Fake news: Learning from the past to inform the present

Author: Dr James Crossland
Published: 14/09/2020
Fake news image

Fake news is everywhere in today’s world, delivered globally via smartphone and myriad other devices. This easy digital access to false narratives of current affairs, history and culture has been deemed a threat to democracy, informed debate and even reality itself. Fake news, however, is no 21st century internet-based phenomenon – a fact that, if properly understood and appreciated, delivers a much needed historical perspective to this supposedly contemporary problem.

The 5,000 year-old Narmer Palette of pre-dynastic Egypt, for example, depicts a king who may never have existed, smiting enemies unknown and conquering lands that, most scholars agree, were not conquered in the manner depicted on the artefact. In the mid-1400s, German woodcuts were made of a Transylvanian knight named Vlad Dracula dining under the impaled bodies of his enemies. This grisly scene is doubted by scholars to have ever happened, yet it became so enshrined in popular memory that centuries later Bram Stoker would use it as the basis of his iconic vampire tale. In the late 19th century, the so-called ‘Yellow Press’ thrived in the United States, disseminating stories of murderous immigrants, whilst purporting to have access to Washington insiders who were privy to the inner-workings of what was “really going on” in the nation’s corridors of power.

These familiar trends of fake news being used to demonise or embellish the actions of specific groups or individuals, and ‘prove’ the existence of government conspiracies have numerous other historical precedents. Perhaps the most instructive to troubled 21st century minds, however, is the way in which fake news was used by Winston Churchill’s government during the Second World War. This is because, unlike the aforementioned examples of blatant propaganda, Britain’s wartime fake news campaign was strategic, multi-layered, and directed at a specific adversary. Moreover, like the fake news campaigns of the present, it combined psychological theories with the latest technology, with the aim influence people’s opinions and actions.

Britain’s wartime fake news campaign was run by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), a secret organization tasked with spreading propaganda and falsehoods in an effort to undermine the Third Reich. PWE’s means of dissemination were many and varied. Intelligence assets in Europe used simple word of mouth to spread rumours (known as ‘Sibs’, from the Latin sibilare). These sibs were often as unsophisticated as the clickbait of the internet age. One rumour, spread in the summer of 1940, was that Britain was importing hundreds of sharks from Australia in order to fill the English Channel with a man-eating line of defence against German invasion.

More complex false narratives were built through the airdropping of leaflets that depicted Himmler as der Führer (a means of implanting the thought of overthrowing Hitler in German minds). Other leaflets featured cartoons of soldiers’ wives being subjected to the advances of Wehrmacht officers, whilst their husbands died for a hopeless cause amidst the icy misery of the Eastern Front. At their basest levels, these leaflets were a form of today’s ‘trolling’, designed to unnerve rather than to deceive.

More sophisticated were PWE’s Research Units (RUs), fake radio stations that were the analogue forerunners of today’s fake news websites. The RUs comprised a team of propagandists and a radio transmitter, which was used to broadcast into Europe a blend of truths, half-truths and lies. The narratives shaped by the RUs contained misleading stories on everything from Germany’s economic problems, to Hitler’s mental incompetence, to the robustness of resistance across the Third Reich.

Sometimes the RUs were clearly presented as propaganda stations, whilst other times the broadcasts were more subversive – carried out by Britons, broadcasting from the English countryside, pretending to be Germans within the Reich who knew the ‘truth’ of what was going on in Hitler’s regime. Like the bogus websites of today, the assumption of informed personas was made in order to provide a credible front for disseminating fake news.

Similarly, as today cookies and algorithms are used to identify net users who are susceptible to certain suggestions, the RUs were directed by intelligence, and the stories shaped to suit specific audiences. La France Catholique, for example, appealed to the Christian morals of French Catholics. Factory workers were targeted by Radio Travail, which deployed socialist and revolutionary rhetoric in an effort to get the workers to ‘go slow’ in their construction of bombs, bullets and boots for the capitalist, imperialist Nazi war machine. Vasil Levski was directed at Bulgarian patriots, depicting Bulgaria as a vassal state of the Reich and calling for resistance to Hitler’s demands in the name of national pride.

The operation of the RUs provides a lesson for understanding present-day fake news. The need for dissemination by seemingly credible fronts in order to be effective is as paramount today as it was 70 years ago. So too is the utilisation of the latest communications technology to push false narratives 24/7 into the homes, workplaces and day-to-day lives of ordinary people with tailored messaging. This need was understood by PWE, via its realisation of another key element that informs today’s fake news campaigns –that falsehoods are unlikely to be accepted by audiences unless social, political and economic conditions make them seem believable. PWE learned this in the dark days of 1940, when its efforts to convince Germans that Hitler was an incompetent war leader led only to Germans laughing at the absurdity of what was obviously hopeful British propaganda. In some instances, denizens of the Reich were so contemptuous of this message that they responded by using PWE’s leaflets as toilet paper.

In understanding the 21st century’s fake news problem, therefore, it is important to consider the historical precedents of method, means and technology. It is also vital to appreciate the context in which fake news thrives. For just as PWE could not convince the German people in 1940 that their war effort was doomed, so too is it hard to convince those fed on years of post-9/11 conspiracy theories, economic hardships and intense debates over immigration, that now is the time for temperate consideration of dry facts and harsh realities. In such a context, the fantasies offered by fake news will continue to appeal, and even more so if we neglect to understand the means by which false narratives of the past and present have both been constructed and rejected.


Dr James Crossland

Dr James Crossland is the author of War, Law and Humanity: the Campaign to Control Warfare, 1853-1914 (Bloomsbury, 2018) and Britain and the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1939-1945 (Palgrave, 2014). His current research is focused on the historical construction of fear narratives around war and terrorism.