Conspiracy Theories, Hoaxes

The world’s most notorious fake news — from Rameses the Great to the German Corpse Factory to Trump and Brexit

No wonder so many people believe in conspiracy theories. The world is literally boiling over with lies.

In the last few years especially, the line between “conspiracy theory” and “fake news” has grown ever fuzzier. Many of the latest conspiracy theories originate from fake news stories that end up spreading virally via the internet and social media. These days it’s difficult to tell the reasonable hypotheses about suspicious events from the total twaddle plucked out of the arses of cretins. More and more people are confusing the two.

At the same time, Donald Trump uses the term “fake news” to refer to everything that’s said about him that he doesn’t like. This muddies the water even further. Now the British government has stopped using the term, calling it “a poorly defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference with democratic processes”.

Personally I think that just because Donald Trump uses it wrong doesn’t mean it’s “poorly defined” or “misleading”. Makes perfect sense to me. Fake news is false information deliberately spread via news and social media. Hoaxes, basically. It includes the aforementioned total twaddle plucked out of the arses of cretins as well as carefully considered and planned lies for propaganda or entertainment.

Rameses the Not-So-Great

Though the term “fake news” is a modern, social media-fuelled term, fake news itself has been around for millennia.

One of the earliest examples relates to Rameses the Great in the 13th century BCE. According to two texts commissioned by Rameses, the famous pharaoh single-handedly destroyed a Hittite army at the Battle of Kadesh. None of the 2,500 chariots attacking him survived and afterwards he threw countless enemies into the river and only spared the Hittite king because he begged for mercy.

These texts were inscribed on the walls of all his temples alongside detailed reliefs that depicted him defeating his enemies (for those who couldn’t read).

However, private letters between Rameses and the Hittite king have revealed a totally different story. Rameses didn’t defeat the Hittites at all. In fact there were heavy losses on both sides and, after failing to capture any of their strategic objectives, the Egyptians retreated. In one of the letters, the Hittite king even questions Rameses as to why he was referring to Kadesh as an Egyptian victory when the Hittites had “defeated the King of Egypt”.

Other ancient inscriptions commissioned by Rameses portray him as a great warrior who led Egypt to victory in numerous wars. One of those wars, it was stated, was with Libya. However, archaeological evidence discovered in 2018 has revealed that the Egyptians and the Libyans were actually living peacefully side by side, trading and farming with each other.

In essence, Rameses the Not-So-Great was the ancient Donald Trump, spreading lies to conjure up a legacy of success and significance that wasn’t true.

The German Corpse Factory

The German Corpse Factory is remembered as one of the most infamous anti-German propaganda stories that circulated during the First World War. It was about a special installation where the Germans collected their battlefield dead and rendered them down to make soap, candles, boot wax, lubricants and nitroglycerine from the fats. Nice.

Article about the German Corpse Factory

Rumours that the Germans were using bodies to make soap first appeared in the American and French press around 1915. The story of a real and locatable corpse factory then appeared in The Times and The Daily Mail in 1917. The Times attributed the claim to a Belgian newspaper that had re-reported a story from a German one.

But the Belgian newspaper had taken what was a very brief, 59-word story in the German newspaper about a “kadaver”-rendering factory and turned it into a 500-word story that interpreted the word “kadaver” as a reference to human corpses. “Kadaver”, it was revealed, was not a word the Germans used for human corpses at that time, only animals. Later, a longer article appeared in The Times quoting an unnamed Belgian source who described in detail how the bodies at the factory were processed.

After the war, it was reported in the New York Times that Conservative MP John Charteris stated during a speech that he had invented the corpse factory story to turn the Chinese against the Germans. However, Charteris subsequently denied this and most scholars today do not credit Charteris with the story. It’s still not 100% clear who is responsible. However, many believe that the lie was not invented by any one person. Rather, it was a deliberate twisting of an innocuous story by the Belgian and British presses that drew inspiration from an already popular urban legend.

