Pandaemonium

BEFORE FACEBOOK WAS THE COFFEE HOUSE

coffee-house

Today it’s Facebook. 350 years ago it was the coffee house. In the late seventeenth century, as Markman Ellis tells in his book on the cultural history of the coffee house, there was panic in British royal circles that these newly-established drinking salons had become forums for political dissent, rebellious attitudes and the spreading of untruths. In June 1672, Charles II issued a proclamation ‘to restrain the Spreading of False News, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and Government.’ ‘Bold and Licentious Discourses’, it continued, had grown to the extent that

Men have assumed to themselves a liberty , not only in Coffee-houses, but in other Places and Meetings, both publick and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of State, by speaking evil of things they understand not, and endeavouyring to create and nourish an universal Jealousie and Dissatisfaction in the minds of all his Majesties good subjects.

I have written an article on the contemporary debate about fake news (it will be published in the New York Times on Monday), but it is worth reminding ourselves that there is nothing new to these fears. Around a century after the coffee house panic, in the early  years of the American republic, Thomas Jefferson worried about press lies and slanders and lamented that ‘a newspaper that stuck to true facts & sound principles only… would find few subscribers’. ‘It is a melancholy truth’, he continued ‘that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood.’ In an echo of today’s debate about the ‘post-truth age’, Jefferson worried that

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.

According to Jefferson ‘the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.’

A century on, and there was the ‘yellow journalism’ panic. ‘Yellow journalism’ was a term coined the 1890s to describe the sensational journalism thrown up in the circulation war  between the New York World and the New York Journal, owned  respectively by two giant newspaper magnates, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – the Murdochs and Maxwells of their day. Both newspapers engaged in important investigatory journalism, but both also indulged in sensationalist fake news to push up circulation. The two papers were held responsible for the Spanish American war of 1898, when America intervened against the Spanish in the Cuban War of Independence, through their sensationalized stories about Cuban virtue and Spanish brutality, though few serious historians today would give such a claim much credence.

Not just panics, but fake news itself, has a long history: from the New York Sun’s Great Moon Hoax of 1835 – a six-part series on the supposed telescopic discoveries made by the eminent British astronomer Sir John Herschel, including of life on the moon, stories that were widely believed at the time; to HL Mencken’s made up account in May 1905 of a crucial battle in the Russo-Japanese war; to the 1920 publication in the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned by the industrialist Henry Ford, of a series of articles about a global Jewish conspiracy based on the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a forged document with its origins in Tsarist Russia; to the publication in 1924 in Britain’s Daily Mail, four days before a general election of the forged Zioniev letter, a supposed directive from Moscow to British communists to mobilize ‘sympathetic forces’ in the Labour Party, a forgery passed by MI6 to Conservative Party Central Office who then leaked it to the Mail; to the 1960s smear campaign against Martin Luther King orchestrated by the FBI under J Edgar Hoover, which  included planting stories in the press, and even sending King an anonymous letter that denounced him as an ‘evil, abnormal beast’ given to ‘sexual orgies’ ‘adulterous acts’ and ‘immoral conduct’, and seemingly suggesting that he committed suicide ‘before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation’; to the lurid press and police campaign, in the mid-1980s, against Winston Silcott as ‘the Beast of Broadwater Farm’ that helped convict him for the murder of a policeman, PC Keith Blakelock, on the basis of no evidence at all; to the fake stories, fed to the press by the police, about the 1987 Hillsborough tragedy, in which 96 football fans, supporters of Liverpool FC, died, stories that blamed drunken fans, rather than the police, for the tragedy; to the fake story about Iraqi soldiers, after their invasion of Kuwait in 1990, throwing premature babies out of incubators in order to steal the equipment, stories that played an important role in whipping up public opinion for US intervention; to stories, a decade later, about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction that filled newspaper pages across the world in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. And so on. There are hundreds more such fake stories that could take the place of the ones above.

great-moon-hoax

What the history of fake news, and of panics about them, also reveals is the dangers that attend the attempt to deal with such fakery. In 1675, three years after the Royal Proclamation against the spreading of false news, Charles II issued a new proclamation: ‘A proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses’. ‘The Multitude of Coffee-houses of late years set up and kept within this Kingdom’, the Proclamation claimed, were ‘the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons’ and have ‘produced very evil and dangerous effects’. In coffee-houses, ‘divers False, Malicious and Scandalous Reports are Devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of his Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quite of the Realm’. Consequently, the King declared it ‘fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) be Put Down and Suppressed’.

