Published by Past & Present, Oxford Academic, February 2022
Author: Arthur Asseraf, CRASSH/SCAS/ProFutura Fellow 2021-24
The nineteenth century saw an explosion of mass media as well as an expansion of colonial states. These two processes mutually influenced each other, and at the intersection lay a thin layer of individuals who could gain inordinate power to influence global information flows. This article follows the career of one such individual, Messaoud Djebari, an Algerian man who generated several controversies by fabricating information first in Tunisia in 1881, and then across West Africa and France in 1892–5. Djebari’s case suggests that some men trained to act as colonial intermediaries could end up playing important roles in shaping the circulation of information well beyond their territory of origin. Colonial informants were defined less by their role within a given colonial territory than by an ability to portray themselves as conduits to valuable information inaccessible to Europeans, irrespective of the location. Beyond the colonial context, this calls our attention to a particular practice of information manipulation characteristic of this age: the art of making oneself into a conduit by passing off one’s opinions as somebody else’s information.