Fake news today

Today fake news is everywhere. This is largely due to the internet and social media and an abundance of fake news sites. But not all these sites are designed to deceive. Many are satirical and use exaggeration and non-facts to entertain, amuse or make a point. However, some satirical news stories have fooled readers into thinking they’re real and have been re-reported as factual accounts in mainstream news media.

I’ve written about some of these. In my article, The CIA have confessed to assassinating Marilyn Monroe, I looked into the “astonishing confession” made by retired CIA agent Normand Hodges on his deathbed, which I’d seen circulating on Facebook. The story originated in an article from the World News Daily Report, in which Hodges said he’d murdered Marilyn Monroe because she was sleeping with Fidel Castro.

But the World News Daily Report has a disclaimer admitting that its stories are satirical and fictional. The “Normand Hodges” picture in the article was actually of a prisoner called Michael Tyrrell, nicked from an article in The Guardian about the mistreatment of ill prisoners in the UK.

Then there’s the infamous time travel urban legend of Andrew Carlssin, which I covered in my article, Alleged time traveller Andrew Carlssin disappears – did he go ‘back to the future’? This one’s about a guy who got caught winning big on the stock market. After getting arrested for insider trading, he claimed to be a time traveller from the future, hence his knowledge of future stocks.

The Andrew Carlssin story originated in two articles from the Weekly World News, another satirical news site that writes deliberately ridiculous stories about dinosaurs, four-legged women and Hillary Clinton’s alien lover. However, the Andrew Carlssin story got picked up and re-reported as fact by mainstream news sites like Yahoo!, causing scores of people to take it seriously.

Since rising to the world’s top office, Donald Trump has been labelling every media outlet that writes anything negative about him as fake news. The irony is that just like Rameses the Not-So-Great, Trump is one of the the most prolific sources of fake news himself. His constant peddling of false claims, including debunked conspiracy theories about his rivals, has helped precipitate a rise in conspiracism and paranoia in the US.

In particular, he famously promoted the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama’s published birth certificate was a forgery and that he was actually born in Kenya. Years later, when he conceded that Obama was a natural-born US citizen, he replaced that theory with another: Hillary Clinton and her campaign invented the Obama birthplace lie during the 2008 US presidential campaign. While supporters of Clinton are credited with the claims, there’s no evidence that Clinton herself or anyone in her campaign has ever questioned Obama’s birthplace.

In 2018, there was Spygate. This was a conspiracy theory that was actually invented by Trump himself. He claimed that the Obama administration implanted an FBI spy into his presidential campaign to help Hillary Clinton win. When asked, Trump offered no evidence, simply saying that “all you have to do is look at the basics and you’ll see it.” A classic response from a dumb conspiracy theorist. His claims have since been denounced on both sides of the political spectrum.

There’s also an entirely unsurprising tendency to believe fake news more readily if you’re a Trump supporter. In 2018, researchers from several US universities examined the consumption of fake news during the 2016 US presidential campaign. Their findings showed that much more fake news was consumed by Trump supporters (40%) than Clinton supporters (15%).

One of the biggest fake news stories that circulated around this time was that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump for president. The original article included a statement from the Vatican and claimed that other reputable news outlets had also broken the news. Preying on pro-Trump supporters’ biases, it was shared almost a million times on social media. However, the article appeared on the website, WTOE 5 News, a “fantasy website site” that produces satirical content.

The impact of fake news

Lies have consequences. During the 1930s, the corpse factory lie was used by the Nazis as proof that the British could not be trusted. Historians also believe that false stories such as these helped encourage disbelief and denial when reports started circulating about the Holocaust.

One of the Vote Leave Brexit buses

More recently, a particularly heinous piece of fake news is continuing to have enormous repercussions in the UK. Prior to the EU referendum, one of the most persuasive claims of the Vote Leave campaign was that that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU which could be better spent on the NHS. This statement was a lie on two counts. Firstly, it failed to account for a £100 million discount that was secured for us by Margaret Thatcher, meaning the figure is actually much closer to £250 million a week. Secondly, we don’t “give” this money to the EU. It’s what we put into the EU budget and, as a member of the EU, we get a huge amount back from it.

That lie is probably what led to Brexit. Now look at the mess we’re in as a result.

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