In the late 18th Century, Russian ruler Catherine the Great chose to visit the villages of her country to see how the peasants were living. Her first minister, Potemkin, arranged to have façades of fake villages filled with actors constructed along Catherine’s route that showed a scenic, peaceful and prosperous country. Actors played the parts of the peasants, and Catherine remained in the confines of her carriage as she travelled through. Potemkin feared that Catherine might react badly if she encountered the despair and poverty that was really being faced by the Russian serfs, and as a result of his actions Catherine saw a healthy, happy nation. The idea of a fake façade built to distort a view became known as a Potemkin Village.
There have been many such illusions created by councils and governments in years since. In his book The New Rulers of The World, journalist John Pilger drew attention to how the council of Sydney had hidden the city’s poorer aboriginal communities from the Olympic Committee during the selection process for the 2000 Olympic Games. Similarly, Sue Lloyd-Roberts of the BBC was invited to North Korea to film in 2010, only to be guided around model villages and pre-ordained routes.
A lot can be said for the idea of creating a fake facade in order to hide a true story. In Catherine The Great’s case, the Russian ruler may have changed policies if she had seen the widespread suffering of the Russian poor. Sydney was awarded the 2000 Olympic Games after the committee decided that the city was suitably pristine for their international tournament. Although the facade of North Korea was dissembled by Roberts, very little footage of actual life in North Korea appeared in the documentary of the visit.
Comparatively, in digital landscapes a community of mistrust of web-based façades has gradually surfaced. Initially, the idea of free information online heralded an age of fast, relevant news without inhibition. Yet by the early 2000s sites like Hoax-Slayer had cropped up to debunk misinformation on the internet as much as possible. The information super-highway did not take long to be tainted by the web community’s false fronts as much as the analogue world had been tainted by Potemkin Villages.
What developed on the internet was a duality of information. Although people are free to post anything (an example is Morgan Freeman’s fake death in 2012), people are also free to fact-check anything. Fact-checking is becoming more and more important to avoid the viral spread of misinformation. For example, the unreliability of Wikipedia is still compounded by false and poorly written entries, although I would contest that it is still an excellent reference point to begin an enquiry.
One of the greatest stinkers that I have personally been introduced to was the dreadfully unresearched article Why Iceland Should Be In The News But Is Not, written in 2011. This nonsense piece of anti-journalism bombarded the reader with false claims and fake figures about a political revolution taking place in Iceland that had no grounding in reality. I was living in Iceland at the time of the supposed revolution, and couldn’t believe what I was reading when I first discovered this post. The response from readers was key – most either submitted to the false information and thanked the author or attempted to correct her on all of her grievous errors. The Reykjavik Grapevine, probably the most reliable English-language newspaper in Iceland, even went as far as to completely debunk the piece. Most reader’s criticisms and the Grapevine were dismissed, but after some time a short apology for mistranslations appeared in the article (this includes mistranslating numbers and percentages). Still the piece remains online, full of errors, and it has circulated on various sites. Although the political activism in Iceland is inspiring, false journalism threatens the perception of this activism by creating smoke and mirrors in front of what is actually a fascinating political development.
What we see should never be regarded as what we get. There is no benefit to false information other than the benefit to those with an agenda who wish for misinformation to spread. What this eventually leads to is either the spread of false information, or a mistrust in people of all information, both of which are socially detrimental.
Finally, it seems important to mention that the story of the Potemkin Villages is widely regarded as a legend. Many historians acknowledge that Potemkin did decorate villages, but that he did not hide this information from his monarch, and that actors were not used. The first known use of the phrase was in 1937 – 150 years after the original story. If the story is not true, then the phrase Potemkin Village becomes a Potemkin Village itself – an untruth inside the façade of a phrase. This in turn makes the first paragraph of this post a possible untruth, and thus calls into question the research of the rest of the piece. Believe it or not.
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