The great “Fake News” scare of 1530

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Fake news has always been around for humor purposes, but the real “fake news” scares happen when the establishment is so used to getting away with lying, that any alternate narrative is demonized as factually false, irresponsible, and dangerous.

“The Onion” was next to “The Economist” in the newspaper stands for almost two decades. “Weekly World News”, which one-ups most British tabloids with regular Elvis sightings and vivid descriptions of two-mile fish orbiting in the rings of Jupiter, is still next to “Foreign Policy” in the same newspaper stands. This was never considered problematic in the slightest. Why, then, is a unified establishment screaming bloody murder about “fake news” all of a sudden?

To see the pattern here, it helps to know a little history – let’s look at the great “Fake News” scare of 1530. It has a lot of elements similar to ours today.

“The statements that make [established] people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. […] If Galileo had said that people in Padua were ten feet tall, he would have been regarded as a harmless eccentric. Saying the earth orbited the sun was another matter. The church knew this would set people thinking.” — Paul Graham

After the Black Death hit Europe hard around 1350, the monasteries were chronically short on manpower. The families that had used to send a child or two to become monks or nuns simply needed all their kids to work in the fields, to ensure food production, before such luxuries as manning the monasteries could even be considered. Therefore, any work that required involving monasteries became increasingly steep or scarce for the coming century.

This is relevant as those monasteries were the only places that produced books, all of which were in Latin, and all of which were in complete synchronization with the messages of the Catholic Church, the owner of the monasteries and therefore the owner of all mass media at the time. To compound the situation, the same owner also employed all the news anchors – the village preachers, who were the ones who read the books (in Latin) and translated them to the common tongue in villages.

A book was hideously expensive to produce. Not only was each page copied by hand, but the pages were made from animal hides: it was estimated that a single book may require the hides of as much as 300 calves. We don’t have a lot of comparative numbers from Europe of the time, but we do have them from elsewhere: a fine book in the Islamic world of the time could cost 100 dinars, with the annual paycheck required to support a middle-class family being about 25 dinars. Put differently, the prospect of buying one single book would consume an entire family income for four years – or in the $500k to $1M range in today’s value.

Gutenberg was convinced his invention would strengthen the Church, as the ability to mass produce books from a single original would eliminate all the small copying errors invariably introduced in the manual book production process. It would therefore, he argued, improve the consistency of Christian bibles. The result was the exact opposite, through mechanisms Gutenberg did not foresee.

To the day, almost a century later, Johannes Gutenberg combined the four inventions of the squeeze press, oil-based inks, metal movable type, and cheap rag-based pages to produce the first printing press. All of a sudden, books could be mass produced cheaply, and there was an enormous profit motive to be made in producing books for the common people. You could accurately and shamelessly call it an undercutting of the monastery business. (“How will the monks get paid if we allow cheap copying technologies?”)

Gutenberg was convinced his invention would strengthen the Church, as the ability to mass produce books from a single original would eliminate all the small copying errors invariably introduced in the manual book production process. The result was the exact opposite, through mechanisms Gutenberg did not foresee.

It’s important to remember here, that through the media cartel of the medieval ages (where the Catholic Church produced all news and reported all news), that there was an absolute gatekeeper position over the narrative. The Church could essentially claim that something was true, and everybody would believe it. This is a very powerful position, being the gatekeeper of true and false – one that is prone to abuse without any opposition, or competition, in reporting. As it turned out, the Catholic Church would indeed come to abuse this power quite egregiously, and paid the price for it.

What Martin Luther protested was only superficially the selling of salvation to raise funds: fundamentally, he was objecting to abuse of the gatekeeper position over truth and lie for the gatekeeper’s material benefit.

In the late 1400s, the Catholic Church needed to raise money, and came up with the idea of selling forgiveness for sins, the basic idea being that you didn’t need to be a good person to gain the favor of the Church (and divine beings), you only needed to be Rich. A priest, monk, and theologist named Martin Luther took particular exception to this message, seeing how it stood in complete opposition to everything the Church was supposed to be about, and nailed his 95 theses to the church door in 1517.

These 95 theses outlined how the entire practice of selling divine forgiveness was based on falsehoods, fabrications, and fiction. However, it’s important to look at the bigger picture here: what Martin Luther protested was only superficially the selling of salvation to raise funds. More fundamentally, he was objecting to abuse of the gatekeeper position over truth and lie to twist the narrative for the gatekeeper’s material benefit.

This is where the story should start to feel familiar with modern day conflicts over the Power of Narrative.

