Fake news is as old as news itself

Lifestyle

Fake news is as old as news itself

Forged passports, fraudulent studies — a new exhibit is a reminder that disinformation is as old as the hills

Michael Peel

The 15th-century treatise Hammer of Witches was a manual for the persecution, torture and murder of those accused of devilry in renaissance Europe. It also shows how the recently invented printing press that led to mass literacy was an instrument of injustice, cruelty and division.

“Witch-hunting can be seen as fake news of the printing revolution,” said Joanna Urbanek, lead curator of a new exhibition in Brussels, Fake for Real, which features the tract in a historical display of European forgery and fakery. “People were terrified about the idea that false information could be disseminated so easily.”

It’s hard to miss the modern resonances. After all, false claims and “fake news” have been a motif of the US presidential election and the Covid-19 crisis, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) says has triggered an “infodemic” of sometimes untrustworthy data. In fact, only a short walk from the exhibition are the main EU institutions’ headquarters, where authorities are pressing social media companies to do more to curb the spread of misinformation and disinformation, including a voluntary code of practice...

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