Fake news? It’s nothing new, says Trinity historian

20 Oct 2017

Dr Linda Kiernan, Trinity College Dublin. Image: Greg Jenner

Dr Linda Kiernan is enriching our views of seemingly 21st-century problems such as ‘fake news’ with a historical eye. Claire O’Connell reports.

Plus ça change. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Today we may hotly debate ‘fake news’, the role of women in power and politics, and how the ‘selfie’ shows our public face, but these phenomena are not as new as we might think, and our perspectives can deepen when we roll back the centuries.

Historian Dr Linda Kiernan from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) takes that more nuanced view, informed by her studies of gender relations, behaviour and conduct in the French court in the 17th and 18th centuries.

‘As long as there has been news, there has been fake news; and as long as there has been information, there is misinformation and disinformation’

Fake news is nothing new

While we might hear cries (or read tweets) about fake news, the dubious truth of widely shared information goes way back in human culture, according to Kiernan, a lecturer in French history at TCD’s Department of History and at the Centre for European Studies.   

“As long as there has been news, there has been fake news; and as long as there has been information, there is misinformation and disinformation,” said Kiernan, who spoke at the recent Probe event in Trinity for European Researchers’ Night. “There are those who willingly mislead others and those who will, through their own ignorance, deceive others unknowingly.”

While the utterances of a certain US president may be putting fake news on our radars, the term itself was first used in print more than a century ago. Earlier still, ‘false’ news was a topic of debate even in the 16th century, and propaganda was rife from the early producers of printed news in the 17th century, according to Kiernan, who recently wrote about this issue for The Conversation.

But today, when individuals with internet access can create and spread news with the touch of a button, the problem scales.

“The concerns and anxieties we have today are definitely heightened because you have the acceleration of the movement of information, and everyone now has the potential to be their own journalist, editor and publisher, which is a very good and a very bad thing,” she said. 

“In the 17th century, even the physicality of printing your own material was huge, but now you just touch a button. 

One way to counter the flow of fake news or propaganda is to value and encourage good journalism, added Kiernan, and it no longer has to be with the stalwarts or titans of publishing. “Good journalism has always been there, but I think placing greater value and emphasis on good investigative journalism will make it stand out from the noise.”

Women in power 

The 20th century saw huge changes in Europe and the US, with women getting the vote and female representation growing in politics, but, even in previous centuries, women could influence power and diplomacy, said Kiernan.

 “Women have different avenues of influence; they could negotiate informally, behind the scenes,” she explained. “It was something of a double-edged sword for them, though – if it all went awry, there was no loss of face for the kingdom but there was also less prestige for the women if things worked out.”

The sense of natural male authority has long been an issue, noted Kiernan, who sees it reflected in the English monarch Elizabeth I. “She spent a huge amount of time fending off pressure to get married and produce an heir; she promoted the male aspects of character.”

‘There are elements of culture that are almost ingrained in our psyche. You can change policy and legislation, but it’s difficult to change how people think’

These kinds of assumptions are hard to challenge.“A huge amount of progress has been made, but there are elements of culture that are almost ingrained in our psyche,” she said. “You can change policy and legislation, but it’s difficult to change how people think.”

As a historian looking at the 17th and 18th centuries, Kiernan believes she works in a sweet spot where information is available to study, but there’s not too much of it.

“It’s been said that history gets thicker as it approaches recent times,” she explained. “In the case of women’s history especially, the medieval period is sparse in terms of sources, and, relatively speaking, the 17th and 18th centuries are a much more hospitable place to research.” 

Back to the future

In the future, historians looking back at the early 21st century should have rich pickings of sources, so what kinds of things are likely to define this period?

“The big change, the thing that will really stand out, is the internet and the revolution in communications,” said Kiernan. “We are at a really incredible point in time for communication and the way we interact online. The printing press had a huge impact but it took time for literacy rates to rise. Today, through platforms like Facebook [and] Twitter, we have communications and interactions on a global scale in a new way in human history.”

With access to technology and that ease of communication comes a new way to document oneself, she added. “In history, people have left behind memoirs and diaries, and now we have the evolution into the selfie: that image where it is the face that we project of our private selves in public, and this is where you see the success of people like the Kardashians. I think that aspect of cultural history will be fascinating to historians in a couple of hundred years.”

One way to enrich our understanding of 21st-century issues such as climate change and gender diversity in STEM is to create more links between science and history, noted Kiernan.

“There are many avenues of human life that haven’t been researched and pursued,” she said.

“And, for women in STEM, we need to hear even more about the stories of [the 19th-century programmer] Ada Lovelace; the 18th-century physicist Laura Bassi, who was the first female professor in Europe; and the women who worked in the background on major discoveries, like Antoine Lavoisier’s wife Marie-Anne Paulze, who noted and translated his work for publication. We need to hear more about those histories.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication