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Fake news spreading like wildfire? The French had the problem before we did

We’re living in a post-fact age. President-elect Donald Trump’s superb indifference to verifiable claims — or, indeed, to what he has publicly claimed on earlier occasions — reflects and exacerbates the situation. No less important is the vast and complex web of aggregators and “news” sites issuing dubious claims that, in turn, are amplified by social media. According to one recent study, nearly one out of every two Americans gets their news from Facebook — the same medium whose trending topics section and main news feed circulated countless hoaxes and lies during the campaign.

This phenomenon is “new” in the sense that it’s worse than in the immediate past, but it has roots that burrow as deep as 18th century France. The Age of Enlightenment, celebrated for its embrace of reason and empirical investigation, was also the incubator for the post-fact and post-truth landscape we now confront. For Ancien Regime France, the consequences were revolutionary. They may be for us as well.

In a series of influential books, the historian Robert Darnton re-created what he calls the Grub Street of Paris. It was a world inhabited by writers and scribblers who, scorned by the social and political institutions of 18th century Paris, devoted their lives to undermining them. They took Voltaire’s famous call to écrasez l’infâme and turned it upside down. Rather than “stamp out the infamous things,” they spread them.

The Grub Street desperados’ weapon of choice was the libelle. A literary vehicle fueled by innuendo and lies, the libelle portrayed royal advisors and ministers not only as incompetent clowns, but also as sex-addled money-grabbers. Presenting rumor as truth, these scandal sheets mined the veins of anxiety and anger felt by a growing number of socially disaffected Parisians.

Readers either didn’t know, or didn’t care, that the libelles had little, if any, basis in reality. Apropos a collection of apocryphal letters written by King Louis XV’s consort, Madame du Barry, one reader noted they “were all the more true for having been invented.”

Not unlike foreign actors from shadowy Russian or Macedonian enclaves who purveyed false news in our latest presidential election, 18th century libelles were frequently distributed by French émigrés abroad. French envoys to the English court protested in vain the impunity with which libellistes such as Charles Théveneau de Morande launched scandalous accounts from the safety of London. (Parliament resisted the crown’s efforts to silence Morande and others, insisting on the freedom of the press and enjoying the chaos these libelles sowed across the Channel.)

For Darnton, libelles slandered “everything elevated and respectable, including the monarchy itself, with a scurrility that is difficult to imagine today.” But Darnton wrote these lines some 40 years ago. Morande’s scurrility seems oddly tame in a world where a pizzeria in Washington is said to be the headquarters of a child-slave ring ruled over by a villainous Hillary Clinton.

And yet, while the French archives do not record a musket-wielding commoner bursting into the Trianon to “self-investigate” the claims made against the king, the libelles may well have influenced, if not incited, those who stormed the Bastille — and its storehouse of muskets — in 1789.

The effectiveness of these scandal sheets, Darnton notes, is that they reduced “complex events to the clash of personalities.” Matters of great moment, such as Chief Minister Maupeou’s proposed tax and government reforms — which might have helped France avoid revolution — did not interest Morande’s readers. Instead, as he and fellow false news fabricators understood, what mattered was Maupeou the person — a person they cast as a fool and a fraud.

One libelle claimed that when a servant cut into a pie given to the king’s favorite, Madame du Barry, a cloud of mayflies swarmed out and invaded Maupeou’s wig. Eager to help, the servant ripped off Maupeou’s wig, revealing his bald pate. While the court laughed at Maupeou’s plight, readers mused over the shambolic and silly people who presumed to rule them.

Under Louis XVI, the libelles grew more toxic, especially those aimed at Marie Antoinette. While the careers and characters of Louis’ wife and Hillary Clinton have nothing in common, both women attracted venomous lies. Described by historians as “political pornography,” libelles targeting Marie Antoinette portrayed Versailles as a pit of sexual sinfulness and transgression — rather like the viral accounts of Clinton purportedly murdering Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster after having had an affair with him.

Ultimately it was personalities, and not policies, that made news and unmade regimes, and even made and unmade realities.

In an interview with Ron Suskind in 2004, a senior advisor to President George W. Bush — widely assumed to be Karl Rove — famously observed that his administration was “an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” In the same breath, he dismissed what he called “the reality-based community” where Suskind lived and worked. It happens that Suskind’s world is the direct descendant of the noblest reality-based community of all: the Enlightenment. It was, at its best, an empire not of rage, but of reason; not of dog whistles, but of dialogue; not of disdain for science, but of deference to. It is not a coincidence that a toxic tide of false news besieged this earlier reality-based community no less than it does our own.

Historians of the 18th century still debate whether the world of libelles helped destroy the French monarchy. Historians of the 21st century may one day debate whether the virtual world of false news helped bring down the American republic.

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and is author, most recently, of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”

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