The aphorism that ‘politics is a dirty game’ cannot be farther from truth today. This observation made centuries ago has not yet gone anachronistic and given the kind of nasty shape politics is taking today, it looks like this observation will remain more relevant in future. History is awash with umpteen instances to prove that politics has its root in violence and skulduggery. The deeper we go into our civilizational history, the more convinced do we become that politics in fact sprang from the very well of violence. However, politics has, since time immemorial, vigorously employed another tool at its disposal which is quite as monstrous as violence if not more, is fake news or propaganda or disinformation, whatever we may call it. I’ll call it fake news hereon for the sake of clarity. Today, fake news has relegated violence and murder to second spot in politics. For how long has it been around? Let’s dig right in.
Fake news before the Christ was born
Many of us might tend to believe that fake news or disinformation is a recent phenomenon. Though the idea of fake news or disinformation is as old as politics itself, its first ever known use in politics during the Roman times. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Octavian (later Augustus) and Mark Antony became two powerful politicians. When Octavian learnt that Antony had fallen in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and divorced Octavia, who was Octavian’s sister, he ordered his minister Gaius Maecenas to launch a propaganda against Antony. That Antony was a womanizer, drunkard and Cleopatra’s puppet were written upon coins and widely circulated. This propaganda not only resulted in Octavian’s victory in the Final War of the Roman Republic, but it also helped Octavian hack the republican system of once and for all! The fact that fake news was employed in such a fashion in around 49-45 BC tells us a lot that the foundation of fake news is quite ancient. Fake news continued pursuing politics, evolving with the evolution of politics itself. Disinformation was one of the key characteristics of the French Revolution which is considered one of the most defining events in modern human history. Let’s see how disinformation forced the last queen of France Marie Antoinette to the scaffold.
Let them eat cake!
The last queen of France Marie Antoinette remains one of the glaring examples from history as to how disinformation can be total and merciless. When the French Revolution was brewing, and the French subjects had no bread, Marie Antoinette was accused of having made the callous remark – ‘Let them eat cake’! Since the cake was (and is) costlier than bread, this alleged remark fuelled widespread outrage and hatred against her to such an extent that it ultimately became one of the causes of her execution. It is said that she commanded no sympathy and was jeered by the French people while she was being taken to be executed. She was guillotined on 16th October 1793. However, the historians have refuted the claim that Marie Antoinette made that infamous remark that earned her the wrath of the French subjects. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while writing in 1766-67, mentions words of a great princess who upon hearing that the country’s peasants had no bread, coldly said – ‘Let them eat pastry’. It’s claimed that the phrase was later changed to ‘Let them eat cake’ and then attributed to Marie Antoinette. She was just 10 years old when Rousseau was writing that piece! As fake news became a handy tool for the purpose both political and otherwise, it wasn’t long before it found its way into the fourth pillar of democracy – media, especially newspapers.
First newspaper to peddle fake news
The first ever known instance of deliberately peddling fake news by a newspaper dates back to 1835 known as ‘Great Moon Hoax’ by a newspaper called The New York Sun. The paper claimed that an eminent British astronomer John Herschel, with his powerful telescope of ‘vast dimensions’ pointed towards moon from an observatory in South Africa discovered Human-bats, goat-like creatures with blue skin etc., much like some of our television anchors claiming that new 2000 rupees notes would have nano-chips embedded on them. This sensational fake news is said to have increased the paper’s circulation from 8,000 to a whopping 19,000 until the hoax was exposed by rival papers. We can only imagine the exponential growth of fake news post this incident. The growth of fake news in the age of radio and television, especially during the second World War was so widespread that the United State had to start a programme called Rumour Clinics to bust them.
