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The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News

By Kevin Young
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Bunk by Kevin Young

Bunk (2017) takes a look at the history of the American phenomenon of the hoax and identifies its inextricable relationship to racial stereotypes and US history. It also explains how the notion of the hoax has transformed since the early twentieth century and operates within the contemporary landscape.

Key idea 1 of 7

The hoax is characteristic of the American narrative.

We’re all aware that reality TV shows are not representative of real life. Created to hoax – that is, to trick and deceive – this is a phenomenon not only prevalent in American television but characteristic of American culture as a whole.

In fact, hoaxing dates back to the nineteenth century and has been instrumental in the development of American history.

The earliest case of what we would refer to today as “fake news” was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Richard Adams Locke, the editor of the New York newspaper the Sun, published several articles claiming signs of life on the moon. Within these articles were a number of quotes misleadingly attributed to South African astronomer Sir John Herschel. Locke was aware that Herschel would be difficult to contact, giving the editor great comfort in knowing that his hoax wouldn’t be revealed.

Understandably, the news was excitedly received by many Americans. The nation was still young at the time, struggling to identify itself due to a lack of tradition and history. The distribution of fake information came to be seen as a trait of the American narrative and a counterpart to the American ideology that you can choose to be whatever you want to be.

Nowadays, the American hoax has become a cultural phenomenon. Propagated by the internet, hoaxes have spread further across American culture. The extent of this can be seen in the Washington Post’s decision to stop tracking online hoaxes in 2015, as it seemed its audience no longer cared whether the news they were reading was true or not.

This lack of care for credible sources reached new heights in November 2016, when Donald J. Trump, a man who shares an ambiguous relationship with the truth, was elected President of the United States. During his campaign, Trump portrayed himself as a self-made man, despite being born into one of the most privileged families in America; gave inconsistent messages; exploited social divisions; and was the owner of a fake university. Yet some Americans didn’t seem to mind that this is who would be running the country!

It marks a dangerous time when hoaxes start to pervade politics, and as such, we should begin to understand its origins and the ways in which hoaxes actually function.

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