I’ve several ancestors with stories that reports of their death was not just greatly exaggerated but definitely premature. Have you?
The above linked article from 2019 on Lexology warned of death hoaxes on social media. Just are rumors start in the real world and quickly get out of control, rumors on social media move even faster. There have been many celebrities and politicians reported dead long before their death dates.
This idea interests me from a genealogical perspective in a couple ways.
First, this isn’t new. So why should we be so surprised to find out that it is not just true in social media today, but true in the past.
When was the last time you doubted an obituary, newspaper article, or letter reporting the death of an ancestor and took it as truth? Seriously.
I have and found out that they hadn’t died, though most died a few days later according to the death records.
Still, after a couple experiences, I learned not to trust the newspapers and non-official resources until I could corroborate the facts with official, verified sources.
Second, what does it say about us as a society that we would hook into such misinformation and run with it?
Just as we shouldn’t trust information from the past to be the absolute truth as we rummage through records covering the life of our ancestors and reveal the stories they told, the little white lies and the big red ones, we shouldn’t trust the information coming to us through social media, newspapers, and other sources, including our government, especially if their…shall I say “reliability” and “motives” are suspect to begin with?
The concept of Yellow Journalism focused on sensationalism and exaggeration to sell papers. The famous sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor from a mysterious explosion became fodder for Hearst in 1898 to declare this was an enemy attack, allowing Hearst to sell more newspapers that pushed public opinion to believe the US was justified in starting the Spanish-American War. It worked, helping to make Hearst very rich as he continued to twist innocent events into sinister plots.
War propaganda fills history with lies and exaggerations that didn’t stop at newspapers but reveled in the world of cinema and political theater. The Red Scare promoted by Senator Joseph McCarthy with a passion for anti-Communist hysteria and intrigue, pitting friends, families, and co-workers against each other with suspicion. The Vietnam War. Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. Clinton and the intern. Brexit. Pizzagate. And today. Well, every day seems to be a new conspiracy theory that is dividing up the United States and leaking into other countries, sowing seeds of doubt and mistrust everywhere. Just last week, Trump made at least 50 false claims, lies, about the whistleblower reporting on his phone call with the president of Ukraine asking him to rewrite history and find evidence of on Hunter Biden to damage his father running for US president. According to the article, his 50 false claims were “the fourth-lowest total for the 17 weeks” CNN fact-checked, like that is a badge of honor.
This isn’t about politics, but about understanding the nature of humans to embrace falsehoods due to their sensationalism or because they sound better than the truth. As we dig through history, we encounter many ancestors who lied or exaggerated their wealth and status, marriage(s), children, occupations, etc. Our family trees are filled with lies about dates of birth and ages to allow many to marry, join the military, or gain something by being older or younger than they really were. We need to embrace those lies and work to prove them wrong, or admit that we might never know the reasons behind them, and recognize them as questionable evidence and proof.
We need to teach ourselves, our families, friends, and others to be discerning when it comes to misinformation and outrageous stories. It’s not just about someone falsely being reported as dead. We need to develop a habit of checking the facts.
Luckily, today we have the tools to test the information before we share it. Read reputable news sources. Stay away from news sources that exaggerate or take sides. Use these sites to verify the facts before you share tweets, emails, etc. with others. Some of these sites also check historical data.
- Snopes (historical and current)
- Truth or Fiction
- Quote Investigator (who said what)
- Truth be Told
- Full Fact (UK)
- FactsCan (Canada)
- NPR Fact-Check
Also check out Wikipedia’s listing of fact-checking websites covering global sites.
As you write/rewrite your own history, think twice about whatever misinformation you might be slipping into your own history or family tree.
Here are some other articles that might be of interest on this subject.
- The History of Fact Checking Jobs in News Journalism – Time
- Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors
- The Rise and Fall of Facts – Columbia Journalism Review
- Checking Facts, Checking Meaning, and Checking Power – Society for US Intellectual History
- 3 things to remember in fact checking historical claims – Rappler
- How to Read the News Like a Fact Checker: a Media Literacy Strategy – Facing History and Ourselves