We have all had the experience of scrolling through our social media stream and coming across a news story being shared that contains a boldly hyperbolic headline. He said what? Surely that couldn't be true?

Maybe you click through and read the accompanying article in disbelief or maybe you just immediately share it around thinking the source sounds legit. The more critical readers among us may spend a few minutes of Google-directed due diligence revealing the story to be patently untrue, but by then it's too late. The story has gone viral and received millions of page views.

UPGRADE TO NEW ATLAS PLUS

More than 1,500 New Atlas Plus subscribers directly support our journalism, and get access to our premium ad-free site and email newsletter. Join them for just US$19 a year.

UPGRADE

Welcome to the brave new world of "fake news."

As several internet giants are currently grappling with the conundrum of how to deal with the influx of digitally driven fake news, we can pause for a moment and ask, what is driving this movement and where did it come from?

Unicorns on the Moon

Fake news is certainly not a new phenomenon. Ever since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, there were those who printed outright mistruths. Be it for propaganda or profit, the trends of fake news has had its ebbs and flows for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, media hoaxes have often been perpetuated for mercenary reasons. The most notable early instance of fake news came in 1835, when credible New York newspaper The Sun published a story announcing the discovery of life on the Moon.

Over a series of six articles, the newspaper reported a British astronomer had developed a powerful new telescope that had revealed life on the Moon. The articles were allegedly sourced from a fictitious scientific journal and described entire alien eco-systems in sensational detail. Unicorns, hairy human-like beings, oceans and temples were all seriously reported, with the story concluding after the Sun's rays reportedly destroyed the special telescope and burned the astronomer's observatory to the ground.

The circulation of The Sun hit an all-time high due to the articles and it reportedly took weeks before the story was declared a hoax, one which the newspaper never even issued a retraction over. It was clear that fake news worked.

Over the 20th century the issue of fake news was generally minimized as mainstream news outlets were separated from what became known as "tabloid" journalism. The "Aliens Took My Baby" headlines were separated from the credible publishing outlets and the general public developed a degree of trust in the accuracy that came from mass media news sources.

Mistakes were undoubtedly still made by major publishers, but the days of printing outright untruths were supposedly in the past. The public trust in news from mainstream sources grew throughout the century, reaching a peak in the early 1970s, when the uncovering of the Watergate scandal positioned the news media as defenders of the public interest. Trust in the government may have been shaky, but the media had our best interests at heart.

Trust no one, not even the newspaper

By the time the 21st century rolled around the public's perception and trust in the media had dramatically shifted. A Gallup poll in 2016 found that only 32 percent of Americans had a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the mainstream media's ability to report the news "fair and accurately." Not only had this number dropped from 40 percent the previous year, but it had progressively fallen from a record high of 72 percent in 1976.

What happened to cause this stunning drop in the general public's trust?

At the risk of being reductive ... it was the internet.

The internet radically democratized the publishing landscape. Much like the invention of the printing press, the internet allowed more people to publish their thoughts and chipped away at the general monopolization of news by our big publishing giants. In theory this was a wonderful advance that leveled the playing field. The Orwellian nightmare of total governmental control over our reality could simply not endure with such an open and free digital distribution platform.

Except our reality was unexpectedly becoming more like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World than George Orwell's 1984. Cultural theorist Neil Postman presciently predicted our current woes when he summed up the differences between the two dystopian futures,

"Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture."

Fake News Times dot com

In the 21st century news itself has become increasingly politicized. The way the public consumes media has fragmented and to a frightening degree, "facts" no longer require any objective basis. A study from Pew Research in 2016 concluded that 62 percent of American adults got their news through social media with Facebook, Twitter and Reddit being the primary platforms. Scroll through a Facebook or Twitter stream, read some headlines, and take in the news.

As social media users share more and more links, the volume of fake news websites exponentially increases. Entire economies were popping up designed to cash in on these habits. A believable headline and a legitimate sounding source are all that's needed for a story to go viral. Sites like the "National Report" and the "World News Daily Report" would fabricate entirely false stories and frequently get absurd volumes of shares on social media platforms.

Studies increasingly showed that the majority of people shared articles without reading more than the headline. Even with a minimal volume of people actually clicking through to an article, the fake news economy is booming. When NPR tracked down the creators of some of these sites, they discovered that some of these fake news-peddlers could earn up to US$30,000 per month from ad sales.

We're just in it for the clicks

As the 2016 election cycle peaked, the modern fake news economy was booming. Donald Trump continually pulled his supporters away from the mainstream media nurturing a growing distrust of these sources and allowing a burgeoning new market to emerge.

In mid-2016 The Guardian discovered dozens of pro-Trump, fake news websites operating out of a small town in Macedonia with a population of 44,000. Some of these sites regularly received over one million page views a month.

While the arguments over the political repercussions of these fake news sites are still up for debate, those who are behind them are often apolitical and simply in it for the money.

Buzzfeed tracked down some of these particular Macedonian publishers and they explained, "Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things." One teenager even spoke of experimenting with similar fake news leaning more left-wing or pro-Bernie Sanders before discovering those stories didn't generate nearly as much traffic as the pro-Trump content.

So what are the giant internet firms doing about fake news? Where does all of this leave news satire sites? And are we truly in a post-truth world?

We'll explore these questions in part two of our investigation of fake news in the digital world.

View gallery - 3 images