In the video game Assassin's Creed, if your notoriety rises high enough the town criers will start to warn people to be on the lookout for you. While your notoriety fades with time another way out of this situation is to bribe the town criers. Then they simply stop talking about you. News media is storytelling in one regard. We expect it to be truthful but it is always colored by perception either from the author or the audience. And it almost always serves a purpose. As such, "official decrees" have a long history of being manipulated. We know this manipulation to be propaganda; its impact can be far reaching and forever alter the course of history. Here are three historical instances where falsified facts left a mark.

The Donation of Constantine

As the power of the Catholic Church grew during the Middle Ages, conflicts arose between the Church and the European ruling class over control of the states. In a very handy move, the Church produced a document in the 8th century known as "The Donation of Constantine." The document alleged that Emperor Constantine had transferred land and political control to Pope Sylvester I in the 4th-century AD because Sylvester allegedly cured him of leprosy. The Church would successfully use this document numerous times to assert control over various regions. It remained unchallenged until the 15th-century when analysis of the document itself suggested that it could not have been written in the 4th-century: the document made use of words that would have been unknown in Constantine's time (like "fief") and employed sentence constructs that were uncommon to Constantine's Latin. The Church back-tracked a bit and drafted a document that declared its land had been awarded to it by Charlemagne, but this was never published. Opponents to the Church tried to claim civil law and civil jurisdiction, maintaining that even if the document had been true, it would have only been legitimate during Constantine's lifetime but the Church was already deeply rooted in these regions. Interestingly, even after the Document had been established as a forgery, some people continued to believe in its authenticity.

A Sanctioned Surrender

In the 1140s, the Hospitaliers of the Knights Templar were granted property in Tripoli that included the Krak des Chevaliers, a Syrian fort. It became a significant holding for the Knights Hospitaliers who were able to stage raids on the nearby Homs and grow their numbers into a sizable force. This prosperity would not last forever, however. Sultan Baibars had a serious bone to pick with the Crusaders in general (due to their support of the Mongols) and spent his life routing them out of Syria. In 1271 Baibars laid siege to Krak des Chevaliers. As was common to the time, when the threat of Baibars appeared on the horizon many of the surrounding villagers fled to the fort for protection. They took up residence in the outer ward of the fort. Baibars' siege engines breached these walls first which allowed the Hospitaliers to flee inward. The siege came to a halt for a short period and culminated with Baibars' men delivering a letter purported to be from the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Tripoli. The letter granted the Knights of Krak des Chevaliers permission to surrender. It was a forgery of course, but the Knights did surrender. Baibars spared their lives but seized the fort and converted it into a mosque.

A Bag of Scalps

In 1782, Benjamin Franklin created a fake issue of a Boston newspaper. The main story was quite gruesome: it maintained that American forces had discovered bags of money and goods that appeared bound for the King, but included among them that included the scalps of soldiers and civilians. The bag of scalps included a letter addressed to the King asking him to accept the scalps as a token of friendship and loyalty. Franklin sent the newspaper to his friends, who forwarded it to their friends and soon enough the story had been republished in other colonial newspapers. There were signs the original document was a fake--the typeface, for example-- but these clues were lost in the sensationalism of the information. The public was outraged. In this case, Franklin's "news" added to the animosity directed against Native Americans and helped establish them as non-Americans who could not be trusted nor should be accepted in the new Republic. The story was resurrected at a later date as well as "evidence" of the depravity of Native Americans during the War of 1812.

These are three examples, but there are countless others. Not to mention the cases where newspapers themselves created news to sell papers--the New York Sun was notorious for this kind of behavior and featured a six part series on fantastic lunar discoveries made by one Sir John Herschel. In all of these cases, there were signs of falsification but they were overlooked under the guise of authority.

The trust we place in the written word hearkens back to the rarity and expense of producing printed material. Words become permanent on paper and take on a life of their own. Handing someone the Donation of Constantine or a letter from a Templar Grand Master has a finality to it. In that vein, there is also something about the sameness of the experience of print. The idea that different people can get a piece of paper that states the same thing is powerful. It's equalizing. It's easy to trust the information in this case because accepting that a huge group of people are being misled is, well, unbelievable. There isn't a way to prevent fake news entirely but it starts with critical reading and conversations.

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Franklin, Benjamin (nd). “Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle,” [before 22 April 1782],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified October 5, 2016, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 37, March 16 through August 15, 1782, ed. Ellen R. Cohn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 184–196.] Accessed Nov. 27, 2016.

King, DJ Cathcart (1949). "The Taking of Le Krak des Chevaliers in 1271", Antiquity 23(90): 83-92.

Valla, Lorenzo (1922). "Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine," Hanover Historical Texts Project, Hanover College, Accessed Nov. 27, 2016.

Zielinski, Sarah (2015). "The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time.", Accessed Nov. 27, 2016.


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Image Credit: Baltimore City Paper