The term “fake news” is relatively new. However, the practice it describes has been frequently encountered over the course of history. Misinformation, rumours, and false records are common, and they can be traced back to antiquity.
One renowned case that can be considered an early example of the fake news phenomenon is that of Mark Antony, a Roman politician and general, and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. During Antony’s Civil War (32 BC - 30 BC), his rival, Octavian, spread misinformation to discredit Antony. Octavian came across a document that he claimed was Antony’s will, naming his children by Cleopatra as Antony’s heirs even though they were not Roman citizens. It is unclear whether this document was genuine, but it created great controversy. Octavian read the incriminating document in front of the Roman Senate, and then, a decree was issued and made available to the common people. The Roman people were outraged by Antony’s will and Octavian spread further rumours about Antony being a puppet of Cleopatra. In this way, Octavian managed to convince the Romans to declare war against Cleopatra.
Fake news became even more common after the invention of the printing press. From the 15th century onwards, publications became widespread but were no journalistic ethics by which to monitor and analyse what was being printed. Therefore, the news was not verified and misinformation and sensationalism were frequently encountered in publications.