And I quote: Voltaire



I heard a radio news story yesterday about the difficulty students have telling the difference between real news and fake news. And then I read a New Yorker story about the way that Facebook’s “news” algorithm doesn’t* distinguish between the real and the fake–the latter characterized by the sort of “tall tales, groundless conspiracy theories, and oppositional propaganda” that used to spread by forwarded emails. (A couple of examples from the article: prior to the election there were widely shared false stories reporting that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump and that Hillary Clinton had commissioned murders.)




The article also referred to a Washington Post interview with a guy who makes a living writing fake news, and who told some real whoppers in the months before the election. Having written ludicrous lies in Trump’s favor in the hope that supporters would quote them and then end up looking stupid when they were found to be false, he acknowledges that his strategy backfired. “’I think Trump is in the White House because of me,’ he said. ‘His followers don’t fact-check anything—they’ll post everything, believe anything.’”


Analysis of Facebook news stories during the three months prior to the election found that the top 20 fake election stories received more attention and reader engagement than the top 20 genuine news stories from 19 major news websites. And it turns out that 17 of the 20 fake stories were either directly pro-Trump or indirectly pro-Trump, because anti-Clinton.


Somehow, the old adage, “don’t believe everything you read,” just doesn’t begin to cover it.
Where am I going with this? Right over here to this sobering quote from the philosopher Voltaire† (1694-1778):

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”


Voltaire, détail du visage (château de Ferney)

Voltaire, 1694-1778


His strikes me as a very cheerful face for someone saying such an alarming thing. I’ll assume that his smile is meant to encourage us to be wise, and to exert ourselves in opposition to the believing of absurdities, and, by extension, to the committing of atrocities.

Do you see a connection between a loosening hold on the truth and a loosening hold on civility?

*I have the impression that perhaps something is being done about that, but maybe it was a false rumor, or even a fake news story.

†I was interested to learn that Voltaire is a pen name. He was born François-Marie Arouet.

[Images:, publishing ideas, Wikipedia]



5 thoughts on “And I quote: Voltaire

  1. Your remark about Voltaire’s cheerful face saying alarming things reminds me of his short novel Candide, which I highly recommend, though not to read aloud to children.

  2. I heard a very alarming report on this “fake news” phenomenon, Lori. I agree that it is scary. Our free press is all that stands between us and dictatorship.

  3. Pingback: Lori Notes turns 300 | Lori Notes

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