Fake news has taken over the internet in the past few years and it can be impossible to tell what’s true and what isn’t. In a 2016 survey, 89 percent of Americans reported that fake news had at some point caused “a great deal of confusion” about basic facts. But despite the internet making the spreading of fake news easier, completely made-up reports are nothing new. A great example of this was during the week of Aug. 25, 1835, when a non-existent scientific journal informed the public that a civilization had been discovered on the moon… and everyone believed it.
The first reports were published in “The Sun,” a New York newspaper. Over the six articles published, a made-up author named Dr. Andrew Grant told the story of the new discovery. He wrote that a highly respected British astronomer named Sir John Herschel, through the use of a 27-foot-wide telescope weighing seven tons, had peered at the moon from a research station in South Africa and discovered something extraordinary. Grant claimed that Herschel had seen a huge lake, about 300 miles long, with a volcano at its center and giant amethyst and quartz crystals jutting out from the lake’s surface. According to the reports, there were dozens of species of animals on the moon: gigantic four-legged mammals resembling bison, as well as unicorns, tiny zebras, golden pheasants, and bipedal beavers, to name just a few. The most important discovery, however, was a group of three dozen humanoid creatures with thick fur and large bat wings, who the author called “Vespertilio-homo,” or “bat-man” in Latin.
All of this begs the question, how on earth did anybody believe this? The answer lies in the state of the scientific community at the time. By 1835, the world was in the tail end of the first industrial revolution and the public was extremely ready to accept any reports of scientific innovation as fact. Remember, just the last 50 years had seen a slew of new world-changing inventions, rapid urbanization all over the globe, and dramatic changes in the ways people lived, earned money, and fed themselves. In a way, men on the moon was not that big of a leap and the public fully bought into it.
With these new revelations, sales of “The Sun” skyrocketed. That week saw the largest ever circulation of a daily newspaper at the time and the first article alone sold 20,000 copies, primarily in New York and England. In fact, sales of “The Sun” never went back down. The newspaper remained extremely popular until it shut down in 1950, even winning a Pulitzer Prize the year prior. So what can we learn from this story? Basically, check the facts you’re learning before telling other people. Fake news is more prevalent than ever right now. Sometimes, it feels like nobody can ever be trusted. All I can do is encourage everyone reading this to fact check everything with sources you know you can trust, and if anyone tells you that scientists found a new race of humans on the moon, don’t believe them.