Defeating “Fake News” Without Mark Zuckerberg

Despite a lack of proof that “fake news” is a problem, Mark Zuckerberg and others, have taken up the banner of public censors on behalf of us all. Whether any of us are interested in their assistance or not.

In countering calls for and toleration of censorship, you may find it helpful to point out that “fake news” isn’t new.

There are any number of spot instances of fake news. Michael J. Socolow reports in: Reporting and punditry that escaped infamy:


As the day wore on, real reporting receded, giving way to more speculation. Right-wing commentator Fulton Lewis Jr. told an audience five hours after the attack that he shared the doubts of many American authorities that the Japanese were truly responsible. He “reported” that US military officials weren’t convinced Japanese pilots had the skills to carry out such an impressive raid. The War Department, he said, is “concerned to find out who the pilots of these planes are—whether they are Japanese pilots. There is some doubt as to that, some skepticism whether they may be pilots of some other nationality, perhaps Germans, perhaps Italians,” he explained. The rumor that Germans bombed Pearl Harbor lingered on the airwaves, with NBC reporting, on December 8, that eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Nazi swastikas painted on some of the bombers.

You may object that it was much confusion, the pundits weren’t trying to deceive, any number of other excuses. And you can repeat those for other individual instances of “fake news.” They simply don’t compare to the flood of intentionally “fake” publications available today.

I disagree but point taken. Let’s look back to an event that, like the internet, enabled a comparative flood of information to be available to readers, the invention of the printing press.

Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe characterizes the output of the first fifty years of printing presses saying:

…it seems necessary to qualify the assertion that the first half-century of printing gave “a great impetus to wide dissemination of accurate knowledge of the sources of Western thought, both classical and Christian.” The duplication of the hermetic writings, the sibylline prophecies, the hieroglyphics of “Horapollo” and many other seemingly authoritative, actually fraudulent esoteric writings worked in the opposite direction, spreading inaccurate knowledge even while paving the way for purification of Christian sources later on.
…(emphasis added) (page 48)

I take Eisenstein to mean that knowingly fraudulent materials were being published, which seems to be the essence of the charge against the authors of “fake news” today.

As far as the quantity of the printing press equivalent to “fake news,” she remarks:


Compared to the large output of unscholarly venacular materials, the number of trilingual dictionaries and Greek or even Latin editions seems so small that one wonders whether the term “wide dissemination” ought to be applied to the latter case at all.
… (page 48)

To be fair, “unscholarly venacular materials” includes both intended to be accurate as well as “fake” texts.

The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe is the abridged version of Eisentein’s The printing press as an agent of change : communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe, which has the footnotes and references to enable more precision on early production figures.

Suffice it to say, however, that no 15th equivalent to Mark Zuckerberg arrived upon the scene to save everyone from “…actually fraudulent esoteric writings … spreading inaccurate knowledge….

The world didn’t need Mark Zuckerberg’s censoring equivalent in the 15th century and it doesn’t need him now.

Comments are closed.