Luther was excommunicated – banished, exiled – in 1521. This was one of the graver punishments administered, short of the death penalty, and the only thing remaining for somebody thus punished was normally to leave for foreign lands. However, in Luther’s case, he was given refuge in lands siding with him instead of the Catholic regime, ultimately setting off a century of civil war over the Power of Narrative.

The final death knell came when Luther published bibles in German and French using the new printing press, the so-called Luther Bibles, first published in 1522. These set off shockwaves, as they were 1) distributed by the cartload in the streets of Paris and France, 2) were readable by the common people without translation by the clergy, and 3) didn’t cost the equivalent of a million dollars each.

The Church immediately went into a panic, as they had instantly lost their gatekeeper position. No longer were they able to stand unchallenged when they were reading from the Bible in Latin, as people could – and would – verify the claims made, using their own direct sources. And as it turned out, a lot of the things that had been claimed – selling salvation among them – had been baloney of the highest order with no support in the Christian Bible as claimed.

The Catholic church went on a rampage and a crusade against this new spread of ideas that would challenge its narrative, and in particular, against the technology which enabled people to challenge its narrative. Copying books cheaply and efficiently instead of paying four annual salaries for a single book – the audacity, the outrageous heresy! How dared people copy books themselves without respecting the Church? Obviously, books could only be properly copied in monasteries, to ensure proper quality.

(“How will the monks copying books get paid otherwise?” was as much a smokescreen then as it is today.)

The church kept up the pressure against the printing press, as it saw all the resulting non-sanctioned news channels as completely fake, not just being wrong, but being dangerous. They were irresponsible. They were deliberately spreading misinformation – at least the Church saw it that way, a Church which was institutionally incapable of unlearning that it was no longer the single source of information and would no longer have whatever outlandish claim accepted without question.

However, the nobility and royalty of the time were certainly paying attention to the Church. After all, the Archbishop installed Kings, so there was a mutual dependence for power between the clergy and royalty at the time. Therefore, when the Church exclaimed the sky is falling (“there is fake news everywhere! We must do something!!!111!!one!”), the royalty tended to listen.

As a result, on January 13, 1535, the French King Francis I signed into law the death penalty by hanging for using a printing press at all. Yes, you read that right: there was a death penalty for making unauthorized copies. The justification for the law, as still readable in the preserved logs from 1535, was to “prevent the spread of misinformation and false news”.

So the gatekeepers of knowledge and culture in 1530, on losing their gatekeeper position over the narrative, didn’t counter with higher-quality reporting, but instead attacked the technology enabling competition, calling it out as spreading misinformation and irresponsible fake reports. Does any of this seem… familiar?

The law was a complete fiasco. Once people had learned to read competing reporting, there was no unlearning it. The law was repealed shortly thereafter. England went another route to prevent the success of the printing press by establishing a censorship regime with printing monopolies, known as copyright, but that’s a story for another day.

As a final touch, let’s consider the words of Paul Graham, in his excellent essay “what you can’t say”: “No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true. […] If Galileo had said that people in Padua were ten feet tall, he would have been regarded as a harmless eccentric. Saying the earth orbited the sun was another matter. The church knew this would set people thinking.”

Privacy and narrative remain your own responsibility.

Syndicated article
This article was previously published on Private Internet Access.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot.

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Discussion

  1. Pieter

    Interesting, but what does this have to do with the actual dangers of today’s Fake News such as climate change denial, the distrust of experts and the claim that Hillary Clinton is running a child pornography network? Those do not set people thinking, but are deliberate attempts at misinformation with rather dire consequences.

    1. JDunn

      This has everything to do with today’s fake news because you just displayed the ignorance of the modern reader. Skim the title, a couple words, and then babble off your talking points. You discredited information as “fake news” because you were told to, and with no proof otherwise. Great job being a useful idiot Pieter!

      Perhaps if you had done some research for yourself, you would see the point of this article is that the only people screaming “fake news” over “crazy theories” are the people realize those “conspiracies” are true, and they genuinely have something to lose. #Pizzagate is real. It’s happened in the UK, it’s happened in Norway, it’s happened in many other countries, and it’s happening in America. Denying child trafficking is happening, and defending this behavior by stifling conversation with “fake news” claims, attacking people trying to investigate criminals, and appeals to “experts” like the climate science one recently arrested for being a fraud are pitifully obvious signs of a parrot.

