The Real News About Fake News: It’s Old News

It’s been going on for decades. Centuries, even.

2016: a series of Facebook posts designed to look like news articles spread inflammatory messages. One post alleges that Hillary and Bill Clinton were involved in the killing of an FBI agent. Commentators suggest that the articles were intended to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Trump goes on to win the election in November that year.

Subsequently, an internal Facebook investigation reports that hundreds of accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency had spent some $100,000 on adverts containing socially divisive messages. Social media is abuzz with talk of Russian hacking and “fake news” as an emerging threat to western civilization.

But memories are short.

September 2002—over a decade before the phrase “fake news” enters common use: leading US news outlets report that Iraq has bought thousands of aluminium tubes for nuclear centrifuges. The report is presented as the latest “evidence” that Saddam Hussein is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and possess a mortal threat to the West. Calls for a military strike intensify and, in March 2003, the US invades Iraq, sparking a war that results in hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Fake news! 

The claims are subsequently rubbished by experts and the search for WMD in Iraq yields nothing. Numerous public enquiries go on to suggest that intelligence was deliberately distorted to build a case for war. 

October 1924—nearly a century before the phrase “fake news” enters common use: London’s Daily Mail reports the text of a letter from the Secretary General of Soviet Russia’s Communist International (COMINTERN). The letter claims that the Labour Party’s proposed policy to recognize the USSR would hasten a workers’ revolution in the UK. Five days later, Labour loses to a Conservative Party landslide. Historians agree that the so-called “Zinoviev Letter” contributed to this outcome.

Fake news!

It is now widely accepted that the Zinoviev Letter was not genuine.

March 1475—several centuries before the phrase “fake news” enters common use: news circulates in the city of Trent (Trento, now in Italy) that a young boy had been murdered so that his blood could be used in Jewish religious rituals. A murderous putsch of the Jewish community follows, with all its members arrested and forced to “confess” to the crime.

Fake news!

The so-called “blood-libel” goes on to be used over the centuries as an excuse for persecution of the Jewish people.

“Fake news” is not news. It has been used by royalty, dictators, democratic governments, political parties, and other influential groups over the centuries to help them achieve various ends—some laudable, others grotesque.

Governments have often handed responsibility for the spreading of fake news to their intelligence agencies. This is unsurprising. The lack of transparency and accountability of such agencies made them ideal vehicles for such activities, which could then be denied by the governments involved.

Operations involving fake news go by many different names: propaganda (black, gray and white); disinformation campaigns; Psychological Operations (PsyOps); Media Operations; or Special Political Operations. 

In theory, operations such as these are used to place secret intelligence in the public domain, without endangering the sources of such intelligence. They are a means of agencies “laundering” their intelligence through respected journalists and editors. But intelligence cannot always be trusted, as the Iraq War clearly illustrated. Even with the best of intentions, such operations are likely to lead to dissemination of fake news on occasion.

Nothing has changed in this respect.

The difference today is that the age of the internet and social media has widened dramatically the group of people who can write and distribute fake news. It is no longer the territory of intelligence services, or politicians with deep pockets and influential contacts. And national boundaries can easily be transcended in the information age. We should not be surprised that the Russian intelligence services are allegedly exploiting the opportunities presented. They are one player among many.

But there is a positive angle too. Wider, faster distribution and ease of response means that misleading articles on the internet can be picked up and refuted more quickly than in the age of printed or broadcast news. Editorial control and fact-checking is now effectively crowd-sourced. Perhaps the reasons why we tend to think fake news has mushroomed recently are two-fold: first, because it has, facilitated by social media; and, second, because it is now more routinely spotted and called out, also thanks to social media.

Either way, the moral of the story is simply a variant of the old adage “don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” An updated version might read “don’t believe anything you read on social media.”

“Fake news” is not news. It has been used by royalty, dictators, democratic governments, political parties, and other influential groups over the centuries to help them achieve various ends—some laudable, others grotesque.