Coffee house owners petitioned the Privy Council. They accepted that only ‘loyal men’ should be licensed to run coffee-houses and that all coffee house owners would henceforth ‘take security to discover what they know or hear said prejudicial to the Government’. The owners, in other words, offered to be spies for the government. On that basis the Royal Proclamation suppressing coffee houses was withdrawn.

The echoes of contemporary debates are not hard to discern. That is why, when it comes to fake news, we should be careful what we wish for. Fake news is a problem that needs tackling. But it’s not a new problem. And not one that can be solved by the contemporary equivalent of suppressing the coffee house. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in another letter, some 17 years before the one quoted above:

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

.

The top image is of an eighteenth century coffee house (illustrator unknown); the second image is of an Italian translation of the Great Moon Hoax, from the Smithsonian collection.

5 comments

  1. All true. And yet there are three ways in which the present is particularly vulnerable to fake news. One is the total dominance of the right wing over popular newspapers, in the UK at least, as shown in coverage of immigration and Brexit. I am old enough to remember Labour-supporting mass new papers like the 1950s Daily Mirror and Herald.The second is the rise of social media, and how these, by their algorithms, tend at best to trap us in our own bubbles, and at worst invite being gamed. The third, which as you remind us may not be as new as we imagine, is the deliberate promulgation of falsehood as a tactic, and I see no precedent for the way in which what had been fringe material has risen to dominance, and even has its own seat now in the Oval Office. This of its nature grants power to the most unscrupulous.

    As you conclude, any attempted cure may be far worse than the disease. Should we, for example, give Facebook the right to censor, as we must if we demand that it exert any kind of quality control? Or, even worse, a Government agency or Quango?

    What is the remedy? Or, if there is no remedy, how can we limit the poisoning of the wells of information?

    • The real difference today is, I think, something different. In the past, governments, mainstream institutions and newspapers manipulated news and information. Today, anyone with a Facebook account or a Macedonian website can do so. What has changed is not that news is faked, but that the old gatekeepers of news have lost their power. Just as elite institutions have lost their grip over the electorate, so their ability to define what is and is not news has also eroded. The problem, in other words, is not fake news, or social media or rightwing newspapers. It runs much deeper, and so long as we focus simply on fake news we will be unable to address the issue of fake news.

  2. jswagner

    Kenan, the conflation here of government repression with the multi-dimensional attack on fake news we all need to find our way toward is galling. This infers that general news repression by government is the only realistic operational likelihood of the people wishing to attack the negatives of fake news. The fight against “fake news” is *especially* pertinent in the sense of limiting government’s power to repress news. The enemy isn’t the attitudes of people who are whining ineffectually about shutting down Brietbart news or the Globe. In America, we just elected as president a man who promoted as his most senior advisor the proudest and most successful progenitor of “fake news” in the country. No one will be calling for general repression as a solution of the “fake news” problem except the powers-that-be and their excitable contingency, who will be in the business of creating and enforcing a “fake news” world. Your readers shouldn’t “be careful what we wish for” as we try to carve out an alternative to a “fake news” world: we should be preparing to counter a world that’s run by the most successful fake news purveyors of the modern age.

    > fake news is a problem worth tackling

    This point is murmured at the end without the slightest inference toward how. There’s not even a breakdown of what “fake news” is. “Fake news” covers quite a wide swath, from accidental, inaccurate, personally-derived, viral information all the way to deliberate falsehood perpetrated and leveraged aggressively by government, with many differential distribution and consumption dimensions that are increasingly asymmetrical. There are at least three angles to the problem we need to work on:

    -government propaganda, such as what we’ll be suffering in America via our twitter twit president;
    -enabling and reputation-enabling more truth in at-least-available coverage (which I’d submit is happening, despite the current cluck-clucking);
    -various techniques to eliminate the repression, official and otherwise, of refutation of false news.

