News cable channel. Launched in 1996, it was universally known (and derided) for being pro-Republican, and the epithet Faux News was employed by opponents.

Faux News Banne

Jon Stewart, the liberal comedian and presenter of The Daily Show, said “I do believe we need to go to a 24-hour fake news channel. Fox can't be the only fake news channel out there!” (4 August, 2003)

On 8 August, 2003, a user called Blah posted the following definition in Urban Dictionary

Faux News

A 24-hour neocon propaganda channel. Tonight on Faux, we bash a liberal traitor for disagreeing with Bush! Later, O'Reilly yells at the son of a 9/11 victim, but don't worry, because he's a DEMOCRAT!!11!

The liberal journalist and historian, Eric Alterman, wrote in April 19, 2007 an article entitled
The Real ‘Fake News’, condemning the conservative bias of Fox News, and its alleged fabrication of news.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report likely to be better informed than the average Fox News consumer. But the impact of Fox’s brand of fake news is not limited to its own viewers. When the hapless Katie Couric recently misreported that Barack Obama “grew up praying in a mosque,” she was parroting a discredited Fox report that had appeared three months earlier.

Shortly afterwards, the following entry for fake news was recorded in Urban Dictionary in 2008.

Typical coverage from Fox News. Their reporting contains so many exagerations, falsities, and interjected opinions, that it can in no way be considered proper and informative.

Naive Fool: I wanna find out what's going on in the world today, let's flip on Fox News.

Person Who's Not A Moron: Don't watch that crap, it's fake news, they're brainwash ya.

Naive Fool: Nah, it's on TV, it has to be true.

Today, what makes the derogative expression even more interesting is the switch in its political stance. Once an epithet of Fox News, today fake news has been tagged onto hoax news websites, FaceBook, and the left-wing cable news CNN.

If we compare the two search items, ‘Facebook fake news’ with ‘CNN fake news’ in the past twelve months (March 13, 2016-March 13, 2017), Google Trends produces the following graph

enter image description here

Why did the search term CNN fake news experience such a sharp increase around 14 January?

Three days earlier, the Republican Donald Trump, in his first press conference as President- elect, claimed Buzzfeed was “a failing piece of garbage” and told a CNN journalist “You are fake news”. At 5.00 the following morning, the newly-elected President tweeted:

We had a great News Conference at Trump Tower today. A couple of FAKE NEWS organizations were there but the people truly get what's going on

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
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    "Real fake news". As opposed to fake real news?
    – user225017
    Mar 13, 2017 at 15:47
  • @programmer5000 the author of the article, Eric Alterman, appears to be a "real" journalist, historian, author and critic.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 13, 2017 at 15:58
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    @Mari-LouA Well-researched! Bravo.
    – ktm5124
    Mar 13, 2017 at 19:34

I believe the first use of the term, in the sense that the questioner is thinking of, was on Snopes, which published "Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors" in January 2016. The Snopes page is referring specifically to fake news sites that spread patently fictional stories, sometimes labelling them "satire" or "entertainment". Snopes writes:

The sharp increase in popularity of social media networks (primarily Facebook) has created a predatory secondary market among online publishers seeking to profitably exploit the large reach of those networks and their huge customer bases by spreading fake news and outlandish rumors.

Also in early 2016, a website called Fake News Watch was set up, and BuzzFeed began using the term in a series of articles. Notice how the use of the term "fake news" on BuzzFeed and "Fake News Watch" is limited. It refers to this specific kind of "entertainment" or clickbait news site, and the authors of these sites appear unaware of any supposed prior usage, which other answers to this question claim to have existed.

The term seems to have had a limited popularity at first. It was not yet in widespread use in August 2016, when the Guardian published an article about Macedonian fake news sites without calling them "fake news". Also in August 2016, the Daily Beast published accusations about Russian propaganda being spread through social media, but did not refer to it as "fake news," instead summarizing it as "fake news stories" in the headline only.

Judging by Wikipedia citations, it seems to have come into mainstream use after the 2016 election, specifically around November 14-15. It was certainly after the election that the term was broadened from a specific kind of individually managed hoax website to more common forms of news media.

On November 18, an assistant professor named Melissa Zimdars took credit for popularizing the concept. She writes that she made a list of "fake news" sources and published it on November 14. The list mixes outright hoaxes with left-wing blogs, anti-war websites, and other sources that she finds dubious.

The use of the term as a pejorative way to refer to inaccurate reports in mainstream media comes mainly from Donald Trump, but it did not solely originate from him. The left-wing site Counterpunch also equated propaganda to fake news.

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    I'm answering the actual question that the questioner is asking, rather than this inane hunt on Google Ngrams and in 19th century books. People don't seem to understand how language works anymore.
    – Avery
    Mar 13, 2017 at 10:16
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    @Avery Just so Mari-Lou doesn't take the blame for it, I actually voted against the answer. This might be a good answer to a slightly different and more specific question like "Why has the term 'fake news' become so popular lately?", but there is nothing in this question that expresses a special arcane meaning or time period right now.
    – Tonepoet
    Mar 13, 2017 at 10:20
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    I'm reading the question in the context of 2017. If this were 2015 I would have answered it differently.
    – Avery
    Mar 13, 2017 at 10:22
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    This answer is wrong to the part of the question 'who started the term fake news?' But it's right to the part of the question 'who made it popular?' Mar 13, 2017 at 11:04
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    It's because the meaning in current use is derived from the "fake news sites" discourse, and not from earlier nonce usages.
    – Avery
    Mar 13, 2017 at 15:45

A nineteenth century example from the American Historical Register :

As Napoleon was at this moment in the fullest tide of his successes there was nothing but the wish of his opponents on which to found all this so-called "news" of his reverses. Or was it "fake news"?

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    Who was the author? The OP doesn't ask "when".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 13, 2017 at 11:30
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    That article ("The Olden Time County Newspaper" about local newspapers, including how they reported national and international news) was written by Helen Evertson Smith
    – Henry
    Mar 13, 2017 at 12:49

1824 Irish newspaper http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/171872528 The phrase is used

  • Interesting. It would be nice to show us how you found that and quote the relevant portion here.
    – NVZ
    Oct 9, 2017 at 5:57

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