Proctor: Forged texts and fraudulent documents have long been a major issue for historians, and especially for those who study ancient religion. There have been long-standing debates, for example, regarding whether certain books in the Bible (e.g., 1 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians) were really written by the people to whom they are attributed (in these cases, the apostle Paul). Two recent controversies caught my attention and demonstrated how these continue to be issues significant for today—the controversy over fraudulent manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls featured in the Museum of the Bible (2017-2018), and the infamous “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” that made headline news in 2012 (and was shown to be a likely forgery in subsequent analysis). This showed me that many of the skills developed in biblical and religious studies to detect forged texts and fraudulent manuscripts continue to have significance.
Seems like this class is a response to modern times.
I started thinking about offering a class on this topic a few years ago when I noticed more and more fake news websites or misleading news articles being shared on social media platforms. But the idea really started to grow last year, in 2017, when I learned about new technologies in audio and video manipulation that will soon make it possible to make fake videos or audio clips (e.g., of public figures doing or saying things they didn’t do/say) that imitate the appearance or sound of the real person such that they are very difficult to detect.
It struck me that while such developing technologies will certainly pose new challenges to contemporary media consumers, the problem at the root of all this – how to know whether the text you’re reading or information you’re hearing is trustworthy – was one that had been grappled with by scholars of the bible and other historical artifacts for decades, if not centuries. I thought it would be interesting to return to some of those historical debates to see how the skills used by historians to debunk forgeries and frauds could be applied to the contemporary challenges arising with “fake news.”
Do you have a favorite historical forgery or fraud?
My favorite historical case of a forgery has to do with Galen, the famous 2nd-century Roman physician. One day, Galen was walking by a book stall where two men were having an argument about a book by “Galen”—one of the potential buyers declared that the book was a fraud on stylistic grounds (the language did not read like Galen’s). This was much to Galen’s delight, as it was indeed a forgery, and it inspired an idea: Galen wrote a short treatise titled On His Own Books, designed to help his readers distinguish true Galenic works from their fraudulent counterparts.
This story about Galen reminds us of a couple things: first, the challenges we’re facing today regarding “fake news,” fraudulent websites, and forged documents are not new; they’ve been plaguing humanity for centuries. But perhaps even more importantly, Galen provides a nice model for how we should respond: we’ve got to do something about it. I think Galen provides a more responsible if perhaps more challenging model: no matter how daunting, we have to fight misinformation whenever we can and however we can, just like many of our predecessors did and do.
What are three tips for distinguishing fake news from real news?
Provenance is key.
Identify the author and/or media outlet associated with the story. If you can’t find one or it’s an author/outlet that you’ve never heard of, be suspicious and do some more checking before trusting or sharing the source. It’s also important to be aware of which sources produce satire news (e.g., The Onion) and which websites are notorious for misinformation so that such information isn’t spread as if it’s legitimate.
Establish independent and multiple sources.
Whenever historians are evaluating whether to trust historical information, we prefer to find it in multiple and independent sources (that is, 2+ sources that aren’t relying on each other for information). This same principle can be applied to news stories—if it is a legitimate story, then it is likely that multiple media outlets will be reporting on it. Before trusting or sharing a story or piece of information, do some online checks to see if it’s showing up elsewhere; if not, then be suspicious.
Don’t Go it Alone.
It can sometimes be daunting sifting through multiple sources and news stories. The good news is that there are many independent educational institutions and media outlets dedicated to stopping the spread of misinformation. The News Literacy Project, for example, provides several free interactive resources for helping sort out the real from the fake.