Fake news, fake jam
As far as lexicographers are concerned, 2017, it appears, will be remembered as the year of fake news. The people who work at Collins, famed dictionary-makers, told The Guardian in November that usage of the term fake news had increased by 365% over the last 12 months. Though you could argue that this bitcoin-esque growth in use still pales in comparison to the actual explosion of fake news that continues to take place through various acts of commission, omission, advertising compulsion, presidential decree, et cetera.
There appear to be a few views on this. One is that, eventually, a combination of social media ombudsman-ship and fact-checking will restrict fake news to the purview of the gullible and ill-informed. A related view is that the low entry-barriers to news on the internet will help flood out fake news for good.
An entirely separate view is that this whole fake news phenomenon is fake news in itself, and merely the dying utterances from establishment media companies that are being slaughtered by the openness of the internet.
Or, perhaps, fake news is here to stay. A constant thrum of emotional manipulation and tactical disinformation that pervades normal human life. The wages we pay, if you will, to thrive in the information age.
So does fake news have historical precedents? Yes and no.
At first glance, there seems to be little historical parallel to this phenomenon. Never before in human history has it been so easy to produce, share and store information.
But consider the rapid mechanization of food manufacturing that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in the West. It was, according to one writer, the first great age of food adulteration. In a history of food safety laws written in The Guardian in 2003, Felicity Lawrence says that as populations moved to the cities looking for work, they drifted away from traditional sources of food and drink: “Whereas before then, an unscrupulous local butcher or baker might have been restrained by the knowledge that any shortcuts he chose could poison his neighbours and friends, now he could hide in the anonymity of distance and the city.”
As historian of science Noel G. Coley wrote in a piece for the Royal Society of Chemistry, food fakers of the early 19th century went to great lengths to dupe their customers: “...used tea leaves were boiled with copperas (ferrous sulphate) and sheep’s dung, then coloured with Prussian blue (ferric ferrocyanide), verdigris (basic copper acetate), logwood, tannin or carbon black, before being resold. Some varieties of cheap teas contained or were made entirely from the dried leaves of other plants.”
So rampant was this problem that in 1820, the brilliant German chemist Friedrich Accum wrote his landmark A Treatise On Adulterations Of Food And Culinary Poisons. Accum’s meticulous tabulation of a wide variety of adulteration practices was itself quite scandalous. But what truly caught the attention of the public, and was to ultimately hound Accum, was the fact that he named and shamed offenders: brewers who adulterated beer, grocers who adulterated coffee and tea, and so on. Accum made some very powerful enemies.
One would expect that this very public, very popular expose would lead to sweeping changes. Anything but. As Lawrence wrote: “The food industry’s arguments at the time have a familiar ring to them. People wanted cheap food, the poor couldn’t afford anything else, if they didn’t like it they wouldn’t buy it and, besides, the added ingredients made it look and taste better.”
Accum, meanwhile, was hounded out of England. The details of what actually transpired are unclear. But it appears that some months after he published his book, Accum was charged with mutilating library books. Humiliated by the scandal, he fled to Germany where, 16 years of scientific work later, he died at the age of 69.
In England, attempts at tackling the menace of fake food spluttered along. It would take another half century or so after Accum’s expose before meaningful legislation was passed in parliament.
Still, fake food continued to change with the age. “With each generation, the adulterations have changed but the elements have followed a pattern: ignorance among the consuming public, an assumption among the producers that what they are doing is entirely acceptable, and the lure of large profits,” Lawrence wrote.
Decades later, women in Britain were working in deplorable conditions, whittling little wooden pips out of beech wood. These pips were then added to fake raspberry jam, made of rhubarb or turnip, and then sold to an unsuspecting public. Pip-whittling, some sources suggest, continued right up to World War II.
In some sense, the internet ‘mechanized’ the news manufacturing business, in much the same way that the Industrial Revolution mechanized food manufacturing. The upside of the revolution needs no explaining to the readers of a business newspaper. It created jobs, wealth, lowered prices and so on. But it also empowered fakery on an industrial scale. Especially as consumers increasingly began to live in isolation and abstraction from, in this case, the making of food.
What will news look like in 2018? Perhaps it is time for good newsrooms to open up, expose the innards of the organization, mitigate that abstraction. And vouch for real news not because they say so, but because they are willing to show so.
Here’s to a new year of good news and good jam.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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