A couple of months ago I was asked by UvA Associate professor of Political science Imke Harbers whether it would be possible to give the students of her course Cooperation and conflict in Latin America a short presentation on Wikipedia in the broader context of (online) sources reliability, also in the light of the current concern about fake news.
As it usually is the case, when I’m asked to give presentations or workshops on (topics related to) information literacy, I was very glad to honour Imke’s request, since it also gave me an excellent opportunity to deepen my knowledge of Wikipedia, while assessing the relevance of fake news in a less fleeting perspective than the one currently allowed by the ceaseless outpour of (fake) news about fake news. History, hardly surprisingly, being the place where I most often look for a lasting perspective.
I was therefore very happy, and lucky, to work on the presentation together with colleague Wilma van den Brink, Subject librarian at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, who is currently working also for the Information department of the UvA Library and – last but not least – is a historian (her MA-thesis discussed the impact of economic growth on the prostitution market in the Netherlands and specifically the city of Haarlem, 1850-1900).
It was Wilma who first mentioned the infographic made by the IFLA International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions on How to spot fake news. Next to the infographic’s extreme usefulness in any information literacy context (being authority, accuracy, coverage, currency and objectivity important evaluation criteria whatever the source), it is IFLA’s reason for making the infographic that will strongly appeal to any passionate subject librarian or any individual caring about critical thinking as a cardinal feature of a healthy democratic society: «When Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth was Word of the Year 2016, we as librarians realized action was needed to educate and advocate for critical thinking – a crucial skill when navigating the information society».
What about history then, and its role when it comes to the fleeting shallowness of (fake) news about fake news? Both Wilma and I had a prompt association when thinking of fake news and the issue of evaluating sources in the (distant) past. Hers, from 2001, referred to the unfortunate use of an unreliable letter by then Crown Prince of The Netherlands Willem Alexander to counter the commotion that had arisen from his forthcoming marriage with Máxima Zorreguieta, the daughter of an Argentine politician who had served as minister under dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (left on the photo above, while Zorreguieta is on the right; see the website of the NOS Netherlands Broadcasting Foundation for a brief summary of the ‘affaire’, albeit in Dutch).
My own association – after having briefly considered the Gleiwitz incident that officially led to the outbreak of World War Two (and is actually a case of false flag) – went much further back in the past, with the so-called untori (plague-spreaders), which were believed to smear houses with pestiferous fat in times of plague. Made memorable in the 19th Century by one of Italy’s greatest writers, Alessandro Manzoni, who wrote of 17th Century‘s untori both in his major novel, I promessi sposi (“The betrothed”; chapter 32) and in his passionate historical essay Storia della colonna infame (“The story of the infamous column”), this textbook case of fake news knows an earlier documentary evidence in the late 16th Century edicts promulgated by the Spanish governor in Milan to counter the unrest that such rumours provoked «especially among the people who easily believe such stories’…» (“maggiormente à quei che facilmente si persuadeno à credere tali cose”; translation is mine, from p. 112 of the original I cinque libri degl’avvertimenti, ordini, gride et editti fatti, et osservati in Milano, ne’ tempi sospettosi della peste, available at Google books, see screenshot above).
Happy new year of not easily believed stories!