You Won't Believe This One Amazing Trick a Fringe Historian Accidentally Used to Blow Up the Internet
Late last week Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush complained that Pres. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry hide behind “big syllable words,” bemoaning “nuanced” and “sophisticated” approaches to foreign policy. This impulse toward anti-intellectualism saw an echo in a depressing think piece about the end of the long form film criticism site The Dissolve and the $100 million valuation placed on the clickbait firm Viral Nova, which made its money slapping zany and sometimes deceptive headlines on other people’s content for quick clicks. “Over the past two years,” weirdly named Carles.Buzz wrote on Motherboard, “we’ve learned that there isn’t any actual monetizable ‘cultural value’ in building a content farm with an authoritative voice or domination of a niche area. Instead, it is more important to chase quantifiable human metrics by shoving lowbrow content in front of Facebook users.” In other words, dumb is the hottest trend in advertising, and the only one guaranteed to reach a mass audience.
Arguably, this is a problem created by the size of the internet, but in the end it affects us all. The internet is nearly infinite in size, but that means that any one website stands next to no chance of reaching a large audience. Specialized content—or even meaningfully smart content—will never attract more than a small fraction of the reading public, since by definition niche audiences are self-limiting in a world of limitless choice. By contrast, the only thing that can cut across all demographics to assemble a mass audience is stupidity. Stupid attracts a large audience of the stupid, but it also draws in the curious, as well as those who know the content is stupid but consume it anyway, either for entertainment or to reinforce their own sense of superiority.
Fringe history is in its own way the Viral Nova of the field of history—low quality, outrageous content meant to attract a large audience quickly, burn bright, and get replaced with the next big thing. The website Ancient Origins doesn’t hide the fact that it uses all of the tools of the viral internet to push low-quality fringe history content, particularly by promoting their stories on social media, or, as Buzz put it, “shoving lowbrow content in front of Facebook users.” They aren’t particularly good at going viral yet, but give them time. They’ll stumble upon a way to link Roomba-riding cats with the Ark of the Covenant one of these days.
The Daily Mail has made good use of the viral internet by spamming its own pages with extremely low quality content, most of it thoughtlessly rewritten from other sources. This has allowed it to become, in its internet incarnation, the world’s most popular newspaper. Gawker ran an exposé about its tactics earlier this year. “We were simply given stories written by other publications and essentially told to rewrite them,” former staffer James King wrote.
It was therefore hardly surprising when the unrelenting maw of the Mail fed on John Ruskamp’s claims that he had discovered three thousand year old Chinese pictograms in the desert southwest of the United States. The story seems to have come from perhaps a bit of original reporting added to material borrowed from the Chinese diaspora newspaper Epoch Times, itself a viral content farm with a large section devoted to rewriting online fringe history claims—often by the same people who write for Ancient Origins and cross-promote their work to give it legitimacy. April Holloway, for example, writes for Epoch Times’s fringe section and operates Ancient Origins. The Epoch Times piece on Ruskamp and his claims, by Tara MacIsaac, in turn was recycling material that had appeared a few days earlier on the Message to Eagle website.
Ruskamp has been pushing this line for years, and he compares a series of geometric images to Chinese characters, to which they sometimes bear either a partial or a vague resemblance. In a language where a single brushstroke out of joint renders a character illegible, the differences should be devastating, as should be Ruskamp’s own claim that many of the characters lacked a “readable message.” But when has that stopped anyone from declaring various markings in America remnants of Old World languages?
Nevertheless, the Daily Mail cites the Epoch Times as the source for the claim that Dr. Michael Medrano of Petroglyph National Monument confirmed that the petroglyphs “do not readily appear to be associated with local tribal entities.” This means much less than the Mail thinks since the local peoples have turned over many times over the past few thousand years.
Similarly, the original claim on the Message to Eagle website that Ruskamp had written an article about his Chinese characters for the diffusionist journal Pre-Columbiana (from the Early Sites Research Society) gradually changed. Epoch Times over-emphasized the supposed academic nature of the journal, claiming that Ruskamp’s article was under “peer review” because the magazine’s editorial board of “scholars” is apparently modeled on the operations of well-regarded academic journals. The Mail simply states that Ruskamp’s “academic article [is] currently undergoing peer review,” without specifying the publication or its purpose, thus legitimizing it beyond the facts.
The Mail author, Richard Gray, in his haste, has also completely misunderstood the so-called Solutrean Hypothesis of Dennis Stanford, which claims that early Europeans influenced Ice Age America. Instead, Gray gives us this whopper about Ruskamp: “His views are also beginning to be taken seriously by other academics and they echo some theories put forward by researchers such as Dr Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution, who believed North America was first populated by people from Asia during the last ice age.” Gray has clearly confused the Solutrean Hypothesis with the standard model of the peopling of the Americas, and then cited the standard model as proof of Chinese in America in 1300 BCE!
And now Ruskamp can have his claims legitimized and go happily viral, and the rest of us get to watch.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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