The Prehistory of Fake News


The stones at Tiryns don’t look particularly special. It’s one of their defining features, in fact. They were lifted straight from nature, unhewn and undecorated. It’s only when you get up close to them that you recognize how strange they actually are: how big they are and how well they fit together and how difficult it would be to take them apart. They lack the fragility you find in other ruins. And in their rough simplicity you can find a sense of permanence usually belonging only to natural monuments.

At first perhaps some of the more elaborate and mythical claims that have been made about them over the years seem excessive. Pausanias thought them no less remarkable than the Pyramids at Giza. He was joined by Apollodorus in identifying them with structures left in Argolis by a legendary race of titans. Both of these claims seem to exaggerate the importance of these stone structures. But consider the forces necessary finally and fully to unknit them from one another. You then arrive at the other end of history when something greater than all of us arrives in some combination of fire and flood to unmake the world.

The titans that Pausanias tells us built the walls were the Cylcopes. Famous for having no more than a single eye these builders were also supposedly very large. According to the legend they came down to the Peloponnese from Lycia and built the walls with their bare hands. And so from Classical times the walls received the epithet CYCLOPEAN.

Heinrich Schliemann later excavated the site and linked it to the very human Bronze age in which it was actually built. At the time he wrote about the regret he felt merely using the Classical epithet. You see, he did not believe Cyclopes had built the walls even if most of his other archaeological work had been based on Homeric poetry.

But Schliemann still found using the term unavoidable. It had been so well established that he couldn’t do otherwise but use it. To this day the term CYCLOPEAN is still sometimes used in English to describe something impossibly large.

And so the walls of Tiryns share their permanence with the strange stories that have been told about them. When dealing with ancient or even slightly old institutions you often find similar cases.

Consider this story from our first politician: When George Washington once as a boy cut down a cherry tree, he learned about his own inability to lie about it. The story has been called a myth, given its apocryphal nature – it might even be a form of fake news – but in any case it’s as false as the Cyclopean story. This hasn’t kept it from prominence, however. It has the status of a kind of American legend now. Maybe it will forever live on in the stories we tell ourselves about him, unavoidable as the story of cyclopean builders.

As truths advance along with science so do many attendant falsehoods. Such stories aren’t always so harmless either, and even stories we disbelieve can still exert an unreasoning influence upon our lives.

Superstitions of various kinds make for good examples. Ideas of bad luck or lucky numbers or black cats and broken mirrors operate by an unfortunate mechanism: Once you learn them you can almost never forget them, and knowing them usually means having to reckon with them.

Even if you choose to ignore a superstition, you’re usually required to make a choice around it. If you encounter a black cat crossing a road you decide to ignore it and live with it. This can cause anxiety for some people. Or you can try to respond to it by some other superstitious remedy such as walking in a circle. But so long as you are aware of the superstition you have to make this choice. It’s the ongoing experience of dealing with such ideas. And the same ideas seem to reproduce themselves in every succeeding generation. Some evidence suggests that ideas around race, gender and identity can work in a similar way.

Falsehoods cling to truth like the way cyclopean legends cling to the walls of Tiryns. What’s false may even be harder to discredit than what is true. Truth is often complicated. Sometimes it’s boring. And sometimes falsehood can even be enjoyable or useful. It certainly adds some interest to anyone who visits the ruin of Tiryns. So do stories of Hercules and its other supposed inhabitants in ancient times.

Recently, though, online media have made it easier to publish, easier to report, easier to teach. In some cases, this means that people, both in traditional media positions and outside of them, have had to struggle less with what is true and what is false. Of course, we can ask for better journalism. We can demand better teachers. But ultimately, the responsibility for dealing with the stories we hear, whether true or false, belongs to us.

A Case for Self-Reflection

And we can’t succeed in this task without first being honest with ourselves. It’s easy, attractive even, to support a viewpoint when it’s more sensational and interesting. And the stories we hear, even if they are essentially false, can still contain an idea, a resource valuable in some other way. We don’t always need to ignore them.

But we need to know what they are. We have to become aware of them.

We can begin by chronicling the prehistory of our own thoughts, by putting together a map of the things we think and the things we believe from before we remember believing them.

The process doesn’t have to be unnecessarily complicated. A simple but ongoing list of the ideas going through our head can make as good a starting point as any. Nor do we need to necessarily understand the origin of everything. We don’t even need to assess it’s truth or falsehood. We simply need to acknowledge the existence of the stories that are already there.

At the next level, we need to reflect on these ideas, sometimes in an essay form. If possible, write it in a form that can be put online or published. It can be helpful to promote them, to actively share them, but the productive and public output of ideas can be valuable in itself. This is a perspective we’ve perhaps lost in an era that focuses on pageviews, clicks, and other, consumption-based analytics. Putting your thoughts out there in a public forum means you have, at least, you’ve built a position to stand behind, but it doesn’t mean you need to become some celebrated blogger.

A small amount of such self-reflection can lead to a great deal of this important form of self-knowledge. It should be a core feature of the way we educate ourselves and our children. We should especially ask for it when more concrete skills are needed.

And this is because the stories we encounter day in, day out, year after year – many of these won’t be easy to dismiss or forget. Knowing what’s there may mean knowing what will always be there. It at least gives us a chance to choose, in any case, to tend the chamber of our thoughts, to take leadership of our own heads. It’s a response that may not determine the future of fake news, but at least what the news will mean to us.