'Spin doctors'and 'trolls' were around as early as the Golden Age

During the period of the Dutch Republic, the regents of the three cities in the state of Overijssel sought to shape public opinion by waging ‘battle by pamphlet’. This involved the use of dual communication channels – one official and one anonymous.

02/14/2019 | 4:02 PM

In the official pamphlets, citizens were asked to judge the regents’ policies in a reasonable manner, while the anonymous pamphlets were used to sway public opinion through fictional characters (‘trolls’) and invented stories. Such attempts to influence public opinion marked the start of the use of public opinion as a source of political authority. It also laid the foundations of nationally based public opinion and the democratic rule of law that was to develop by the end of the 18th century. These are the findings of PhD researcher Jan Haverkate.

Media battle
This forgotten media battle (1654-1675) during the Golden Age had its origins in a bitter schism within the administration of Overijssel, one of the seven member states of the Dutch Republic. ‘When all attempts at mediation failed, the opposing parties decided to appeal to public opinion by publishing pamphlets,’ explains Haverkate. ‘Unlike elsewhere in Europe, where public debate came about through conflicts between monarchs and parliaments, in the Dutch Republic it took the form of conflicts between authorities in the various member states.’

The pamphlet as a means of communication  
The printed pamphlet became the medium of choice for parties wishing to engage in the public debate within a particular state. The political principle that cities drew on to advance their case during that period was that nobody should be deprived of their rights by being outvoted by the majority.  At the end of the eighteenth century, this led to a supra-regional political movement (the Patriot Movement), which emphasized that these rights must be applied to everyone. ‘This laid the foundations for the democratic constitutional state based on territorial limits and for national public opinion, resulting in the emergence of independent national newspapers and journals,’ says Haverkate.

Shaping public opinion  
Haverkate shows that these two parallel processes – the formation of public opinion and the emergence of the democratic state during this formative period for the Netherlands as a nation state – are inextricably linked. ‘Public debate began during the Middle Ages in the civilian governments of trading cities in the Burgundian Netherlands, when it was conducted by means of local word-of-mouth networks, supported by handwritten documents where necessary.’ After the recognition of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands in 1648, the public debate moved up to the level of the region in which those cities were located. 

Jan Haverkate was awarded a PhD at VU Amsterdam on 12 February.