How Napoleon became a Spaniard

A proposal: Academic institutions should have higher rankings in social algorithms

Napoleon Bonaparte. He was French.


In an Age before the Internet, how do you learn something about Napoleon?

One typical way is to go to a Library, pick up a book, and read.

There’s no guarantee that anything you read in a Library about Napoleon is true. The information may be outdated, biased, wrong, incomplete.

Disappointingly, your library may have only a few books about Napoleon, and they may not be the best ones. In short, you will learn about Napoleon only what the Librarian, the publishers of the books, the University Departments of History, etc., would choose for you to learn.

Those are the elites that control the narratives and the public information about Napoleon.

Wouldn’t be awesome to have a system where all such barriers are removed?


So, here comes the Internet.

For a while, the Internet looked like a Library, just bigger and more efficient — let’s call it Vault-Internet.

In the Vault-Internet, you have under your fingertips, one click away, all the world’s best expert opinions on Napoleon. Not just three dusty books on a shelf, but the very best research in any field, constantly updated.

There are no barriers between you and the entire world’s knowledge about Napoleon, or any other topic.

That’s heaven for any curious human being.


Unfortunately, in our enthusiasm for the new medium, it turns out we have collectively overlooked something critical.

All those library-like, pre-Internet barriers to knowledge, as annoying as they were, served also a vital role.

It’s true that the Library books about Napoleon are full of mistakes, biases, omissions. It’s also true, however, that they are typically written by people who spend (at a minimum) a little bit of time thinking about Napoleon, thus earning the title of “experts on Napoleon”.

Librarians, publishers, Universities, editors, institutions - are all trained to essentially ask: “Did you think a little bit about Napoleon? Good, then it looks like you’re an expert on the topic, we’ll put your version of Napoleon on the Library shelf (or in our magazine, or whatever)”.

As a result, the typical information about Napoleon in a Library, or in a magazine, etc., has been vetted at least to this extent. It’s not much, but it’s critically better than nothing.


Now let’s try this.

We go out on the street, and pick random people. Let’s try ask them about Napoleon.

The results are not pretty.

In Library books about Napoleon you find omissions, mistakes, biases; in the average passerby, you find people who think Napoleon is a Disney character.

You find people who think Napoleon is a mythical figure. You find people who think Napoleon is a Spaniard.


At some point, roughly with the advent of the Social Networks, Vault-Internet became Fluff-Internet — where the people who think Napoleon is a Spaniard have been granted space on the shelves of the Global Library.

There is no Librarian anymore who asks “Are you an expert?”. Anyone’s opinion, in the Global Library, is equal to the opinion of a lifetime of Napoleon Studies.

Furthermore: do you want to seriously piss someone? Tell them that they know nothing about Napoleon. Maybe it’s true — nobody is an expert on everything — but you are now wearing the badge of arrogant elitist.

“Napoleon was a Spaniard!” they may tell you. As proof, they will mention some Internet page — which is the equivalent of a post-it note that someone scribbled and attached to the library shelf, next to the printed books dedicated to Napoleon. If you take the pain to open such books, you will learn without a doubt that Napoleon was French.

But opening a book takes some effort, while the post-it is there, in bright colors, and reads: “Napoleon was a Spaniard”.

On the Fluff-Internet, this scribbled Post-It is not less credible than the dusty books. And it’s more visible.


The Vault-Internet is still there.

And it’s more awesome than ever, for anyone who digs his way through the mass of scribbled post-it notes. It empowers you, essentially, with the totality of the human knowledge.

It’s also plain obvious that not everybody may have the time, the intellectual means, the inclination, to dribble through the post-it notes, all the time and on every topic. And there are no librarians to help.

It gets worse.

If you have a malicious interest in spreading the idea that Napoleon is a Spaniard, then Fluff-Internet is perfect. Here’s what you can do:

1. Place a few dozen post-it notes in your library, in strategic shelves, reading “Napoleon was a Spaniard”

2. Make some basic emotional appeal — “The French are hiding the truth” or “What the Spanish King doesn’t want you to know” or whatever. Lower instincts tend to work well on post-it notes.

3. Now, here’s the real magic. Everybody is a librarian: like and share. Random visitors to the library, are essentially crowd-replacing the librarian’s job, the publisher’s job, the History Department job. If you manage to nudge a sufficient number of librarian-shares, Napoleon is now becoming a Spaniard. A million likes, and history is rewritten.


Unfortunately, I don’t think we have seen the worse potential of this tactic yet.

Once proven that a large number of post-it notes, simplistically but carefully crafted, strategically placed, can share into oblivion all those dusty books and the experts who wrote them — then you can be quite sure that evil minds are interested in playing the game further.

(Who said that democracy is better than the rule of an Army? Who said that seeking peace is better than violence? Wasn’t Washington an Army man, and a great President? America was at the peak when it was white. All the French with ginger hair are not real French. Italians ruled the world back in Roman times, time to get back what’s ours. Great Britain is an island, or it is not? The truth is in our blood! We need someone to act, not to think. Etcetera.)

It can get worse, and worse, and worse — when you just go for the simplest post-it version of reality.

There are structural reasons why western liberal democracies are particularly vulnerable to the post-it attack.

It’s time to stop it, before it buries us and a good deal of human civilisation.


The best way to stop the post-it attack is simply: increase the online traffic of reputable sources of information. No other system is likely to work. No censorship. No luddism.

Increasing the traffic of reputable sources of information, will generate a positive feedback of critical thinking. We don’t want to censor Joe Lunatic who thinks the Universe is a pressure cooker — what we want, instead, is more people to look at the Smithsonian Planetarium.

We can split hairs about what is “reputable” — and we should.

While we split hairs, though, there are some low hanging fruits that any person of goodwill should agree upon. Here’s one I’d like to start with:

Online sources that belong to academic institutions, should have higher rankings in social algorithms. Online sources directly linked by academic institutions, should also have higher rankings.

Very practical, and even somewhat technical. It follows a path that some search engines have historically tried to follow; it leverages on institutions and structures whose intellectual and social prestige predates the Internet. It is as politically neutral as it can possibly be — if one is in good faith. It simply aims to reduce the Fluff-Internet effect.

And it’s a starting point — but the snowball effects can be enormous.

There will be poor sources belonging to academic institutions — no doubt about that (just like there are bad books in libraries). But the likelihood of Napoleon being a Spaniard, will become on balance lower.

This alone will give instant cultural power to Academic Institutions: the power can be misused, and it almost certainly will, but there is no better way to go.

I think we should start organize and lobby for this. And I think the best instrument to achieve this should be a movement of opinion, lobbying, nudging and pressuring the industry — rather than laws or top-down government interventions.

I’d like to see a debate on this, and a fast movement of opinion rising.

Follow @drMajMaj on twitter