People spend a lot of time cosplaying as historical figures on twitter.
What would the French Revolution have looked like on Twitter? It’s not hard to imagine. Embedded videos of the Bastille’s storming. “#foreignplot” trending on the sidebar. Raynal’s threads going viral. “Antoinette was innocent! RT if you agree!” It’s an enjoyable thought experiment, and maybe even a useful teaching exercise. Every so often, historians joke their way through a viral twitter thread with some version of that prompt. Recently, there was “Name a historical figure that never had access to Twitter but would have been great at it.” A couple of days later, it was (much more sensibly) “Name a historical figure you are extremely grateful never had access to Twitter.”
But maybe we don’t have to wonder.
It’s tempting to think of social media as a fundamentally different vehicle for communication than the media landscapes of the past. What could Instagram have in common with the telegraph, or Facebook with newspapers? But little is actually new about these Internet media. Those who lived through the late eighteenth century would have recognized many of the problems that beset the twenty-first century’s news media.
Our familiar challenges with verification, fake news, irresponsible sharing, and partisan media would have been familiar to those who lived through the tumultuous 1790s. Indeed, North Americans living through the French Revolution experienced what my recent Journal of the Early Republic article calls a “Reign of Error.” They might not have witnessed the French Revolution through Twitter, but their experience with news media wasn’t as far off from our social media as we might imagine. Robert Darnton once wrote, “every age was an age of information, each in its own way.” We might add that all media are social, each in its own way.
Spend an hour with the newspapers of the 1790s and it will be easy to spot their similarities with our present media landscape. In North America, newspaper printers relied on letters, ship captains’ reports, and foreign newspaper accounts for news about the French Revolution and the wars that it inspired. They took what they could get. They had almost no way to verify news, other than waiting to see what came next. As a result, they shared many, many falsehoods. In early 1794, for example, a single inaccurate letter sparked a rumor that an English military commander had been taken prisoner in France. This caused such a “sensation” when news reached the U.S. Congress that it was forced to adjourn for the day. But after a short time, the arrival of more reports convinced everyone that this was false. New York printer Thomas Greenleaf dolefully commented that the rumors which had “lately crossed the Atlantic in various directions” had “caused us to be sharers in the general deception.”
In the mid-1790s, partisan newspaper readers in the United States became fixated on the concept of “bias”—a term that we hear all too much today. Republicans, who tended to be optimistic about revolutionary France, argued that news from London simply could not be trusted. Republican printer Benjamin Franklin Bache claimed in a 1796 issue that “the extracts from London papers this day published” would show “how little those prints are to be depended on for an authentic account of transaction on the continent of Europe.” Federalists, who were skeptical if not downright hostile about the French Revolution, similarly mocked those who relied on information from French publications. They were more likely to trust news that had been published in Britain. Over time, these two parties developed not only different interpretations of the French Revolution, but also significantly different understandings of the basic facts of who was doing what in France. Twenty-first century commentators who discuss “epistemic closure,” “tribal epistemologies,” or “partisan blinders,” ought to keep in mind that this phenomenon is not unique to our present.
It’s easy to blame technology for the failures of our contemporary media environment. In an era that prizes techno-deterministic “disruption,” it’s tempting to blame certain communications technologies for destructive information consumption habits. In fact, though, the ways that people engage with media, the ways that governments regulate it (or not), and the expectations that consumers bring to it matter as much as the technology itself.
In the 1790s, North American news consumers might have sought out and developed non-partisan information authorities. They might have fostered a culture that valued uncertainty and verification (as a few writers ineffectually suggested). In short, they might have valued truth in news over its utility. But they did not. The era’s limited information technology was not solely at fault for this behavior. Rather, it was the result of North Americans’ profound lack of humility about the limitations of their own knowledge. Just like early modern newspapers, the ways that so many people use social media today encourages them to feel informed without actually doing the labor that’s needed to become informed. It’s a potent, and dangerous, combination. Revolutions have come from less.