Post truth fake news is not new

If there is one historian all PR people should read it is Peter Burke, author of The Fabrication of Louis XIV and the multi volume A Social History of Knowledge.

The blog has frequently referred (in books, presentations and this blog) to Burke’s work because much of it throws light on the history of communication and PR and how rulers and others created and nurtured their images. Now he has collected a series of essays, Secret History and Historical Consciousness, which among other things looks at personal, contextual and historical self-fashioning. In particular the book looks at how inter-disciplinary insights impact on this self-fashioning – from other cultures and disciplines such as sociology, geography and anthropology. These are the sort of insights essential to developing effective communication strategies. In passing he also looks at the post-modernists who challenge the way we perceive things.

Yet, in a way Burke’s prolific work also reminds us that the post-truth and fake news everyone is talking about it not new. What is new is who is generating the fake news – its democratisation in essence as opposed to the past when it was predominantly the preserve of the powerful. Religions, for instance, have been at the forefront of promoting fake news, and putting people to the stake for not believing it, for thousands of years. The media, from when it evolved in the 15th and 16th centuries, has been a vivid promoter of fake news about everything from geography to politics. William Randolph Hearst created a war which helped burnish Teddy Roosevelt’s reputation. Beaverbrook, Northcliffe and Rupert Murdoch have ruthlessly used their media outlets to promote their views and make or break governments – sometimes with fake news, other times with blatant distortion and often with relentless repetition of some campaign, however trivially based, which fits a narrative about the world view they were creating.

A medievalist, Eleanor Parker, recently also pointed out (History Today March 2017) that in one of Chaucer’s works he understands and brings to life the reality that truth is rarely a factor in determining whether a story will spread or not. In doing so she points out the similarities in the events in Chaucer’s poem, The House of Fame, with Twitter’s operations. In the poem true and false stories fight to escape a castle in the sky where Fame decides their fate.

Parker says: “In one especially vivid moment, Chaucer describes a false story fighting with a true one to escape out of the window of the house, each crying ‘Let me go first!’ They agree to go around the world together as sworn brothers, so closely mingled together that no-one will ever be able to separate truth from a lie. These tidings are then carried abroad by travellers, sailors and pilgrims: groups in medieval society stereotypically notorious for caring more about a good story than about the facts.” And reflecting on The Canterbury Tales Parker also points out that “once a tale is told, the teller cannot control how its hearers will receive it.” Just think – Chaucer pre-figuring Foucault, Derrida et al.

Of course, we should also remember that fake news is not the only strategy, nor the most common, to muddy the waters. Deflection also plays a part. A blog friend, David Thomson, recently told the blog that Japanese whaling was a great example of this. Whale has never been a traditional Japanese dish and was eaten a bit after WWII. However, David suggested, it was a classic case of ‘don’t look here’. While everyone was worried about a few whales Japanese fishing fleets destroyed tuna, Patagonia Tooth fish and other species. The ‘don’t look here’ principle is of course demonstrated, day in and day out, by the practice of modern politics.

But as the blog has described before, there are antidotes to false information, for instance as shown by the Center for Climate Change Communications. In another encouraging sign the BBC is reviving its science and technology series Tomorrow’s World in conjunction with the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust.

BBC director-general, Tony Hall, said the initiative was “the biggest scientific partnership we have ever convened” and that it would generate “hundreds of hours of content about the way science is changing, our lives and our health.” Would that the ABC would do the same – perhaps finding some seed funding by axing Q&A albeit that’s a blog judgment formed on watching the program for five minutes once some years ago.