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.
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.