Rumour Clinics during the World War II
The entire world had turned into a breeding ground for fake news during the second World War. The US, embroiled in the war much later, was forced to develop what they called ‘Rumour Clinics’. The morale of the US army was sagging after the defeat at Pearl Harbour and the incursion of the Japanese into Hawaii. It was further exacerbated by constant fake news. The US government hired psychologists and social scientists, many of whom claimed expertise in areas such as leadership, conformity, public opinion, and morale building. They became part of Rumour Clinics. The Rumour Clinics were staffed by patriotic academics and students, and were responsible for identifying, analysing, and countering rumours. The Rumour Clinics were like today’s fact-checking websites, as it were. One of the most successful of these Rumour Clinics was Boston Rumour Clinic. The US even developed cartoon series with a character called Private SNAFU. The cartoon ran a series on rumours busting among other things. And how can we forget the German propaganda and fake news under the Nazi Germany! Edward Herzstein in his book ‘War that Hitler Won’ has described the Nazi propaganda campaign as ‘the most infamous propaganda campaign in history’. In fact, Germany had a fully dedicated ministry of propaganda, called ‘Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ and remains the only one such ministry in history. The Nazis through propaganda demonised the Jews so effectively that atrocities on the Jews were committed with popular support and the denial of Holocaust continues even today! What if internet and social media existed during the World War II?
Internet – Where fake news reigns
With the advent of internet and social media, spreading fake news and disinformation had never been easy, efficient and fast! What Winston Churchill said about lie traveling halfway around the world before the truth has its pants on perfectly captures the way fake news are shared and consumed on social media today. As per the 2019 report of Reuters Institute of Digital News, the trust in news has fallen by 2 percent from 44% to 42% while trusts in social media is mere 23%. The circulation of fake news on WhatsApp leading to numerous incidents of lynchings forced the company to restrict the direct forwards to just five. The BBC has called WhatsApp ‘Black Hole’ of fake news. How can we forget the lynching of two young men – Nilotpal Das (audio engineer) and Abhijit Nath (digital artist) in Assam last year due to the fake news spread against them on WhatsApp and WhatsApp claiming they were child-lifters! Also, health experts from across the globe have warned the people to never believe in any health tips provided online as most of them are misleading and potentially dangerous. The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was summoned by the US lawmakers to answer questions on how the company intends to control the ever-proliferating fake news on Facebook, after which the UK and Canada have also united to demand answers from Zukerberg. Social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp have exposed us all to fake news and the danger is that many of us do not know whether what’s being shared is true or fake!
Treading the minefield of fake news Fake news has become so rampant today that it’s very difficult establish whether a piece of information is true. The governments across the world have grown wary of the fact that fake news are gaining more readers on the internet than genuine news. Sikkim too isn’t free from fake news. The recent incident of two unknown persons knocking at the door in order to take out kidney actually troubled many people and so did the similar ‘shares’ and WhatsApp forwards about child-lifters. In the wake of unbridled proliferation of fake news, a movement is slowly gaining momentum under International Fact Checking Network (IFCN). Numerous fact-checking websites have come up across the world such as factcheck.org, snopes.com, altnews.in etc. However, there are websites which claim to be fact-checker but they themselves peddle fake news.
Therefore, any fact-checking website that one is visiting must be certified by IFCN for its genuineness. Since Sikkim is a small state, fake news spread here will not be busted by big entities such as altnews because these fake news would not create so much buzz but nonetheless are equally malicious and dangerous. Therefore, if our online media platforms such as Sikkim Chronicle, The Voice of Sikkim etc. can dedicate a section where they bust fake news circulating on social media, that’ll be a huge step towards mitigating risks posed by fake news in Sikkim. One rule of thumb about information on internet is this – never believe any information that is coming from any source that is not well-recognised, and never forward WhatsApp forwards and share Facebook shares unless you are certain of either the source or information itself. As per a judgement by Madras High Court in 2018, forwarding WhatsApp message and Facebook share is equal to endorsing the message and it can invite legal problem if anyone files a legal suit against the message that we mindlessly forward on WhatsApp and Facebook. As they say, just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s true, it’s time we fact-checked every information before believing, sharing or forwarding them, for, if we don’t do it, we’ll end up becoming what they mockingly call ‘Webakoof’!
• Short Guide to the History of Fake New – WikiSource
• Fake News: Separating Truth from Fiction – Michael Miller
• Governing the grapevine: The study of rumour during World War II – Cathy Faye
• INFORMATION DISORDER: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making – Claire Wardle, PhD & Hossein Derakhshan
Image source: http://www.lse.ac.uk
About the Author: Santosh Subba is by training a software programmer with deep interest in literature and politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @sonupondhak
NB: Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer. For any queries or contradictions the author can be contacted in his/her email id.