Dave Tarrant

Dave Tarrant

Last updated on 24 October 2019

Dr David Tarrant is the senior learning advisor at the Open Data Institute (ODI). 

I would first like to thank the work of the BBC for the research behind this article that was broadcast in “Ian Hislop’s Fake News: A True History”. I have added to the story with details not included in the programme and checked these using a combination of sources. 

So what can our memory institutions teach us about fake news?

As it turns out a lot. At the end of the 19th century the British Library was faced with the same question parliament is grappling with in the 21st century. 

“What can be done about fake news”

The story revolves around Victoria Woodhull. 

Victoria was an American leader of the women’s suffrage movement, a strong believer in free love, and was the first woman to run for President of the United States. Along with a number of other women she also founded a newspaper which began publication in 1870. 

In 1872, the paper published a story that would set off a national scandal and ultimately lead to the end of Woodhull's run for presidency. The story involved prominent preacher and minister Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher would openly condemn Woodhull’s free love philosophy in his sermons. However, a member of the church exposed Beecher as having an adulterous affair. Upon hearing of this hypocrisy, Woodhull decided to expose Beecher.

This led to a war of words and proliferation of fake news accusing Woodhull of being a drunk, a whore and mistress of a gambling den among others. Woodhull was arrested on obscenity charge and ultimately decided to move to the UK to escape the continued persecution. 

In 1893, Woodhull was offended to discover copies of the fake news reports in the archives at the British Library. She sent the library a letter of complaint accusing the library of “bringing within the reach of the public obscene and defamatory literature” and requested the offending items be removed from the collection. 

The chief librarian responded “The trustees will not, I am sure, sanction that a book is to be withdrawn merely because it is objected to. Such a principle may have very extensive, and very undesirable consequences”. 

The next stage for Victoria was to challenge this through the courts and sue for libel. In court, the libraries lawyer estimated that the library would need to employ 110 experts in libel law to inspect the 300,000+ new books added to the collection every year. He argued that no library should be expected to fact check the books on its shelves. 

Remarkably, the jury found in Victoria’s favor! 

On appeal, the library won. This was on the basis that they had not published or made a deliberate attempt to draw attention to the material Victoria had objected to. The judge ruled that librarians should not be guilty by association. 

To this day, most people agree that libraries should not be held responsible for their contents. 

But should that principal apply to all sites that store information, either analogue or digital?

And now we come to the social media networks. Constantly at the center of blame for the content on their platforms. They say they should not be expected to fact check everything, and yet they are trying to do exactly that. 

The real issue here revolves around the role of the curator of what people see. The problem is not that the platforms hold fake or defamatory information, it is the fact that they chose to promote and expose such information to users. This would be like the British Library choosing to blow up and frame for all to see the articles which Victoria objected to. This is clearly not something they would choose to do, so why is it happening online? Why are misleading political adverts being approved online when they would be banned from TV or radio?

All is not yet lost. Back in the 1890s, the printing press created a crazy period in the media, one where the printed media outlets were battling for people's attention with radical (and often fake) stories. Victoria herself was a part of this. History suggests we’ll get used to this. Fake news, deep fakes, image manipulation. We have to stop believing stuff just because we want it to be true. We have to find a new equilibrium of trust. Trusted organisations have to maintain high standards and not be sucked into the quagmire of fake news for monetary and personal gain. 

Our memory institutions can teach us a lot about the world we live in, but how do we shout louder than the fake news in order to help people through this challenging time that we live in?

Dr David Tarrant is the senior learning advisor at the Open Data Institute (ODI). The ODI is actively involved in a number of projects looking at trust in modern society. The following set of links include talks and projects related to the above from the ODI. 

ODI Fridays: Truth, trust and technology

Data ethics and privacy

ARCHANGEL: digital archives and distributed ledger technologies

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