    We should do these things with the following appended to your historical argument to “be careful”:

    – our “fake news” of today is generally (not always) easier to refute than in the past
    – it’s much more difficult to get across large factual scams over the medium- or long-term;
    – there’s a metric ton of data from the past we should mine to evaluate the coming impacts of political leadership who systematically bully the public (Steve Bannon’s “politics is war”), using the equivalent of yellow journalism;
    – responsible and irresponsible parties may effectively dampen large-scale news dissemination through pressure for “algorithmic adjustments” (repression) in private networks and media;
    – increasing segmentation of information, which creates a much more complicated mix of false-versus-true sources, and far less predictable consequences for those out of the loop;
    – the news cycle is generally much faster, with the risks therefore of significantly different character (among other things, that the damage is done, yes, but that we have a relatively quick opportunity to teach dangers in the aftermath);
    – there is generally (not always), like now, an extremely strong conservative and reactionary bias toward the generation of “fake news”, due to statistical personality differentials and the relative stickiness of personal and national security valuation;
    – education, power politics, and reputation management play into these problems in ways we can attack in modern, relatively democratic societies. That we have opportunities there the historical record doesn’t speak to.

    • I made the point at the beginning of the post that this was not going to be about the contemporary debate, but rather about ‘reminding ourselves that there is nothing new to these fears’. Which is probably why I did not write the article that you wanted me to about the contemporary debate. So no, I didn’t ‘conflate government repression with the multi-dimensional attack on fake news we all need’; nor did I provide ‘even a breakdown of what “fake news” is’. That’s for another time and another article. All I was doing here was 1. Showing that there is nothing new to fake news, nor to panics about them; 2. Suggesting that we should not over-react to today’s fake news problem (‘we should be preparing to counter a world that’s run by the most successful fake news purveyors of the modern age’); and 3. Pointing out that we should careful about how we respond to the problem. I am not suggesting that ‘general news repression by government is the only realistic operational likelihood of the people wishing to attack the negatives of fake news’. Rather, I am pointing out that such censorship has been in the past a key response to such panics. That’s why we should be careful what we wish for. I would, incidentally, no more want Facebook or Google to define what is and isn’t news than I would want the state to do so.

      The problem of fake news isn’t actually a problem of fake news. It runs much deeper than that. There are a number of features of the contemporary world that have made the new splurge of fake news possible. One is, as I suggested in my response to Paul Brateman, above, that the old gatekeepers of news have lost their power. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the days when the only fake news was ‘official’ fake news. A second shift has been the growing relativisation of concepts of truth – a trend that has its origins not in the alt right but in the postmodern left. A third change has been the fragmentation of political frameworks, and the way that such frameworks are increasingly shaped by identity rather than by ideology. The challenge we face, in other words, is not to panic about fake news but to begin to address the underlying social changes that have turned it into an issue.

      • jswagner

        > I made the point at the beginning of the post that this was not going to be about the contemporary debate

        I see. Sorry to’ve spun off so, then.

        > would, incidentally, no more want Facebook or Google to define what is and isn’t news than I would want the state to do so.

        You don’t get a choice. Not only do they and others already define what is and isn’t “news”, but they can’t do what they do except through algorithms that simply must pick “news” winners and losers, based on whatever values they deem appropriate, whether it be abstracted social optimalities, or eyeball count, or profit. Ultimately, this is yet another of many aspects of this problem that breaks down blearily and uncomfortably to “are we going to take a shot at a moral approach, or are we going to make money at the expense of the greater good?” The need for leadership and example is a vague, diffuse point, but there’s little avoiding the need for heroism; procedural or political means won’t supplant it. Your urge to “be careful” is, in the end, a way of implying we’re highly dependent on creative, contingent inspiration and education to balance identity, nationalism and humanity effectively.

        The “fragmentation” of political frameworks is operationally about marketing dissatisfaction along identity lines. The marketing term is segmentation. Although I agree with you regarding the left’s “relativisation” or picking winners, it is the right that is in segmentation’s thrall more. Whole rightist markets have opened up and become massive, arguably starting over here with talk radio. Inherited personality considerations allow those on the right who aggressively seek certainty, strong hierarchy, and simplicity to find it instantly, easily, and endlessly, via whatever form authority figures deem effective, and it bleeds over in influence to those who might otherwise be considered centrist or leftist. We’ve also all seemed to miss how Nigel Farage and Trump met and mind-melded, and how Mr. Barron built directly off what amounted to European focus groups to pull off what he did here. Technology, immorality, personality, and the left’s identity imbalances- very potent stuff.

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