The roots of fake news

It starts with a tale

In the early 1990s, as universities learned of the invention of the Web at CERN by Tim Berner’s Lee, quite a few researchers started to grasp the potential of the new technology. Communicating instantly by e-mail, a novelty at the time, groups of academics began to exchange articles. Soon, they published them on their “homepages” for every internet user to read. Bolstered by the seamlessness of the process, they went to the next logical step and stopped publishing in paper journals edited by for-profit corporations. Instead, they created new venues for peer-reviewed articles, completely bypassing the gatekeepers of academic publishing.

In the euphoria of the early 1990s and rich of the money they saved after canceling their subscriptions, Western universities decided to support Russian academics at a time when the post-Soviet economy was nosediving. Because no one likes charity, Russian scholars were tasked with creating an online encyclopedia. They built a piece of software that allowed for collaborative editing in which anyone could contribute. The year was 1995, the same year Reed Elsevier and Springer, two academic publishing houses, went bankrupt.

Each passing year showed how much knowledge and culture could be brought, for free, to anyone connected to the internet. Academics and librarians, supported by left-leaning governments, continued to push for more connectivity. Libraries offered free e-mail services and became internet service providers themselves. As the download and upload speeds increased, sharing music and films became possible. Laws were passed to pay artists a flat fee for their work and music producers and movie studios followed academic publishers into oblivion. Overwhelmed with cultural offerings curated by the providers of internet services, chiefly universities and libraries, the citizens of Europe became more and more curious, their critical thinking sharpened and populists suffered heavy defeats at the polls.

Back to reality

Of course, this never happened. Academics and intellectuals did start to use e-mails and web pages in the early 1990s, but - even if many individual researchers started to share their work - institutions never sought to use the web in an innovative way. They kept happily paying millions to private publishing houses and barely raised a finger when their post-Soviet colleagues went hungry in the 1990s.

The ones who did see the internet as a tool for emancipation - the ones who built Wikipedia, peer-to-peer sharing and blogs - were scorned by academics and suffered heavy legal defeats against the industries they were threatening. As a consequence of this power play, only corporations with deep enough pockets could sustain the fight against incumbent industries (think of all the legal battles Google fought with publishers or prosecutors), which is why the only ones left standing are those backed up by venture capital.

The structure of the internet that emerged after the mid-2000s, which security expert Bruce Schneier calls “surveillance capitalism” because it requires the collection of vast amounts of personal data by monopolistic corporations,1 rewarded publishers who could drive traffic to a page and sell advertising against it. The most efficient strategy to do so is to write highly emotional stories. And, in turn, the most efficient way to write highly emotional stories is to invent everything, hence the flood of fake news.2

Curious vs. Gullible

The internet did not create misinformation, propaganda and sloppy reporting. European newspapers and their journalists have routinely and with full impunity handled the truth liberally, either mistakenly or intentionally.3 Rumors were rife throughout my childhood, before anyone around me had access to the internet. We were told and believed that people put syringes infected with AIDS in cinemas and vending machines, for instance.4 And don’t get me started about magazines, such as Ici Paris, one of the most popular weeklies in France, which systematically distort mundane facts and turns them into emotionally charged - and misleading - headlines. Fake news were rife before the internet. The question should not be why they used the internet to spread (they were there before and the internet business model favored them) but why did we let them become so powerful?

Instead of losing sleep on the definition of fake news, the situation can be analyzed as an opposition between the curious and the gullible. The curious ask questions and are critical thinkers while the gullible are happy to consume anything sent their way, even if they do not believe it.5 Categories are fluid. Someone can be a critical thinker on one topic and gullible on another, and, if told often enough that critical thinking is not welcome, one can also turn off her or his critical thinking abilities.

A short history of the curious

Before the internet, the balance between the curious and the gullible was in favor of the curious. The scientific method, an innovation refined in the 18th and 19th century, gave the curious a very powerful tool. By applying their curiosity in a systematic and rigorous way, they discovered many things, like the machine gun, electricity, antibiotics and atomic energy. Awed by such prowesses, governments across Europe funded the curious and let them build institutions that fostered critical thinking such as universities, libraries, and, to a lesser extent, schools.

As long as they had wind in their sails, the curious were quick to adopt new technologies. Universities were the first to set up printing presses. Film schools started in the 1920s and television schools in the 1950s, each one following the invention of the new medium by about ten years. The story is different with the internet. In Europe, 25 years after the Web started to spread, faculties of humanities - and journalism schools in particular - still hesitate on how to address it. Why did the curious not adopt the internet as they had books, films and television?

The answer is political. After decades spent supporting strong institutions, governments decided in the late 1970s that “the market” could take care of everything. Institutions were out, start-ups were in.6 Universities, libraries and schools saw their funding plummet. In this context, they obviously did not have the financial might or the enthusiasm to turn the internet in the great knowledge network it could have become. The curious let the gullible win without a fight, for lack of funds.

Fighting fake news

Sometimes, a systemic problem can be solved with a simple fix. Acid rain, for instance, was caused by sulfur dioxide released by factories. Factory owners being motivated by profit and not by the preservation of nature, they had no incentive to emit less sulfur. Although the problem was rooted in capitalism, governments forced factory-owners to install desulfurization devices and acid rain stopped. Problem solved.

Fake news cannot be solved by a technical fix because it results from an imbalance between the curious and the gullible. Fake news did not emerge from the internet, they simply overwhelmed everything else in an environment that was built for them. The only way to fight them is to change the environment by giving back power to the curious. This, in turn, means more funding and more freedom for universities, libraries and schools.7

None of the governments of Europe see it this way. Instead, the French president is planning a law that would censor news, mostly those praising the president’s adversaries,8 and the German government went ahead with a law on hate speech, the so-called NetzDG, that let social platforms censor any content that displeases someone. Both the French and the German criminal codes were replete with articles allowing the prosecution of fake news and hate speech. But instead of providing more funds to the judiciary and let it handle the matter in processes where both sides are heard, governments opted for censorship.

The governments’ response to fake news - censorship - is in line with their earlier actions - budget cuts for the institutions of the curious - which created fake news to begin with. It is no coincidence that both policies created cracks in two pillars of the liberal order, free speech and science. They neatly follow each other in the process of institutional deconstruction we are living through.


1. Read for instance Surveillance Is the Business Model of the Internet.

2. This mechanism has been described many times, most brilliantly by Buzzfeed’s investiagation in Macedonia: How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.

3. I wrote about the relationship between journalism and the truth at length in Data-driven journalism in the post-truth public sphere and Le journalisme et la post-vérité.

4. Although I grew up in Paris, the hoax is listed at Snopes: HIV Needles in Coin Returns.

5. Whether or not you believe what you consume is irrelevant, because the availability heuristic ensures that your brain fetches the concepts it was exposed to to make sense of a situation. In other words, if you hear about illegal migrants many times, even if you know there is no such thing, you will start to use the category yourself.

6. The history of neoliberalism, which is the ideology supporting the change, is brilliantly told in the first part of Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.

7. I have argued this before in The Collapse of Academia.

8. Read the speech by Macron on 4 January 2018 here.