A Brief History of Fake News

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[NOTE: This video was produced for BoilingFrogsPost.com on October 31, 2012. It is being made available in its entirety here for the first time.]

by James Corbett
BoilingFrogsPost.com
October 31, 2012

The old adage that “Knowledge is power” has been apparent to warriors and would-be rulers throughout history.

A well-known illustration from the annals of history revolves around Nathan Rothschild, the British representative of Meyer Amschel’s infamous Rothschild banking dynasty. At the Battle of Waterloo, Rothschild’s riders and messengers were able to get news of Napoleon’s defeat home to Nathan a full day in advance of the government’s own news carriers. As the story goes, Nathan was able to convince the public that he had in fact received news of Wellington’s defeat by selling heavily on the English stock market. When panic selling ensued, Rothschild had his agents buying up the stocks at pennies on the pound. By the time the news of Napoleon’s defeat actually reached Britain’s shores, Rothschild had already secured his position as one of the richest men in Britain, a fortune that was only further leveraged in the ensuing years lending post-war stabilization funds to Europe’s monarchy

Regardless of the story’s historical veracity, it serves to illustrate the fundamental precept: knowledge is indeed power. It also suggests a corollary: misinformation is a way of leveraging one’s power over an enemy. This, too, is an ancient idea that has been used throughout the centuries as a tool of psychological warfare to confer one’s army an advantage over its enemies.

Military deception is an ancient and time-honoured art. Throughout recorded history, military commanders have attempted to spread false news and seed false information as part of psychological warfare operations to deceive, confuse, and demoralize the enemy.

During the Crusades in 1271, Sultan Baibars successfully took the Crusaders’ Krak des Chevaliers in Syria by conveying a letter to the knights garrisoned there telling them to surrender. The letter, supposedly from the head of their order in Jerusalem, was in fact a crude forgery, but the gambit worked. The knights capitulated and the Sultan took the castle.

However it wasn’t until the invention and widespread use of technologies like the printing press and then the radio and the television, that the modern conception of “news” was formulated. The broadsheet, the magazine and the newspaper started to give people a sense of a regularly published digest of “news” stories. These technologies also enabled the possibility of mechanizing “false” news to spread propaganda to the enemy.

Some of the most dramatic examples of this came in the 20th century, with the use of airplanes to spread propaganda leaflets, and the use of radio to direct transmissions across enemy lines in a hope to sway public opinion.

This was by no means limited to psyops against the enemy, though. The very same techniques have been used throughout history to fool one’s own troops in an effort to raise morale.

In the Civil War, false “news” was routinely distributed to Confederate soldiers to boost their sprits before a battle, from false reports of Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s death to rumours that a world war was about to break out with England and France siding with the Confederates.

In WWII, false news of reinforcements for the beleaguered American-Filipino garrison resisting the Japanese invasion of the Philippines kept them fighting long past the point of their impending defeat.

One of the most extreme examples of “false information” spread to confuse, panic or disarm a nation, however, are news stories that are completely made up from whole cloth and broadcast as if they are real. These stories, too, although more rare, can be devastatingly effective in confusing and demoralizing enemies or panicking the public.

The pedigree of fake news stories goes back some time, but perhaps the most famous was the Halloween 1938 edition of the weekly radio drama, Mercury Theatre on the Air. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was presented as a fake news broadcast of an alien invasion. Famously, many of the people listening did not realize that the transmission was fake, and assumed the nation was actually being invaded. Some believed aliens had actually landed, others assumed it was a Nazi ploy, as tensions swelled in the run-up to WWII.

Although commonly dismissed as a sensationalistic media hoax, the phenomenon provoked by the broadcast became the subject of intense academic research. One of the bodies that took special interest in the broadcast was the Princeton Radio Project, a Rockefeller Foundation-funded body researching the effect of radio in influencing public opinion. Closely connected to organs of the US psychological warfare program, the group, which included Nelson Rockefeller’s Dartmouth College roommate, Hadley Cantril, eventually published a study on the public reaction to War of the Worlds.

Since that time, fake news broadcasts have been aired on otherwise “mainstream” networks from time to time, often with little or no notice that the “news” story being aired is completely fictitious.

Sometimes the fake news is deliberately seeded into the public consciousness by way of a carefully coordinated public relations campaign.

Other times the fake news consists of staged or manipulated interviews, designed to give a false impression that the on-the-ground reality is different than it really is.

Yet another method of implanting fake news is to merely make large-scale accusations that can later be exposed as being completely baseless. The widespread coverage of the original allegation and the almost non-existent coverage of the retraction is enough to assure the effectiveness of this particular psyop tactic.

All of these methods of psychological warfare, however, are only as effective as they are believable. To a jaded public, or even just one that has learned not to trust the news from a given source that is known to have a bias for or against given entities, the effectiveness of such propaganda is severely limited. This is where a new and altogether more insidious form of misinformation comes into play, however: the video news release.

The VNR, or video news release is a short video production that is made to look like a news report. Often employing actors or PR specialists to represent the “reporter” and even the interviewees, the VNR has been used as a way for companies to work their products and services into the nightly news in the guise of a “news” broadcast.

More disturbing by far than the widespread use of this PR trick by companies like Microsoft and Phillip Morris is the use of VNRs by the federal government

Some will dismiss the fears about VNRs out of hand. After all, they will argue, psychological warfare is by definition something that is used against one’s enemies, not one’s own people. This is in fact a mistaken assumption, and one that we will address in next week’s edition of this series.

For now, it will suffice to not our original premise: knowledge is indeed power. This implies another corollary, as well: ignorance is weakness. In this case, it is the public who time again perish for lack of knowledge, and the entities that seek to control their minds, be they governments foreign or domestic, or non-governmental actors altogether such as corporations and media entities, who can win the battle for the hearts and minds of the public by feeding them a steady stream of misinformation.

If the public is to have any hope at all in this bleak landscape, it can only come from a commitment to verifying and sourcing all of the information they receive. The psychological warriors can only have their way with a public who refuses to question their own sources of information and demand proof for the claims that are being made by their supposedly neutral sources of news.


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