Does social media, given its power to create communities of echo chambers composed of communities of individuals’ posting their materials, inevitably create disinformation and “fake news”? Or is social media simply a relatively novel form of news, and over time, new social methods arise to judge its content? Here, I give some reasons to suggest that the answer to the second question is “yes.” Processes of authentication, that is, social methods to judge the veracity of information, developed historically for news that was spatially and temporally remote, including news transmitted through social media. To examine this development, I briefly outline this history of news authentication, starting in the Middle Ages in Europe.
Authenticating orality, visuality, and literacy“When communicating face-to-face, authentication can be conducted interpersonally by seeing, listening, speaking, and questioning to evaluate a person’s appearance and demeanor and thus understand their intentionality and social positionality.”
Face-to-face communication is prototypical; that is, other communication is judged by it.1Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 27. When communicating face-to-face, authentication can be conducted interpersonally by seeing, listening, speaking, and questioning to evaluate a person’s appearance and demeanor and thus understand their intentionality and social positionality. Face-to-face communication, however, cannot be transported easily over time and space. Disembodied formats—that is, media that separate the human body from the communication—are useful for spatially and temporally remote communication. Writing, for example, is a disembodied format that transmits words through space and time in a relatively permanent and unchanging format more easily than speech (though the transmission of memorized material is possible). Writing makes it feasible to accumulate and transmit information over time and space, facilitating the rise and spread of scientific and historical knowledge.2Ruth Finnegan, Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 17‒22. However, like all disembodied formats, specific forms of authentication have to develop around writing because it is not a form of face-to-face communication.
News in the Middle Ages
The earliest news carriers were messengers who delivered their messages in person, often orally. While the messenger was face-to-face with the recipient and sender, the sender and recipient were remote in time and space. Authentication developed specifically for this form of remote communication.
In medieval Europe, in particular, multiple mixed forms of written and oral news catered to the small literate elite and the large illiterate nonelite. Rulers sent written proclamations to be read, often verbatim, by messengers throughout their territories. These proclamations were legitimated through physical symbols of their authority (e.g., clothing, rings, seals). Diplomatic news was brought by letter and envoys. News, for example, from Europe to the Middle East, flowed across land and sea. Messengers were deployed for personal as well as political reasons.3Markus Stock, “Letter, Word, and Good Messengers: Towards an Archaeology of Remote Communication,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 37, no. 4 (2012): 301, 302.
News reports gained credibility from the reputation of the person who delivered it.4Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 2. The messenger represented the physical presence of the sender. The messenger was always in danger of not being able to convey correctly the sender’s message. The identification of the message with the messenger was very high, especially when the message was delivered orally, and there was always the danger that aggression toward the sender would be aimed at the messenger.5Stock, “Letter, Word,” 300‒302. Thus, the authentication of news was, to a large part, a process of authenticating the messenger.“Letters helped to verify the messenger’s social position and status.”
In addition, melded forms of oral and written communication helped to authenticate the message. Letters helped to verify the messenger’s social position and status. Messengers could deliver the message orally, they could read the letter aloud, they could ask someone else read the letter aloud, they could summarize the letter, or they could hand over the letter. Some letters pointed to the oral message but omitted its sensitive parts. In other cases, the letter contained the message, and the messenger simply delivered it. Messengers also collected news to return to the sender.6Stock, “Letter, Word,” 300‒301.
The practice of reciting letters and proclamations meant that written news often reached a listening rather than reading audience, even among elite circles. The verb, “to announce” (nuntiare) often referred to a reliable or first-hand account, as conveyed in a live recitation or proclamation. In contrast, “rumor” (rumor) or “common talk” (fama) did not necessarily have a negative connotation and often just meant news that had been widely circulated or reported and thus probably known through second-hand sources.7Helen Birkett, “News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187–1188,” Viator 49, no. 3 (2018), 37, 58‒59.
In sum, medieval news was delivered directly by people, but the recipient and senders were still remote in time and space. Messengers could be seen, heard, and interacted with, but authentication was still crucial, and messengers were always suspect. Physical objects as well as the form of delivery (mixed written and oral delivery) authenticated the message.
News in the modern period
In the next few centuries, printed news spread, and new methods of authentication arose around these printed forms. These forms of authentication were historically linked to, but distinct from, the ones that had surrounded messengers and their messages.“Over time, social institutions (e.g., bylines, editorial review) developed to authenticate information.”
