Fake news and lies putting democracy at risk
Americans need to learn lessons from Europe’s communist past
Vaclav Havel: for the Czech dissident and other citizens of a dictatorship that created (dis)information, the truth was a slippery concept, liable to elite manipulation. Photograph: Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images
“Pope Francis shocks the world, endorses Donald Trump for president.”
“FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead.”
“Donald Trump said that he would one day run as a Republican because they are the ‘dumbest group of voters’.”
What do these three headlines have in common? All three got millions of views. All three had a significant impact on voters. And all three are completely false.
The lead-up to the recent US presidential elections saw an unprecedented flood of misinformation in the media and debates in the form of fake news sites, linguistic acrobatics, tendentious interpretations of facts, and pure and simple lies.
It is unsurprising that the truth was contorted in a presidential campaign, particularly one as heated and partisan as the 2016 race, in which candidates traded personal insults more frequently than they compared policies.
But, as history has taught us, the concept of misinformation is hardly a new problem. Intelligence services manipulated information extensively during the cold war.
In Soviet intelligence manuals, this tactic was referred to as “disinformation”: the creation of information to deceive, perplex, and push Western politics and public opinion in a desired direction.
Examples include spreading information that the Aids virus was invented in the West and tarnishing the reputations of Western leaders. While we often think of censorship as the repression of ideas, for communist intelligence agents, limiting citizens’ access to information went hand-in-hand with actively producing it in the service of the state.
Disinformation was not limited to outright lies. It combined lies and facts to create something untrue, but plausible. It blurred the line between fact and fiction by embedding lies in facts or delving into excessive detail to lend credibility to the whole.
The false information generated in the American elections was not only the outcome of structural changes in the media, as it is often portrayed, but also a deliberate strategy by foreign and domestic actors to manipulate American politics.
As intelligence services have long understood, politics is an “information war” and (dis)information has power regardless of whether it is based in fact.
Russia’s role in spreading disinformation in the American elections is still uncertain. Certainly, American intelligence services concluded unanimously that Russia was responsible for publishing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee.
These attacks aimed to push the outcome of the elections in favour of Trump by discrediting Clinton’s campaign and breaking up solidarity in the Democratic Party.
And it worked. This tactic was less a question of falsifying information than of tarnishing reputations and undercutting political unity, strategies also familiar to KGB or Stasi operatives in the 1970s and 1980s (including, notably, Vladimir Putin himself).
Russia also spread false information during the annexation of Crimea in 2014 while the world looked on-perplexed – as soldiers in unmarked uniforms set up checkpoints in eastern Ukraine with the help of armed groups of ambiguous political allegiance.
Russia annexed part of a sovereign state through a campaign organised by, in the words of one journalist, the “Kremlin’s Troll Army” – internet commentators who flooded Twitter, Facebook, and LiveJournal with pro-Russian propaganda.
These commentators manipulated online discussions through noise and numbers. A recent study by researchers at Oxford suggests that “chatbots” similarly generated anti-Clinton propaganda on Twitter and repeated well-worn commentary on Clinton’s emails and personal character in the American campaigns.
The uncomfortable issue is whether the truth mattered at all, or whether the outcome of elections was determined by the power of suggestion and emotions.
What is clear is that Americans on opposite sides of the political fence spoke two languages not only because they diverged in political beliefs and economic backgrounds, but also because they lived in two separate worlds, each receiving different “facts” about major policy issues.
Whether the lies were spread by international or domestic actors (or both), democracy is at risk when the facts disappear. The solutions are not difficult to imagine: stick to credible news agencies and question simple answers to difficult problems.
Practise also what Czech dissident Vaclav Havel called “living in truth”. For Havel and other citizens of a dictatorship that created (dis)information, the truth was a slippery concept, liable to elite manipulation or outright suppression.
This realisation led citizens into cynicism, disillusionment with all facts, or utter relativism – the truth was what politicians called the truth. For dissidents, “resistance” was speaking the truth as they saw it and writing about it in language untainted by party jargon.
These are lessons Americans need to learn from Europe’s communist past.
Molly Pucci is assistant professor of 20th century European history at TCD