      Wikileaks is not fake, and Russia didn’t hack your election either. Washington Post spams fake news weekly, but I don’t see the administration attacking them. I wonder why? #FollowTheMoney

      1. Anonymous

        If the existence of child trafficking justifies calling Clinton and Podesta without any piece of evidence child traffickers, then it’s OK to call you a child trafficker, too? #jdunngate

        1. Jdunn

          Sure thing anonymous, “without any piece of evidence”… Open your eyes you creepy pedo apologist. The elite in the US and no doubt, around the world are engaged in sick human trafficking practices which they use to service other elite in their freak rituals and ceremonies. Maybe you should open a book or read a legitimate newspaper once in awhile, and turn off ClintonNewsNetwork. Clearly the major elite power players couldn’t possibly be involved in a 100billion a year industry that they hide by utilizing networks of legitimate businesses.. http://archive.is/ShZ6w

          What kind of evidence would you like?
          Would you like to your mass media elite normalizing pedofilia? https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/06/opinion/pedophilia-a-disorder-not-a-crime.html

          Would you like to see how Dyncorp uses underage children for entertainment of it’s government contractors and liasons? https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20101208/00221812176/so-wikileaks-is-evil-releasing-documents-dyncorp-gets-pass-pimping-young-boys-to-afghan-cops.shtml
          Ol’e Hilldog is involved in Dyncorp deep, and has taken donations from both Dyncorp, and it’s parent company Cerebus Inc. http://www.houstonpress.com/news/wikileaks-texas-company-helped-pimp-little-boys-to-stoned-afghan-cops-6718414 “For those that can’t or won’t click the link, bacha bazi is a pre-Islamic Afghan tradition that was banned by the Taliban. Bacha boys are eight- to 15-years-old. They put on make-up, tie bells to their feet and slip into scanty women’s clothing, and then, to the whine of a harmonium and wailing vocals, they dance seductively to smoky roomfuls of leering older men.
          After the show is over, their services are auctioned off to the highest bidder, who will sometimes purchase a boy outright. And by services, we mean anal sex: The State Department has called bacha bazi a “widespread, culturally accepted form of male rape.””
          https://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/15526 Here Hillary talks to her lawyer about the little boy dancing at this Dyncorp engagement.. these are the people you look up to, so you should be proud. …”hiring an adolescent boy dancer for some sort of event that, at least to most folks, looked very inappropriate.” Most folks… but not to them. Here’s a previous case that Dyncorp had with human trafficking… woops, that never happens and these people aren’t involved at all, right anonymous? http://archive.is/PJLJb Here their lobbying groups are seen opposing human tracking laws. I wonder why? Too strict perhaps? … Here’s another email implicating Dyncorp in inappropriate behavior. https://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/15562 Nothing to see here folks! Move along citizen!

          Would you like video of these elites molesting children? Why here you go.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIN-TopfzkQ&app=desktop
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwXweiRjckI
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYqOqu3oioI

          Would you like to read California SB1322 which legalizes child prostitution and bars law enforcement from helping these people? Well here you have it! http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160SB1322

          Would you like to see how Clinton is tied Laura Silsby, a woman caught trying to steal children from their families, and smuggle 33 of them out of Haiti? Huma Abedin routinely emails Clinton about Silsby’s foundation (Silsby runs an NGO called “New Life Children’s Refuge”, how convenient). https://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/2772 Bill Clinton flies to Haiti to negotiate with the Haitian government on behalf of the child smuggler, Silsby (surely he has nothing to lose, right?), https://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/3465 https://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/3539
          Silsby is defended in court by lawyer Jorge Puelo (also a convincted sex trafficker https://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/32/323249_-os-haiti-us-legal-adviser-to-u-s-haiti-missionaries.html), her group is released and Silsby’s charges are magically dropped to “irregular travel”, with the children being claimed to be “given up” after the Clinton’s got involved. http://harvardhrj.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/King.pdf
          The Clinton Foundation is heavily involved in Haiti.. In 2009, the Clinton Global Initiative (part of the Clinton Foundation), turned its focus to “stopping human trafficking” with a focus on Haiti. http://archive.is/qg70U Odd that sex trafficking explodes in Haiti soon thereafter. http://www.ijdh.org/2010/10/topics/womens-issues/sex-trafficking-of-haitian-kids-exploding/ The Clinton Global Initiative was founded by notorious sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein http://archive.is/PCN83 Although he was sued numerous times by victims in civil trials, Epstein has never faced criminal charges for engaging in and soliciting sex with minors on his personal aircraft (aka “Lolita Express”) or his Caribbean island, Little St James, colloquially known as “Orgy Island.” Victims have argued that the island is a hub for housing minors who are bought from trafficking rings and abused by its elite visitors. http://nation.foxnews.com/2015/01/24/sex-slave-claims-bill-clinton-visited-epstein-s-orgy-island He was in a relationship with Ghislaine Maxwell during the time in which he was engaging in sexual relations with underage girls. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/who-is-jeffrey-epstein-a-study-of-the-man-linked-to-worlds-of-celebrity-politics-and-royalty-9954397.html Epstein’s victims claimed Maxwell acted as a “madam” to assist in procuring victims on Epstein’s behalf. Maxwell maintains a close friendship with the Clintons, attending Chelsea’s wedding, even after Epstein’s arrest.. Maxwell’s current initiative, The TerraMar Project, provides millions in funding to the Clinton Foundation. https://www.clintonfoundation.org/clinton-global-initiative/commitments/sustainable-oceans-alliance-impacting-sgds Jeffrey Epstein’s aircraft shares a tail number with a State Department Bronco contracted by Dyncorp, used during the time Dyncorp is suspected of trafficking in Bosnia. http://archive.is/ZrL54 https://archive.is/IGqas (If issued as an accident or a coincidence, the odds are still over 1 in 900,000. http://archive.is/KfI9x#selection-599.177-603.99) A Dyncorp whistleblower speaks out “[he] owned a girl who couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. It’s a sick sight anyway to see any grown man [having sex] with a child, but to see some 45-year-old man who weighs 400 pounds with a little girl, it just makes you sick.” Former President Bill Clinton was a much more frequent flyer on a registered sex offender’s infamous jet than previously reported, with flight logs showing the former president taking at least 26 trips aboard the “Lolita Express” — even apparently ditching his Secret Service detail for at least five of the flights, according to records. http://archive.is/B6nnX Ever heard of the Swiss Leaks? “Another Clinton foundation donor who had a HSBC account in the tax haven is Jeffrey Epstein” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/10/hillary-clinton-foundation-donors-hsbc-swiss-bank
          By the way… Where’s Eric Braverman?

