Fake news in history

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The relationship between Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester was the source for one of the most enduring fake-news campaigns in the medieval period (Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bibliothèque Municipale, 115)

Not every piece of disinformation is fake news. Not every falsehood qualifies as fake news. Deception deserves its independence, and so does fake news.

The number one tautology is this: the age of fake news is upon us. We smell fake everywhere around us, we see a fake story everywhere we look. And why wouldn’t we? Our age is fake. Not news, just fake, faux, phoney, full stop. Hold on, that’s a rant for another day. Today I want to talk about the use of fake news in the past.

It’s less of a tautological statement that fake news only makes sense in an age of information. We keep hearing that ours is an age of information, as if we’re the first generation to be informed, to be subject to streams of info. Not quite. But in our oversize culture, fake news matters more than ever, and when wholesale is the cause and symptom of our post-industrial world, volume turns news into a battle between genuine and fake, between the efficient detector and the hopelessly gullible.

Fake news has a beautifully genuine history, even before individuals and communities ceased to be individuals and communities and became masses of information consumers.

Fake news outgrows its petty deception to become veritably fake when it achieves something that pure deception, like in espionage, can’t, namely a cultural effect. During the Roman Civil War of 49-45 BC, the future emperor Augustus, then Octavian, used all sorts of ruses to deceive, confuse and misinform his opponents and the Roman citizenry at large by constructing counter-narratives worthy of latter-day fake news campaigns. From slogans on coins to revisionist historical accounts, Octavian engaged in a full-on fake-news operation. He was by no means the last leader to bend the truth to his interests and to that of his successors. What makes his deceptive business congruent with modern notions of fake-newsdom is that his untruths founded political legitimacy and shaped the culture of his age and of ages to come. Propaganda becomes fake news when it transcends its short-term goals and sets out to become a cultural institution.

The Western Middle Ages had their own flavour of fake news. My favourite is the Donation of Constantine, perhaps the most prominent forgery in the history of forgeries. The Donation was a document purporting to hand over the authority of Rome to the Pope. What sets out this forged charter apart from countless other fake medieval documents is that an entire edifice was erected on its marble base, one which modelled the medieval political, social and economic culture. Its humble origins aren’t that important. The Donation was probably fake-tified in the 8th century by one or several monks. Be it as it may, the document became the icon of an age, of a world made in its image.

Yet, fake news can sometimes be liberating. I’ll give a brief example only. Totalitarian states have always handled this redoubtable weapon with pride and sophistication, often under the heading of propaganda. In Communist Romania, which I know best, makeshift fake news was sometimes the only weapon in the struggle against the power of official fake news. Writers and artists found that pieces of fake news not only ensured their authentic artistic expression, but protected their careers and, as it was often the case, their lives. Case in point: The Romanian poet and journalist Ioan T. Morar went so far as to publish translated poems purported to have been written by Muhammed Ali (no joke), that the communist censorship never bothered to factcheck. Two can play this game. The poems were well received in the communist press, which assured Morar’s livelihood and gave him the means to mock the ignorant apparatchik with impunity.

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