Fake news is nothing new. It may be one of the buzz terms of the 21st century, but it’s been around for millennia… only it used to go by a different name: propaganda.
Propaganda, of course, is a term generally connected with warfare and wartime communications, a way of using information to damage an enemy or raise morale on the home front.
But in the 21st Century, it seems like the ‘art’ of propaganda – and the weapons-grade lies it creates – are being turned on the public. How did we get to this?
In traditional propaganda, nation states weaponised the skills of story-tellers and opinion influencers to harness the power of the media supposedly for the common good.
These were official lies that were justifiable, no matter how grim, distasteful or misleading the details may be.
Perhaps one of the most shocking examples of this were the so-called German ‘corpse factories’ of World War One.
As early as 1915, rumours began to spread among troops that the Germans were so short of supplies – due to the Allied blockade – that they had resorted to using the bodies of their own war dead to harvest fat and tallow for industrial use.
Next, the rumours showed up in print in the British press. It’s now widely accepted that British intelligence officers doctored genuine German newspaper reports of a ‘kadaver’ factory to substantiate the rumours.
You see, Kadaver is German for carcass, or animal corpse. The factories did exist, but they processed dead horses.
The story of the German corpse factories took hold and lingered throughout the conflict, and was only acknowledged as a brutally effective piece of propaganda between the wars.
It was effective because it painted the enemy as monsters and inspired revulsion on the home front and among Allied soldiers. By the rules of wartime propaganda, it was justified.
However, in the 21st century, things have changed. Globalisation, the growth of corporate influence and the explosion in social media have seen the goal posts move.
Nation states matter less. The Great Connection means that we are all directly plugged-in to countless media platforms and susceptible to influence like never before .
It’s arguable that the sights of weaponised propaganda – now renamed fake news – are no longer only trained on enemy states. The public finds itself in the crosshairs of propaganda skills honed over more than a century of modern warfare. Can that be for the common good?
There could be some argument for political opponents using these skills to pull apart each other’s performance and ideologies. Politics, after all, is at its heart a war of words.
But what happens when those influences are brought to bear on the Fourth Estate, the journalists whose job it is to uncover falsehoods and cut through the propaganda?
The concept of today’s fake news is indelibly linked with Donald Trump. His administration has used the term to taint news outlets that question his policies.
The propaganda machine, which in wartime used the press to expound its ‘justifiable’ untruths, is now aimed at the journalists themselves.
As a former journalist this chills me to the bone. To hear the term ‘enemy of the people’ applied to major news outlets by the President of the United States is hard to accept.
He says that reporters are among the most dishonest and crooked people he knows.
Is this just a sign of a thin-skinned president who believes attack is the best form of defence? Perhaps. But the mantra-like adoption of the term fake news, across all media platforms, suggests the dark hand of orchestrated propaganda is pulling the strings.
The message is the same as that of the wartime influencers – you can believe us, it’s for the common good. We will protect you.
But the result is a deeply divided society, that finds itself repeating the mantras of opposing camps, while distracted from much of the issues that really matter. If you adopt the tactics of conflict in peacetime, society itself becomes a battleground.
So, can fake news be justified, even in wartime? Well, the truth will always out, sometimes after the dust of war has settled.
Let’s return to the sordid business of the German corpse factories.
As already revealed, the story was acknowledged as a propaganda victory for British intelligence after the end of the First World War.
During the inter-war years it was even held up as an example of deeply effective and believable propaganda.
The problem came when Europe was engulfed in war again in 1939.
When the first rumours started to come out of the continent of Hitler’s ‘extermination camps’, of people being rounded up like animals by the Germans as part of industrialised genocide, the Third Reich had their response ready: this was another ‘corpse factory’, British intelligence up to their old tricks.
Nothing to see here. Move on. Fake news.
Even lies created for the common good are lies. The only thing that really matters is the truth.
It’s vital that the press is protected from the virus of fake news, and more important that news outlets of all political persuasions unite to protect the reputation of real journalism.
Because the genie is out of the bottle. This is not something that will ever go away.
In a world where anyone can be a publisher and everyone can broadcast their opinion, we have to hope that dependable and reliable journalism will float to the top.
Until then all we can do is resort to that most endearing of wartime propaganda messages: keep calm and carry on.