Right now there is great concern about "fake news", with calls to regulate journalists and social media to prevent people from seeing or propagating fake news stories. I would like to know what kind of historical examples there are of fake news causing major negative outcomes, bad enough that they could potentially justify using regulations to prevent them.

By "fake news" I mean:

  • A "news story" containing purported information about events that happened recently (relative to the time of publication) and in the real world.
  • Those creating the story (the "authors") know it to be false, and intend that the readers / listeners / viewers (the "audience") should believe it to be true.
  • The intended audience is the general public. (This excludes, for example, fake documents intended to mislead foreign intelligence services, or bureaucratic underlings reporting falsified numbers to their superiors.)
  • The authors are not already part of, or allied with, the "Establishment" in the society of the intended audience - they should either be a foreign power or internal dissidents / subversives. I want examples of "Manufacturing Dissent", not Manufacturing Consent.
  • The authors have a political motive (rather than just making something up as a prank).

By a "major negative outcome" I mean that:

  • Large numbers of "audience" members (or possibly just a few people with a lot of power) believe the fake news.
  • Because of this belief, they collectively do something which they would not otherwise have done (or do not do something which they otherwise would).
  • Because of this decision, thousands of people die or millions of people experience economic hardship.
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    The Wikipedia article Fake News goes has lots of examples throughout history but I don't see anything about "thousands of people die or millions of people experience economic hardship" (unless you allow Octavian's fake news about Anthony, but it's a stretch (to say the least) to claim this caused the civil war. Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 13:51
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    The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Blood Libel in all its forms. The Rwandan Massacre.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 14:24
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    IDK if it meets the criteria for "news", since it was a fake scientific paper, but the false claim that vaccines cause autism basically set off the anti-vaccination movement, which has surely led to thousands of deaths, and much suffering & economic loss.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 18:05
  • "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Blood Libel in all its forms. The Rwandan Massacre." The Rwandan Genocide doesn't count, because (at least as I understand it) the propaganda inciting the massacre was broadcast by the then government of Rwanda, not by outsiders. Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a good one though. Commented May 5, 2019 at 6:28
  • I went and read more about the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" on Wikipedia. It was interesting to see that a senior minister in the Russian Empire argued for banning it because "a good cause cannot be defended by dirty means" i.e. not because it was racist (he considered anti-Semitism to be a "good cause") but because it was fake. However in the end it wasn't banned, even though the Russian government banned plenty of other less obnoxious works. Commented May 13, 2019 at 18:20

2 Answers 2


Just prior to the start of WWII, Nazi Germany managed to use lots of induced street violence and fake stories about German unification supporters being suppressed to take over Austria without themselves firing a shot, and then used fake stories about ethnic Germans being oppressed and abused to do the same thing with the defensible western portion of democratic Czechoslovakia. They were in the process of pulling the same maneuver with Poland (they even had a secret partition agreement worked up with the USSR) when France and England drew the line. At that point it was arguably too late to stop them.

Its not like Hitler invented political subversion propaganda though. This is a time-honored technique of attacking another country indirectly, particularly useful when softening it up for invasion. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to it due to the fact that they must allow dissenting political speech in order to function properly.

  • The title says "non-government approved"?
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 15:35
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    @Spencer - I can assure you neither the Austrian government nor the Czechoslovakian government approved either of these sets of fake stories. (Also, I'd encourage all users to read the text of questions, not just their titles).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 15:40
  • Did many people in Austria, Czechoslovakia or third countries believe the propaganda? Or was it mainly only successful at persuading people already inside the Third Reich? Commented May 5, 2019 at 6:34
  • Induced street violence doesn't count of course since it really happened, and is also already illegal without having to restrict freedom of speech. Commented May 5, 2019 at 6:42
  • If truth is on the other side, what better strategy than to attack the entire concept of Truth itself? The point of destabilization campaigns, whether done to individuals or nations isn't really to completely fool people, but rather to "disorient and disarm the victim.", so that they are no longer in any kind of shape to defend themselves (or think about attacking you). Its the artillery barrage of politics.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 5, 2019 at 21:52

Your question is almost impossible to answer as there is no clear definition what fake news actually is. To a lesser extend this applies to hate speech as well. Certainly the way it is applied today seems to be "it doesn't agree with my opinion, therefor it must be fake news or hate speech!"

Is warning for vaccination fake news? It - in my opinion - most certainly is. Is warning for second hand smoke fake news? Again, in my opinion it is. However, a vast majority will accept incorrect data as correct. Same applies to climate hoaxes. Not agreeing with the popular opinion doesn't automatically make something fake news.

See how difficult it is? You probably will agree anti-vaxers are bat shit crazy. Now it gets more difficult: Second hand smoke being more dangerous than nerve gas has so often been reported it is taken for granted. The same principle is being applied now on climate science and global warming.

Be very careful with regulations of the above, that is known as censorship. Censorship is like smoking: you start with a little, like it, and want it more and more.

Fake news abounds, always has and always will. One of the better examples of the past are the Dutch Tulip craze and the South Sea bubble.

  • "anti-vaxxers are bat shit crazy" i.e. they probably believe that they are telling the truth. I don't know of any cases of anti-vaxxer groups being funded by foreign governments to make a country more susceptible to infectious disease. Maybe anti-GMO campaigners in third-world countries, funded by rich European NGOs, would count here - and I could easily imagine that stopping improved agricultural technology has caused thousands of famine deaths. Commented May 5, 2019 at 6:38
  • Actually the anti-GMO campaigns wouldn't count either, for the same reason - they think they are telling the truth. Commented May 5, 2019 at 6:39

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