The True History of Fake News

Roundup
tags: Taiwan, Fake News, Kellyanne Conway



Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and ­University Librarian Emeritus at Harvard. His latest book is "Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature.
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In the long history of misinformation, the current outbreak of fake news has already secured a special place, with the president’s personal adviser, Kellyanne Conway, going so far as to invent a Kentucky massacre in order to defend a ban on travelers from seven Muslim countries. But the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.

Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the sixth century AD churned out dubious information, known as Anecdota, which he kept secret until his death, in order to smear the reputation of the Emperor Justinian after lionizing the emperor in his official histories. Pietro Aretino tried to manipulate the pontifical election of 1522 by writing wicked sonnets about all the candidates (except the favorite of his Medici patrons) and pasting them for the public to admire on the bust of a figure known as Pasquino near the Piazza Navona in Rome. The “pasquinade” then developed into a common genre of diffusing nasty news, most of it fake, about public figures.

Although pasquinades never disappeared, they were succeeded in the seventeenth century by a more popular genre, the “canard,” a version of fake news that was hawked in the streets of Paris for the next two hundred years. Canards were printed broadsides, sometimes set off with an engraving designed to appeal to the credulous. A best-seller from the 1780s announced the capture of a monster in Chile that was supposedly being shipped to Spain. It had the head of a Fury, wings like a bat, a gigantic body covered in scales, and a dragon-like tail. During the French Revolution, the engravers inserted the face of Marie-Antoinette on the old copper plates, and the canard took on new life, this time as intentionally fake political propaganda. Although its impact cannot be measured, it certainly contributed to the pathological hatred of the queen, which led to her execution on October 16, 1793.

The Canard enchainé, a Parisian journal that specializes in political scoops, evokes this tradition in its title, which could be translated figuratively as “No Fake News.” Last week it broke a story about the wife of François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right who had been the favorite in the current presidential election campaign. Madame Fillon, “Penelope” in all the newspapers, reportedly received an enormous government salary over many years for serving as her husband’s “parliamentary assistant.” Although Fillon did not denounce the story as a canard—he admits hiring his wife and says there was nothing illegal about it—“Penelope Gate” has pushed Donald Trump off the front pages and may ruin Fillon’s shot at the presidency, possibly to the benefit of France’s own, Trump-like, far-right party, the National Front.

The production of fake, semi-false, and true but compromising snippets of news reached a peak in eighteenth-century London, when newspapers began to circulate among a broad public. In 1788, London had ten dailies, eight tri-weeklies, and nine weekly newspapers, and their stories usually consisted of only a paragraph. “Paragraph men” picked up gossip in coffee houses, scribbled a few sentences on a scrap of paper, and turned in the text to printer-publishers, who often set it in the next available space of a column of type on a composing stone. Some paragraph men received payment; some contented themselves with manipulating public opinion for or against a public figure, a play, or a book. ...




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