Typeset news developed out of the medieval messenger system, drawing on oral reports and handwritten letters that became collated in a periodical format. Messengers, often diplomats, were senders and receivers of news. Diplomats produced handwritten notices (avvisi) that were compiled into typeset periodical formats.8Joad Raymond and Noah Moxham, “News Networks in Early Modern Europe,” in News Networks in Early Modern Europe, eds. Joad Raymond and Noah Moxham (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 9. Thus, typeset news (early forms of newspapers) developed out of manuscript news production.9Paul Goring, “A Network of Networks: Spreading the News in an Expanding World of Information,” in Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century, eds. Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Paul Goring, and Christine Watson (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 16. While periodicals could be circulated relatively easily across long distances in time and space, authenticating their information was difficult because it was not possible to see who wrote them or even know how the news had been passed along. Over time, social institutions (e.g., bylines, editorial review) developed to authenticate information.
Between 1450 and 1650, an intercontinental news network developed. This system worked because news was currency for diplomats: to have a worthwhile stream of information to send back to their home community, diplomats needed a stream of news to supply in exchange.10Tracy A. Sowerby, “Elizabethan Diplomatic Networks and the Spread of News,” in News Networks in Early Modern Europe, eds. Joad Raymond and Noah Moxham (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 305. Diplomats were the first “foreign correspondents” gaining their authority from their status as eyewitnesses. Newsletters and newspapers often emphasized this function by presenting letters in the first-person.11Rachael Scarborough King, “All the News that’s Fit to Write: The Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Newsletter,” in Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century, eds. Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Paul Goring, and Christine Watson (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 117. News travelled along postal routes, with postal carriers, as well as what they carried, spreading information.12Raymond and Moxham, “News Networks,” 11.
The exchange of news was based on a technology of paragraphs—succinct summaries—that relayed indicators of the place where the paragraphs were collated, the date of the news item, and the place where the news originated.13Raymond and Moxham, “News Networks,” 7. These details must have served, at least to some extent, to authenticate disembodied text by attaching details about its origins to it. In the eighteenth century, these paragraphs were copied (the “copy”) and reprinted in other periodicals and gazettes, often with alterations in the text or placement for political persuasion.14Will Slauter, “The Paragraph as Information Technology: How News Traveled in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World,” Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 67, no. 2 (2012): 257, 259‒62. These paragraphs would have been interpreted, to a large extent, not as factual per se, but as factual according to the correspondent who wrote the letter (although the identity may not have been revealed).15Goring, “A Network,” 8. Practices of citation remained inconsistent, but some individuals demanded “credit” for borrowed texts. Another authentication practice arose: Periodicals published multiple and contradictory paragraphs, all of which were subjected to critical analysis, for example, by commenting on the identity of the author or the credibility of the claims.16Slauter, “The Paragraph,” 262, 271, 276‒278.
Over time, periodicals, and how they were authenticated, changed. For example, nineteenth-century newspaper reports were authenticated by their use of eyewitness accounts and reported chronological events in real time. These events were judged in terms of the crowds—the numbers, kinds, behaviors of people that attended them. Reporters in the nineteenth century were eyewitnesses to these events, along with the other participants. Newspapers in this period were often a cacophony of different perspectives and voices.17David M. Ryfe, “News, Culture and Public Life: A Study of 19th-Century American Journalism,” Journalism Studies 7, no. 1 (2006): 62, 65, 73.
Starting around the 1890s, especially in the United States, news reporters, established as professional experts at analyzing information, started to control news content, shifting the production of news from diplomats, who might be messengers or politicians, and copyists and typesetters, who had rearranged text in periodical format, to professional information gatherers who wrote the items published in periodicals. Bylines became common in the 1920s. Reporters wrote stories themselves, in the third person, and they shifted their attention to the central focus of the events they covered (instead of the crowds that attended). Newspapers proclaimed their political independence, they tried to reach mass audiences, they tried to sell neutral and dispassionate facts and information, the five “w’s” (who, what, why, where, when) of reporting were established, and newspapers embraced what were considered to be progressive values of that time.18Ryfe, “News, Culture,” 73, 74. Thus, by the end of this period, newspapers began to take their quintessential modern format by claiming to present neutral information.19Michael Schudson, “The Objectivity Norm in American Journalism,” Journalism 2, no. 2 (2001): 149. Authentication then became, at least in part, a process that was attached to organizations that produced news with this professionalized staff and that laid claim to neutral information.“Major television networks portrayed their news as institutionally objective and neutral, drawing on the processes of authentication developed around newspaper organizations in the preceding decades.”
