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Missouri Exhibition Explores the Centuries-Old Specter of ‘Fake News’

Curator considers three categories of ‘fake news’: error, hoax and truths deemed false

Charles II attempted to ban public coffeehouses, which he viewed as hotbeds of "fake news" and seditious murmurings (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

England’s Charles II had ample reason to be wary of criticism. After all, his father, Charles I, was beheaded for high treason at the height of the English Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan soldier and statesman who played an important role in bringing about this execution, forced the young king into exile as he transformed the country into a de facto republic under the Interregnum. Once Charles regained his throne, he was understandably fearful of attempts to undermine the monarchy, and in 1675, he took action against an unusual threat—coffee.

The Public Domain Review’s Michael Green explains that coffeehouses served as popular meeting spots for 17th-century Brits. Prior to the introduction of coffee, most individuals subsisted on watered-down ale, leaving them “slightly—or very—drunk all of the time.” The newfound sobriety afforded by coffee sparked intellectual debate—and, in the king’s view, the exchange of potentially seditious opinions. Charles issued a proclamation suppressing coffeehouses and the falsities he believed were inculcated within them, but faced with widespread public dissent, he was forced to back down.

Charles’ failed campaign against coffee is one of the earliest case studies featured in The History of Fake News (and the Importance of the World’s Oldest School of Journalism), a new exhibition at the Boone County History and Culture Center in Columbia, Missouri.

According to Sam Nelson of the Columbia Missourian, The History of Fake News traces the spread of misinformation from Ancient Greece to today. Curator Clyde Bentley, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, notes that the exhibition explores three varieties of so-called “fake news”: error, hoax and truths deemed false for one reason or another.

Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which sparked panic amongst those listeners who believed Martians were actually invading Earth, serves as a prescient example of two of these categories: hoax and error. Although Welles denied that he intentionally deceived his audience, Smithsonian.com’s A. Brad Schwartz writes, “Hardly anyone, then or since, has ever taken him at his word. His performance, captured by newsreel cameras, seems too remorseful and contrite, his words chosen much too carefully.”

“Readers have an obligation to determine what is true,” Bentley tells Roger McKinney of the Columbia Daily Tribune, which is a sponsor of the show.

Speaking to Nelson of the Columbia Missourian, Bentley adds that the phenomenon of fake news often comes down to faith. Individuals subscribe to a certain point of view, proclaiming that their outlook is the only truth and disregarding sources that contradict this “truth.”

“My real hope is people will come in here with an open mind and come out and say, ‘I better check this out a little better,’” Bentley says. “We should all do that.”

The History of Fake News (and the Importance of the World’s Oldest School of Journalism) is on view at the Boone County History and Culture Center in Columbia, Missouri, through January. Admission is free.

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