          I can keep going?

        2. Jdunn

          Sure thing anonymous, “without any piece of evidence”… Open your eyes you creepy pedo apologist loser. The elite in the US and no doubt, around the world are engaged in sick human trafficking practices which they use to service other elite in their freak rituals and ceremonies. Maybe you should open a book or read a legitimate newspaper once in awhile, and turn off ClintonNewsNetwork. Clearly the major elite power players couldn’t possibly be involved in a 100billion a year industry that they hide by utilizing networks of legitimate businesses.. http://archive.is/ShZ6w

          What kind of evidence would you like?

      2. Ninja

        Dude… Your tinfoil hat is powerful! Do you believe Obama is a Nigerian Prince as well?

    2. josh

      …as you trumpet the church’s position from 500 years ago. Why have all climate predictions been wrong? Have you seen my handkerchief, it has a pizza-related map on it?

  2. Pendaftaran

    The church knew this would set people thinking.” it thing so

  3. snapchat geofilters

    Since then do we have fake news ?

  4. Penelope

    The ignorance was and still is the main reason all those facts happened! Wonder what is the position of Church on this era of internet communications?

  5. Atalanta69

    Interesting analogy…there really is nothing new under the sun. By the way, no-one should allow themselves to be at all rattled by the trolls who are really rather pathetic. Trolling signals the desperation of those who are steadily losing the argument – and, as this article demonstrates, on the wrong side of history.

  6. Ninja

    I do think that factually wrong or challenged ‘news’ or articles are worrying yes. This includes the shameless propaganda some governments spew since forever but there’s aggravating issues today: the printing press got a hyperspace drive installed and now works in relativity-challenging speeds and this hyper drive is called the Internet. So the damage hoaxes, falsehoods and general ‘fake news’ can cause is tremendous.

    Notice I’m using ‘fake news’ between ‘marks’ because I’m using it to mean any piece of text that is factually wrong and this ‘wrongness’ can be verified. There are the ‘rumors’ that can be damaging as well and they can’t be verified (the US election hacks by Russians for example). In any case, we must be very wary of how the term is being used because most people, and this includes Governments, just call fake news things they either dislike or don’t agree with.

    In any case, turning this into crimes does little to help and will empower future dictators and totalitarian Governments with tools for censorship. Because of course they will be abused at some point. But alas we don’t live in a world that’s sane or free with very few exceptions. If such exceptions exist at all. I couldn’t think of one readily as I typed this.

  7. almasdar

    The ignorance was and still is the main reason all those facts happened! Wonder what is the position of Church on this era of internet communications?

  8. Batman

    They put on make-up, tie bells to their feet and slip into scanty women’s clothing, and then, to the whine of a harmonium and wailing vocals, they dance seductively to smoky roomfuls of leering older men.

  9. Batman

    The elite in the US and no doubt, around the world are engaged in sick human trafficking practices which they use to service other elite in their freak rituals and ceremonies. Maybe you should open a book or read a legitimate newspaper once in awhile,

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