Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
Before Facebook, there was the coffee house. In the 17th-century, panic gripped British royal circles that these newly established drinking salons had become forums for political dissent. In 1672, Charles II issued a proclamation ‘to restrain the Spreading of False News’ that was helping ‘to nourish an universal Jealousie and Dissatisfaction in the minds of all His Majesties good subjects’.
Now, 350 years on, legislators across the world are seeking to do the same. Last week, the House of Commons digital culture, media and sport committee flew to Washington DC to grill representatives of big tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google. The title of their session echoed Charles II: ‘How can social media platforms help stop the spread of fake news?’
If there is a long history to fears about fake news, there is a long history to fake news, too. In 1924, four days before a general election, the Daily Mail published the forged Zinoviev letter, a supposed directive from Moscow to British communists to mobilise ‘sympathetic forces’ in the Labour party; Labour lost the election by a landslide.
In the wake of the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, in which a policeman, PC Keith Blakelock, was hacked to death, the police and the press organised a lurid campaign against the key suspect, Winston Silcott, depicting him as the ‘Beast of Broadwater Farm’. Convicted on the basis of virtually no evidence, he was released three years later after it was shown that the police had forged their interview notes.