Beginning around the middle of the twentieth century, television news partially reembodied the messenger visually and orally within a new organizational framework of corporate network broadcasts. This model tried to create trustworthy messengers, representing organizations, who could relay information to a broad public. Major television networks portrayed their news as institutionally objective and neutral, drawing on the processes of authentication developed around newspaper organizations in the preceding decades. On-the-scene reporting revived the practice of relying on eyewitnesses but within this new organizational framework. Of course, this visual and oral re-embodiment was only partial, and in some cases, confusing or contradictory as face-to-face communication across a television screen is tantalizing but impossible. Oral delivery was often premised on reading written material, just as in earlier periods of time. Even interviews, though framed as spontaneous, were often based on extensive written preparation. Thus, the processes of authentication drew on long-standing practices of using eyewitnesses and reading written material but within a new organization context of network news and a new medium that partially reimbodied these messengers.
In sum, during the modern period, processes of authentication of printed and televised news transmission developed out of the medieval messenger system. Authentication became, to a large extent, a social process of institutions laying claim to professional authority to provide objective information.
The postmodern period
Many elements of the model created over the modern period collapsed with the rise of online news and social media. News production is no longer solely the purview of specialists and professional journalists, and to some extent, the premodern and early modern models returned, in which eyewitnesses, now armed with camera phones and the ability to post text, audio, and video, provide information. The circulation of printed newspapers and magazines as well as the reach of television network news declined, and news can be delivered over individuals’ electronic devices. The ease of transmission of content makes it commercially and logistically viable to target small markets and niches that may amplify echo chamber effects by providing similar information to communities of individuals.20Matteo Cinelli et al., “The Echo Chamber Effect on Social Media,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 9 (2021). It is no wonder that the decline of the model of professional journalism embedded within trustworthy organizations, developed in the twentieth century, is lamented. However, this model was just one of many ways to authenticate remote communication. Furthermore, it was far from neutral despite its own claims as well as popular perceptions and beliefs. It embodied, to a large extent, white male culture, presented as objective.21Linda Steiner, “Solving Journalism’s Post-Truth Crisis with Feminist Standpoint Epistemology,” Journalism Studies 19, no. 13 (2018): 1854‒1855, 1857.
Online news and social media are relatively novel, without highly developed social institutions that specifically authenticate this form of remote communication. Social media can be particularly jarring because it partially reembodies communication (like television), by presenting images and speech along with text. Thus, it uncannily resembles face-to-face communication, even though it is remote in time and space. Some content virtually transports eyewitnesses visually and temporally, via videos and pictures taken at the scene of an event, to millions of individuals. Nevertheless, social processes of authentication are developing around social media. “Likes” and retweets suggest individual-level agreement, to some extent, with the content of the message, and their sum propose an aggregate that has to be evaluated. Social media companies are developing rules and policies (sometimes under legal pressure) about removing content, barring users, or adding warnings to posts, pointing toward attempts to create organizational trustworthiness (as with twentieth-century newspapers and television networks). There are other continuities with previous remote formats. Much online material is indeed spontaneously composed orally, but then transmitted in a text-like, fixed format. Written materials are also widely disseminated, often from news sources that developed out of print media.
In sum, in the postmodern period, online news and social media are relatively new forms of news, for which there are underdeveloped methods of social authentication. Though social media is perhaps especially jarring in how it partially resembles face-to-face communication, the longue durée shows how authentication arises around novel forms of news.
Conclusions“As forms of remote—non face-to-face—communication developed over time, new forms of authentication developed alongside them.”
As forms of remote—non face-to-face—communication developed over time, new forms of authentication developed alongside them. Messengers, manuscripts, periodicals, and television, for example, all had different methods of authentication. None of these remote forms were automatically trustworthy nor inherently deceptive. Each required that social practices arise around it, over time, that authenticated the information. Online news and social media are relatively new media. They bring the possibility of fixing eyewitness oral and visual accounts that can be crowdsourced, treated textually, and very widely disseminated. To date, there are few ways to authenticate such information. Like the other forms of remote communication, they are not necessarily deceptive or trustworthy. Their evaluation depends on the development of social processes of social authentication—both novel and recycled—as in earlier time periods.