How ‘fake news’ came to Winnipeg 100 years ago

Thursday, Nov. 7, 1918 — 100 years ago today — was a pleasant fall day in Winnipeg, with the temperature hovering around 0 C. Based on today’s boundaries, Winnipeg was then a city of about 220,000 and had been, in the decade leading up to 1914, one of the fastest-growing cities in North America.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/11/2018 (1483 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Thursday, Nov. 7, 1918 — 100 years ago today — was a pleasant fall day in Winnipeg, with the temperature hovering around 0 C. Based on today’s boundaries, Winnipeg was then a city of about 220,000 and had been, in the decade leading up to 1914, one of the fastest-growing cities in North America.

Three daily newspapers were published here — the Free Press, the Tribune and the Telegram. And, for a number of days, all three papers had brought news from Europe that indicated the Great War was likely nearing its conclusion.

Shortly after 11 a.m. on Nov. 7, the Manitoba Free Press (as it was then called) published an extra edition that was sold downtown, with a banner headline proclaiming that an armistice had been signed. The Great War was over! Downtown stores and offices closed their doors. People converged on Portage and Main to celebrate.

MANITOBA LEGISLATIVE LIBRARY The Manitoba Free Press Evening Bulletin on Nov. 7, 1918, added a question mark as to whether the First World War was actually over. An earlier edition of the Free Press had reported that an armistice had been signed.

There was only one problem: the report wasn’t true. The war did not actually end until Nov. 11, four days later.

What happened?

The three Winnipeg daily newspapers had all been part of the early history of the formation of The Canadian Press, through which they also received international news from The Associated Press. But many newspapers also subscribed to other news services, or “wire services” as they were then called (because the news was delivered to them over telegraph lines).

In this case, the incorrect (or premature) news came to the Free Press in a United Press report that originated in Paris. And so, before noon on Nov. 7, Free Press newsboys were selling an extra edition of the paper, with news of the great victory.

Shortly after the extra edition was published, the spontaneous celebrations began. Crowds gathered at Portage and Main. The downtown Eaton’s store was overrun with people wanting to buy flags to wave as part of those celebrations.

And then the Winnipeg Tribune added to the confusion, because of a comedy of errors. The Tribune had pre-printed a stock of extra papers to be ready when the news of peace actually came. A Tribune newsboy, seeing the Free Press on the street with its news about the end of the war, grabbed those pre-printed extras and started selling them. The later, real editions of the Tribune would cast doubt on the Free Press report.

Finally, an edition of the Telegram appeared, stating that the Free Press report was likely a mistake, and that the war was not over.

By the time the Free Press issued its Evening Bulletin, later that day, the headline had been changed to “ARMISTICE IS SIGNED?” (Note the question mark.)

The Free Press Evening Bulletin also carried news of similar celebrations in other cities, along with a statement by United Press, and another front page article headlined “Winnipeg Goes Wild With Joy Of Peace.”

Its competitors — the Tribune and the Telegram — jumped at the chance to criticize the Free Press, which then had a circulation greater than the combined circulation of the other two papers.

The Tribune said: “The Free Press perpetrated upon the Winnipeg public today the biggest hoax in the history of the city.”

The 5 p.m. edition of the Telegram called the Free Press report “A Heartless Fraud.”

By the next day, Nov. 8, reality had intervened, and the Free Press ran “A Statement to the Public” explaining how the error had occurred.

What was it like to be in the middle of the confusion and celebration in Winnipeg that day?

Many months after Nov. 7, 1918, an article about the events in Winnipeg appeared in a British newspaper, the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer. It was an eyewitness account by Frederick Bending, who was born in Hastings in 1888, emigrated to Canada in 1904 and was, in 1918, employed as a clerk by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Bending had the day off on Nov. 7, and decided to take the streetcar downtown. When he got there, the Free Press extra edition was just being distributed, and he wrote about what he saw.

He described the main floor of Eaton’s on Portage Avenue as a “mass of humans. Almost every one of the hundreds of stalls had been swept clear of their rightful wares, and salesmen were selling flags of all nations, all sizes, and horns, trumpets, and in fact anything that would make a noise, by the thousand.”

He tells of meeting a friend, purchasing some flags and horns, and how he joined in “the riotous jubilee, the replica of which will never be seen in Winnipeg again — joined in a celebration that will go down in history — a celebration based on fake news.”

Bending also described what happened when the Telegram’s extra edition appeared, with news that the war was not over. “‘Take that fake away!’ yelled the crowds, and the papers were snatched away, torn up and thrown to the winds. The people could not believe that they were being hoaxed — would not believe it.”

A hundred years ago, Fred Bending used the term “fake news” to describe the premature reports of the end of the First World War. Today, the term “fake news” is used, or even overused, on a regular basis.

But today’s problem with fake news is not the same as it was then. There is no question the early news of peace was fake. But it was a mistake that was available for all to see. It was distributed in the main medium of communications — a daily newspaper — and competing dailies had both a journalistic duty and competitive motive to offer a correction. The impact — while chaotic and confusing — was relatively short-lived.

Today’s “fake news” is different. Much of it is received in private, via social media, and not subject to the same fact-checking and counter-arguing that took place when information was more commonly received.

In 1918, news, even fake news, was part of our shared experience. Today, when media are fragmented, fake news often flourishes in the small darkened corners of the internet, unchallenged by a counter-argument in an extra edition.

Ken Goldstein is a Winnipeg-based media economist and historian.

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