Tuesday, March 21, 2023 | Sha'ban 28, 1444 H
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A pinch of spice on interpretations


Public opinion in the 18th Century France takes me on a journey of reflections in search of parallels in the 21st century. In her book, Arlette Farge reminds me that words have meaning, particularly when they are carefully put together. Words and opinions could — and still can —widen distances, cause displacements and create antagonism. As with journals and newspapers in the past and social media now, one cannot be indifferent to what people say on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. These individuals are members of society and somehow they exemplify the opinions roaming street life.

Peoples’ posts are a mine of information in the same way comments and opinions were two hundreds of years ago. There was no social media in the 18th Century. Instead, there were street rumours that had a comparable speed of circulation as nowadays. Hyped or inaccurate accounts of stories kept ‘social supervisors’ and the police busy. There was always a pinch of spice in the interpretations. It seems there is not much difference despite centuries apart.

Looking into the 18th Century’s ‘communication practices’, one can see the community reflecting its own style of social interactions; there was a difference, though, an ‘etiquette of gossip’: meaning, never to pen as it could fall into the wrong hands. In our times, people gladly type their inaccurate information, opinion and rumours.

Back then, there was the ‘persecution of words police recording’ that lasted from between 1724 and 1781: a valuable source of information. Meaning, officers would register words and connotations. Nowadays, there are the hashtags, algorithms and sockpuppet (fake online identity) used to monitor people’s conversations. In both periods, 18th and 21st centuries, authorities deal with gossip and rumour on a constant basis. It appears to be a human trait; or could one say that gossip and rumour — as modes of communication — represent segments in society looking for a discursive space?

As time passed, inaccuracy, rumours and misinformation were prominently established during the world wars and the Cold War. Then, came the ‘Iraq dossier’, a ‘highly credible’ document intended to gather public opinion and support to declare war against Iraq — certainly, a hoax that did not come from those seeking a discursive space. Curiously, the word hoax was coined in the late 18th Century.

A stroll into the 6th Century AD can illuminate us on ‘pasquinade’, a common genre of diffusing nasty news, most of it fake, about political figures. ‘Pasquinades’ never disappeared; in fact, it was succeeded in the 17th Century by popular genre known as ‘canard’ — the genre of ‘modes of communication’ seen on the streets of Paris for over two hundred years.

Lately, we embraced a more sophisticated ‘modes of communication’ with fake news. Apparently, we have not abandoned the 18th Century school of gossips, rumours and hoax — we have just been armoured with extraordinary tools in communication technologies.

The recent staged death of a Russian journalist living in Ukraine drew critical reactions from news organisations in Europe claiming a damage to media’s credibility. France is ready to fight ‘manipulation of information’, while Sweden and Germany are releasing material to the population on how to defend themselves from misinformation during the coming elections.

Fake news, rumours and misinformation are part of human characters; it has been used in history and in propaganda — against enemies or in favour of allies. Politicians, informers, advertisers and storytellers are masters in putting words together for different purposes. Certain narratives can be more acceptable than others because they are emotionally attractive and bonding. Knowing the tricks used since the 6th Century AD will not change how we perceive rumours and fake news today, but it is a window to the past — and just perhaps — a flash to a better communication in the future.

Sonia Ambrosio


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