Leading by rumor: The great jackery of 2012

In this election year, the nonstop use of electronic media plunges us back to an age in which rumor and word-of-mouth were the agents of destiny. As a character sings in The Barber of Seville, “Calumny starts like a breeze.”

The force of rumor came into its own in the 14th century, when a peasant uprising blew across northern France like a tornado. The nobles called the event a jacquerie. “Jacques” or “Jacques Bonhomme,” Good-Fellow Jack, had been their patronizing term for peasant; but once the explosion occurred, they took Jack very seriously indeed.

The rumors that fueled early jacqueries were direct and simple. The nobles are starving us with levies. They are stealing our sons for their wars. As literacy spread, rumors gained in nuance. No one speaks for us in the councils of power. We should be free but we are everywhere in chains.

For the first time, public opinion took shape and erupted with massive power. Newspapers and pamphlets cropped up in the towns, while in rural areas terrible jacqueries helped to bring down the old régime. Across the ocean, citizens of America were becoming pioneers of communication. As our capacities unfolded, we drew ever more closely connected — first by the post office, then by telegraph, telephone, electricity, radio, TV, computer, the Web, and lastly by instant global messaging.

We have grown very much more sophisticated than the peasants of old. We have captured and strengthened the power of rumor with far-reaching technologies. We devour word-of-mouth with a voraciousness that puts traditional societies to shame. We have become the ultimate peasants. Alexis de Tocqueville, who well knew the jacquerie’s destructiveness, found its echo in the American press of the 1830s. In Democracy in America he said of the way our journalists worked: “One can only deplore such a misuse of the powers of thought.”

Nearly two centuries on, we are the reigning masters of jackery. And it seems only fair to liberate the term from French, given that our global networks of rumor are American-made. In this election season, jackery rules the airwaves with a power combining easy melodrama and solemn reason. Each of our major parties is working hard to get the weight of rumor on its side. But the Oscar for Best Jackery of 2012 goes to the infamous video that is now joined to our most serious overseas crisis in four years.

The shadowy piece came to life on YouTube as a trailer purporting to represent a film no one has seen. It was said to have been produced in the United States but could easily have been made or posted anywhere. No one quite knew who had organized the video or why. Its hallmarks were an embarrassing tawdriness and pervasive incoherence. To say that it offended the spirit of the prophet Muhammad was to grant the object an importance it flatly lacked.

For the first months of its life, the video lay unnoticed — a suitable outcome in light of its qualities. But then by some agency it was given Arabic subtitles and reborn in Egypt, whose Coptic sect is pilloried in the piece. In Egypt the video caught fire and raised a storm. America’s embassy in Cairo was attacked by “protesters” who, in the “rumor-has-it” styling of the U.K. Guardian, “were angry at an American produced film.”