ALERT: The story that follows is fake news—twice over.
In 1899, Denver had four major newspapers. On June 24, each paper had a reporter scouring the downtown area looking for a story. Any story. It was going to be a slow news day, but none of them wanted to head back to their editor empty handed.
As they sat in a bar discussing their woes, one of them came up with an idea: let’s concoct a story. (That’s 1890s lingo for let’s create fake news.) They wanted a story to make their editors happy and, hey, who knows, maybe it’ll help sell papers. But they needed a story that couldn’t easily be verified and would quickly be forgotten. So here’s the story they created:
The reporters happened to run into Frank Lewis, a civil engineer traveling from Chicago to San Francisco with a final destination of China. The Chinese government was planning to tear down a portion of the Great Wall and build a road with the rubble. Lewis represented a group of investors who wanted in on the job … and the profits.
The reporters were pleased with themselves and apparently their editors were too. All four papers ran with the story that the Great Wall of China would be torn down—and then it was picked up by a lot of other newspapers all through the country. One East Coast paper even carried confirmation from a Chinese man visiting New York City. Yes, the Great Wall was being torn down. The story was then picked up by newspapers across Europe and finally in China.
There was already tension in China, including resentment against foreigners, so when the news broke that foreigners would be tearing down the Great Wall, the trouble began. Xenophobia ran wild in spite of government leaders denying the story. We know this event as the Boxer Rebellion, a violent uprising that led to an estimated 100,000 deaths before the rebellion was finally squashed.
And it was all caused by a fake news story.
I could stop here and remind you that fake news doesn’t do any good. In fact, here’s an example of fake news leading to the tragic deaths of 100,000 people. I won’t do that because this is fake news about fake news. First the facts:
- Four Denver reports created the fake story on June 25,1899, and other papers picked it up and carried it.
- The Boxer Rebellion began in November 1899.
However, there is no connection between these two events. But that did not stop one Harry Lee Wilber from creating the story and running it in the March 1939 issue of North American Review.
Why would he do that? I don’t know for sure, but he saw the close timing of those two events and thought it made a great story. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
That’s the problem with fake news: it makes sense. The first story about tearing the Great Wall seemed plausible and the addendum added 40 years later tying it to the Boxer Rebellions seemed plausible too. Sorry, but I’m kind of a stickler for telling the truth and nothing but the truth.
In this political season when both sides are screaming, “FAKE NEWS,” how can we distinguish truth from falsehood? That’s not always easy to answer, but for me, I keep reading. I listen to different sources.
Would you do me a favor? Would you do all of us a favor? If you can’t verify—know for sure—that the story is true, don’t spread it. I roll my eyes when my Facebook friends post something with this heading: “I don’t know if this is true or not, but I thought I’d pass it on.”
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, DON’T PASS IT ON.
Support your candidate with integrity—and you can do that without generating or passing along fake news about the other candidate. It pleases Christ, the One we serve, when we speak or share with honesty and integrity.
“I know, my God, that you test the heart and that you are pleased with what is right” (1 Chron. 29:17).
“You supported me because of my integrity and set me in your presence forever” (Ps. 41:12).
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