Lexicon Valley

We Need a Better Word for Spreading Vicious Rumors. Let’s Try Calumny

Calumny is afoot.  

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Everett/Shutterstock.

Early in the day on Monday someone possibly related to the hacktivist group Anonymous released on Pastebin a possibly real, possibly trustworthy possible data dump possibly identifying persons of note possibly connected to the Ku Klux Klan.

Note: That’s a lot of possibles.

Here in North Carolina, we went a little crazy: freshman Sen. Thom Tillis was on the list, and if you’re a progressive, hearing something bad about Tillis is pretty exciting. Tillis was speaker of the House in the North Carolina General Assembly during a period of overwhelming rightward lean—taxes cut, Medicaid expansion refused, the education budget cut, restrictions on abortion passed, the university system assaulted, and voting made more difficult. Progressives do not like Thom Tillis.

So progressives loved the claim that Tillis was connected to the Klan. Cue the frenzy of unexamined sharing that usually follows such claims.

And cue the word for the day, which is calumny.

We don’t hear it much—it’s very much an analog word, a word from a time when what you said had meaning both to yourself and to the people about whom you said it. It first shows up in the 16th century. Hamlet uses it as a threat to Ophelia. Calumny, says the New Oxford American Dictionary, is “the making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone’s reputation; slander.”

And if you can think of a better way to do that than claiming someone is associated with the Klan you’re doing better than I can. The link to the Klan—the nuclear option in American politics—borders on calling someone a Nazi.

Calumny comes from the Latin calumnia, which, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, means “a false accusation; a malicious prosecution.” It was part of the Roman civil law. Which is to say, though its modern legal equivalent is defamation—making untrue statements to damage another’s reputation; spoken is slander and written is libel—I think the ancient-sounding calumny connects, with that false prosecution angle, a little more strongly with the ninth commandment. The one about bearing false witness. The one we pretty much all ignore on social media.

The noun calumny—like its sister, the verb traduce—has fallen out of fashion. We love legal definitions like slander and libel, because they enable us to comfortably refer to rules of evidence and remedy that, not being lawyers, we can all pretend we don’t understand. We can make vague gestures toward the First Amendment or some other thing that ought to allow us all to say whatever we want, and if it turns out to be wrong, well, sorry then.

But calumny has a stinging, Old Testament sound, and in this case that’s vital.

Because by Monday’s end it was clear—even Snopes was on the case—that the uploaded and shared material did not come from the plausibly trustworthy Anonymous. The group’s own Operation KKK Twitter feed, in fact, tweeted that it had not yet released any information: “We believe in due diligence and will NOT recklessly involve innocent individuals.”

I will for a moment allow us all to enjoy the irony of one anonymous group pledging to fact-check its information as it prepares to expose members of another anonymous group. In all, though, fact-checking is a good thing.

And most people on Facebook don’t. (I’ve complained about this before.)

Like many of the more responsible among us, I noted the moment I saw the fake release that no matter who the information came from, without evidence it was just rumor. And spreading defamatory rumor without concern to its veracity is calumny.

I began scolding on Facebook full time—who doesn’t love to do that?—and I was shocked by the blitheness with which those spreading the information regarded the news that it was at the very least unproven and certainly misrepresented. A massive progressive shrug: “I’m just stooping to their level,” one said to me; said another, “the evidence that he espouses similar belief with the KKK is already in his policy.” True enough as to the latter—I think Tillis has been a catastrophe for our state—but that doesn’t mean you get to accuse him of membership in the KKK, or of rape or murder or drug-running, or of littering, for that matter. As to stooping to their level, well then.

It’s easy to press share—and if you share without thinking, the wrongdoing doesn’t stay with the originator. Whoever was impersonating Anonymous did something wrong: committed calumny. But if you press share or retweet? You get a full measure of calumny for yourself. When you’re talking about words you always go back to Dr. Johnson, and in this case he has words of wisdom that ought to be tattooed on the inside of our eyelids. He writes in The Rambler, 183, from Dec. 17, 1751: “To spread suspicion, to invent calumnies, to propagate scandal, requires neither labour nor courage. It is easy for the author of a lye, however malignant, to escape detection, and infamy needs very little industry to assist its circulation.”

Modern translation: looking for clickbait? Lie about someone famous.

We’ve got a long way to go before we determine that sharing or retweeting false information makes you guilty of anything, much less slander or libel. But as for what you commit when you share some vicious accusation because, regardless of whether it’s true, you despise its subject?

Word of the day. Calumny. Get used to it.