How Fake News Started an American War

In late 1897 and early 1898, Spain and America experienced rising tension over the Cuban revolution. William Randolph Hearst owned one of the largest newspaper organizations in the world and knew that war sold papers. When an accident sank the US battleship Marine, Hearst used his newspapers to blame the Spanish. He sent photographers, and reporters down to capture what he thought would inflame the American public. When they responded, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return.” Hearst replied, “Please remain. You furnish pictures, and I’ll furnish war.” His newspapers began to publish artistic drawings and cartoons of Spanish soldiers murdering unarmed men, raping women, and slaughtering children. On April 23rd, 1898, the US declared war on Spain.

-from ‘When the Sky Falls’ available on Amazon

Yellow Journalism and Fake News

The quote cited above is one that Hearst denies having ever said, but we can look at what he did, why it worked and how the trend of Fake News today is very similar.

In response to the idea that Hearst urged America into war, congress said that his ‘yellow journalism’ (their term for Fake News) had no impact on their decision to declare war.


The Fake News Plan of Influence

Hearst knew that it was unlikely that congress would read his articles pertaining to the war, they knew what he wanted and why. It was even possible they avoided reading his papers at all, but that didn’t’ worry him. After all, America was a democracy, and every member of congress was beholden to the voice of the people, and influencing them was his life’s work.

The plan for leading America into war broke down the population into three groups: the literate that read his newspapers, the semi-literate, and the illiterate along with those who didn’t buy his papers.

For the educated literate who bought his paper, he appealed to their self-interest. For some, he presented the wealth that was the byproduct of war; an endless demand for materials, weapons, ammunition, uniforms, and food that could only be satiated by victory. For others, it was an appeal to their human decency in helping the Cuban people obtain their freedom in the same way America had. The Cuban people were oppressed by imperial tyranny, and it was the duty of America to see them obtain their independence.

The second group of people read slowly, and rarely bought newspapers, but like all men, they craved attention. Today people stand around the water cooler and talk about sports, or prime time television, or comment on Facebook posts and tweet. In the late 1800s, the stories and topics discussed came from the newspapers. These semi-literate intentionally wandered past the newspaper stands, taking in the headlines and concocting their own stories to tell at the bar that night, or over lunch. Each hoped for the best version of events, to win the attention of their audience. In the same way that posts on social media hope to get a lot of likes, or better yet ‘go viral.’ Indeed, if there was an early version of buzz feed, it was the headlines Hearst directed at this group of people.

Headlines and Pictures: the Real Power of Fake News.

The final group refused to read Hearst’s paper or simply didn’t know how. For them, it was a combination of pictures and headlines. It’s true he might never sell them a paper, but they could contribute to the overall mood of the country. When members of Congress ate at a restaurant they might hear their waiter talking about it or the boys who shined their shoes. They heard working men discuss it on the street, or could be fed the same pieces of gossip by their wives and girlfriends.

To reach this difficult audience Hearst needed an army of propagandists. Fortunately for him, he already employed one, the newspaper boys. They shouted his headlines through the streets, brandishing his artistic images of atrocities, and the people filled in the blanks. He gave them something to talk about. In their own personal fictions, these people competed for attention as they do now; to be the story most liked, most shared, most repeated.


As a result of Hearst work, congress felt that the opinion of the American people was clear, they wanted war. The people believed his yellow journalism, and in turn, congress believed the people.

Fake News uses the same tactics today. An upsetting headline and disturbing image and most people become so upset that they stop thinking logically and just react. They comment, they share, but don’t verify.

The article above is an expansion of one of the many ideas discussed in the book “When the Sky Falls,” a novel that looks at the history of fake news, yellow journalism, fictional broadcasts and the psychology of why people believe them, all wrapped up in a gripping thriller. Available now on Amazon.