News Carnage – How We Solved Fake News the First Time
At this moment in the history of the information revolution, a significant number of Americans—it is impossible to know how many—believe that a video circulating on the Web shows Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin slicing the face off a small child. The lie is gruesome but far from extraordinary. “Fake news” is rampant—although that phrase lost its significance more or less the moment it was coined. “Fake news” has quickly come to mean nothing more than “other people’s news”—the news made by the other team. The information infrastructure that a generation has spent its time on earth building has been twisted into a vast and prolific distortion machine. And the power of distortion is growing. Last week, BuzzFeed released, as a P.S.A., a highly convincing clip in which President Obama apparently calls Donald Trump “a total and complete dipshit.” (Jordan Peele did the voice work.) You have never been able to trust anything that you read. Soon you won’t be able to believe anything you hear or see, either.
“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after,” Jonathan Swift wrote, in 1710. Recent examples of Swift’s truism are far too easy to come by. On Twitter, a cardiologist claimed that a video of Syrian children dying from poison gas was fake because the ECG pads were misplaced. His initial post received more than twelve thousand retweets; his subsequent admission of error received fewer than fifty. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the Pew Research Center revealed what may be the most disturbing number of the whole sordid election: fourteen per cent of Americans admitted that “they shared a story they knew was fake at the time.” Do people who actively spread falsehoods even deserve the truth?
Wherever social media’s power increases, distortion follows, and the distortion has consequences. Politico reported that Trump was most successful in the emerging news deserts where social-media sites are people’s primary source of information. As severe as the consequences of fake news have been in the United States, they’re much worse elsewhere. Marzuki Darusman, the chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, has described Facebook as playing a “determining role” in the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, saying that it “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict.”
Even though the technologies are new, the horror and despair of the current informational carnage are not unprecedented. Since the beginning of the Internet, the unintended consequences of its arrival have been routinely compared to the fallout from the invention of the printing press. The comparison has always been problematic. A more precise historical analogy—though itself as incomplete as any historical analogy—can be found in the pamphlet culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England. The nature of public debate changed, through technology, in a climate of nascent individualism, with a politics rife with conspiracy, and the incipient, continuous threat of national breakdown. Sound familiar?
The sheer bulk of opinion, and the breadth of its dissemination, shocked contemporaries when pamphlets arrived on the scene. Writing was supposed to be the purview of an élite, concerned with eternal verities. No longer. The poet John Taylor described the pamphlets as prostitutes as early as 1622:
For like a Whore by day-light or by candle,
’Tis even free for every knave to handle:
And as a new whore is belov’d and sought,
So is a new Booke in request and bought.
Cheap and made on the smallest sheets of paper, pamphlets were written for attention and money. How do you get attention? Then, as now, successful strategies included exaggeration and hating others (in the pamphlets’ case, Catholics). Elaborate conspiracy theories were popular, too.
It is hard to imagine, even from our point in history, the chaos that the sudden influx of huge quantities of opinion brought to Northern European society and culture. The turbulence was severe. “There is nothing more congruent to the nourishment of division in a State or Commonwealth, then diversity of Rumours mixt with Falsity and Scandalisme; nothing more prejudicial to a Kingdome, then to have the divisions thereof known to an enemy.” That was the judgment of “A Presse Full of Pamphlets,” in 1642.
Expertise was irrelevant. “What needs the Stationer be at the charge of printing the labors of him that is Maister of his Art, & will require that respect which his paine deserverth?” George Wither asked in “The Schollers Purgatory Discovered in the Stationers Common-Wealth,” from 1624, “Seeing he cann hyre for a matter of 40 shillings, some needy IGNORAMUS to scribble upon the same subject, and by a large promising title, make it as vendible for an impression or two, as though it had the quintessence of all Art?” The quality of an opinion in terms of its relationship to reality has never been of all that much importance at the point of sale. The commodity of ideas requires freshness and mass appeal. That is true wherever and whenever ideas are sold.
Print was “intrinsic to political polarization,” Jason Peacey wrote in his book “Politicians and Pamphleteers,” from 2004. The period leading up to the English Civil War saw a huge spike in the quantity of pamphlets published. The number of pamplets produced in 1640 was thirty-six per cent higher than the yearly average from the previous decade. That number jumped an additional hundred and forty per cent in 1641, and a further ninety-eight per cent in 1642. There was a reason they called them “paper bullets.” Pamphlets were both a cause and a tool of violence.
How did the early-modern period escape the violent distortion of the pamphlets? The honest truth is that it never completely did. There has never been a period when the press has been without a great deal of bias and falsehood. In England, the Great Fire of London, in 1666, slowed down the quantity of publication, at least. In both France and England, surveillance and censorship became stricter and more effective. After the pamphlet wars between supporters of Louis XIII and Marie de Medicis, in 1618-19, several pamphleteers were sentenced to death, and the attempt to arrest unlicensed booksellers led many to flee the country. More broadly, the political chaos brought about by pamphleteering in France contributed to the absolutism of Louis XIV, who used the printing press as a tool of state control.
Nobody wants either censorship or the destruction of physical infrastructure, obviously. There is another way: building institutions rather than tearing them down.
The Royal Society was founded in the middle of informational chaos to provide clarity and community. “The principal reaction to the experience of Civil War seems to have been less to try to enroll the new science to a specific viewpoint than to aspire to its ‘establishment’ as a worthwhile step in itself,” Michael Hunter wrote in “Establishing the New Science,” his 1989 history of the Royal Society. “Its organizers seem to have sincerely believed that the enterprise to which the early Royal Society was dedicated was healing, that it would in some sense escape from politics by bringing together reasonable men from a wide range of ideological positions who could collaborate in gathering information which they hope that all would be able to accept.” The motto of the Royal Society was (and still is) Nullius in verba: “take nobody’s word for it.” I wish that motto were inscribed at the top of every smartphone.
Other, less formal, institutions mattered, too. The rise of the coffeehouse contributed to the creation of a public space where ideas could be debated. The ascent of broadsheet newspapers and periodicals in the seventeenth century articulated a space between public consumption and a self-selected group of writers and readers. The capacity for the dissemination of knowledge, and its democratization, had to be mollified by the conscious attempt to create informational standards. That required a great deal of struggle.
There is an idea out there that the forces of technology are both inevitable and ultimately liberating. It is a philosophy popular among people who prefer their history vague, so that their ideas can stay simple and grand. Making the comparison between the Internet and the printing press has always indulged in this laziness. “Hey, look, that was good in the end. Things worked themselves out for the best there.” No. They didn’t work themselves out. People worked them out. People of great intelligence and good will, able to think beyond their narrow interests, worked them out, and they only worked them out partially, incompletely.
Disruption and creative destruction have been the watchwords of the information revolution. Those who celebrate disruption believe they are serving progress, but they’re just celebrating their own power. There are people who build and there are people who tear down. That’s always been true. It’s true now.