on disinformation sprezzatura

In his 1528 Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano), Baldasarre Castiglione coins the word sprezzatura, an important term in the history of rhetoric which has no direct synonym in English. Sometimes people translate it as “nonchalance” or “studied carelessness” (OED) or maybe something like “graceful effortlessness.” It reminds me of those German words that require a short paragraph to capture fully. As Castilgione himself describes it, sprezzatura is something more than mere “casualness”—it involves some kind of concealment, constructing a veneer of extemporaneous authenticity for something deliberate and even calculated:

I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all others, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some very rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.

Il Cortegiano, I.26 (trans. Singleton)

In Castiglione’s text, sprezzatura is a display of Renaissance virtuosity, an expert command of language and manner that makes mastery look easy. But even if sprezzatura has a five-century history behind it, I’m now seeing traces of it—like so many other rhetorical concepts—all over the much more modern and technological landscape of Internet disinformation.

I was especially reminded of sprezzatura while reading through the Transatlantic Working Group’s report “Actors, Behaviors, Content: A Disinformation ABC,” referenced recently over at Lawfare in a conversation with Camille Fran├žois of Graphika. Its ‘B’ refers to “Deceptive Behavior,” a topic that refers to Facebook’s ban on “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior.” What is “studied carelessness” if not a close cousin of “coordinated inauthenticity”? What is the core tactic of disinformation if not convincingly avoiding “affectation” in service of persuasiveness?

The overlap between Renaissance sprezzatura and Internet disinformation becomes even clearer in light of Castiglione’s emphasis on maintaining the illusion of effortlessness:

Therefore we may call that art true art which does not seem to be art; nor must one be more careful of anything than of concealing it, because if it is discovered, this robs a man of all credit and causes him to be held in slight esteem. […] So you see how art, or any intent effort, if it is disclosed, deprives everything of grace.

Il Cortegiano, I.26 (trans. Singleton)

Maintaining one’s “credit” through assiduous cultivation of a plausible identity is central to so many of our digital interactions—see the “fictitious online personas” documented in the Mueller report (vol. I, p. 41). This “careful concealing,” of course, predates the last decade’s disinformation campaigns, perhaps best illustrated in the now-canonical New Yorker cartoon up top, published in 1993. Just as the artful, even seamless obfuscation of identity has always been part of our digital lives, the virtuosic concealment of “any intent effort” has been central to persuasion since at least 1528. Hiding your craft is, as ever, the whole game.