The Duck of Minerva

You Are Fake News!

9 October 2017

Yes, you have heard a lot about it. A German version of the ISA just featured a roundtable entitled: ‘Reclaiming the facts: analysis of international politics in the age of fake news and post-facts’. There has been a lot of panic over the new era of alternative facts.  Let me assure you: fake news and post facts are not new. Social networks are not new. We all have seen and read about them before. And they are not only as American as George Washington’s cherry tree. They are old and they are universal.

Here’s an example.

Once upon a time, there was a bankrupt opportunist from a notable family who urgently needed cash to pay his financier. No, he didn’t run to the Russian oligarchs (they were hard to reach at that point in time); instead, he decided to avoid the debt by killing his banker in the middle of 5th  avenue. When he was brought to court, his lawyer thought of a brilliant defense: instead of claiming that the accused was innocent, he went all the way to acknowledge the guilt of the criminal. The reason he killed the banker was allegedly his way to take revenge on the banker’s own nefarious deed of a child’s murder. The court was so baffled by this defense that the opportunist turned murderer walked free and the fake news about the boy’s murder assumed a life of its own. The year was 1150 and I am talking about the murder of William of Norwich, one of the first recorded accusations of ritual murder that still serves as an inspiration to Neo-Nazis and Anti-Semites around the world.

The defense concocted by Norwich Bishop William Turbe in 1150 was a classic victim blaming technique that argued that Simon the Novers, the retired crusader, exacted revenge on Deulesalt the Jew in order to compensate for the Christ-like suffering of the little William whose murder remained unsolved since 1144. The story quickly found its Breitbart editor: Thomas of Monmouth decided to investigate this Pizzagate and write his own account of the events that included some fascinating reasoning for William’s murder. According to Monmouth, Jews gathered every year in Narbonne to discuss which community would sacrifice a Christian child in order to regain control of Israel. Oh, Thomas. Any Adolf, Dick and Harry could have told you it’s the Prague cemetery, not Narbonne! And we discuss world domination plans, not babies – really.

Thomas, who himself arrived several years after the actual murder took place also found witnesses that conveniently confessed on their deathbeds. The local GOP, I mean, cathedral leadership realized the potential for Monmouth’s opus: they needed to create a rival candidate saint to defeat the growing popularity of St. Edmund at Bury and attract Mercer family money and pilgrims their way. Norwich was a big city, but it didn’t have a body of a saint that would have meant a lot of social power in that day. A young martyred child could have served the purpose perfectly. And Jews… they were suspiciously cosmopolitan anyway.

Alt-right have always had a good hang of social networks. Thomas of Monmouth and William Turbe were no exception and ritual murder accusation was quickly passed around to their 4Chan monk buddies in Gloucester, Suffolk, Bury, Blois, Paris and Bavaria. These Pepe frogs liked the story so much that their own Jews were burning at stakes just several years later accused of similar “crimes”. If you are thinking that the story is almost a thousand years old and doesn’t have any modern repercussions you would be mistaken. Do you know what Menahem Beilis was on trial for in 1913 in Tsarist Russia’s Kyiv? Ritual murder of a Christian boy.

Fake news and post facts are not new. It’s just these days it takes a lot less effort to spread them.


*The post is inspired by an excellent historical study by E. M. Rose “The Murder of William of Norwich”