Is Fake News New?

I know what the smart-arses among you are saying already. ‘Of course not, the Daily Mail / Guardian / Fox / BBC exists’. I’m sure you’re laughing at your own joke now, convinced of its hilarity; after all, any news sources that don’t fit with your world view must be evil.

Well, no. That’s not a healthy way of thinking. Fake goes back a hell of a lot further than 2016, probably even further back than intricate Russian propaganda campaigns, and that self-assured belief anything you don’t want to read is wrong is the driver that’s kept it effective.

Fake news consists of sites designed to look real posting content designed to look real, based on deliberate fabrications. These have, throughout the course of 2016, caused a lot of problems as their validity stopped being questioned. Suddenly Hillary Clinton is the physical embodiment of the devil, and the EU is part of a plot to rename Southern England Lower-Lower Normandy.

This is distinct from a newspaper stretching the truth to the limit, or even misunderstanding some data. The line between this and Freddy Star Ate My Hamster is slightly more blurred, and comes in the form of a single unreliable source (who may have been Max Clifford). This is a person, or a group of people, trying to command authority while physically inventing sensationalist stories.

You don’t need to look back very far to see why it isn’t new. Even in the age of the internet, I’m sure you remember how easily your older or more gullible Facebook friends were tricked by entirely invented memes or slightly sick celebrity death hoaxes. In the UK it was politicised then; Britain First, the far right group and ‘street defence force’, found it incredibly easy to gain influence through entirely inventing emotive things on Facebook in an authoritative tone. To this day, Britain First has the most Facebook likes of any registered UK political party.

Back then, though, people were weirdly wary of websites they didn’t know. People seemed to understand that a website you’ve never heard of isn’t trustworthy, but not quite get that a Facebook post from a ‘street defence force’ wasn’t entirely honest. Fake news sites weren’t a big deal, because people figured out that you couldn’t believe everything you read on the internet pretty early on. I suppose, to some extent, the fact real news site names sound like jokes these days is no help. 

Unfortunately for those lamenting this new phenomenon, that wasn’t the start of it. From the 1920s, European populists of all persuasions distributed leaflets and newspapers detailing entire fabrications. To a lot of people, at different points in economic and political cycles, these were trustworthy. They were not.  From before, entirely fabricated racist pamphlets like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were printed to trick and had a long-lasting and devastating impact across the political spectrum.

Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists were distributing Blackshirt and Action (briefly joined by the East London Pioneer) in the UK, while Hitler, Mussolini and co were distributing their publications on the continent. The stories within them were simply invented to make people hate others. This ranged from secret communist plots, to conspiracy theories about governments and authority, to every form of racist slur and hate speech under the sun. The far right, through the days of the League of Empire Loyalists to the National Front to the BNP have all had their newspapers, and they’ve all printed their leaflets. Those newspapers tricked an awful lot of people.

Spearhead and The Rune- the far right magazines owned by John Tyndall- were once edited by Nick Griffin. It printed conspiracy theories, lies, racist slurs, and Holocaust denial. This was until relatively recently, and it had a similar effect to fake news today. The BNP faithful repeated its Holocaust denial like gospel, and its entirely unfounded and often rather disturbing claims against politicians or establishment figures like a conviction.

No, before you ask, the left isn’t exempt. They do it too. The Canary today, along with a fair few smaller sites, publish unfounded and simply invented accounts of things that never happened, and wild and unfounded conspiracy theories. Their followers believe every word, and quote it as though The Canary was a well-known reputable paper. Admittedly The Canary carries a whole range of content, and isn’t simply a vessel for fake news; sometimes they publish flawed analysis or lazy opinion. Sometimes they say good things about this site, which makes this paragraph somewhat embarrassing.

Before The Canary, the left had Twitter memes. Before that Facebook lies. Before that the Socialist Worker, and Militant, and- while the USSR was still around- the Morning Star. During the 1930s, the Communist Party ran its own propaganda rag, The Daily Worker (the official organ of the Soviet affiliated CPGB, later to become the slightly more independent Morning Star during the 1960s), running fake news and invented Soviet propaganda in every issue.

Wait, I hear you saying, why didn’t we realise this before? Well, I’m glad you asked. That’s because, under normal circumstances, fake news doesn’t win over undecideds. It doesn’t even win over people who might be slightly leaning your way. It simply ensures the faithful are a step further away from the rest of the world.

When you read a story that says ‘Hillary Clinton head of secret oil cartel’, the first thing most people- under normal circumstances- think is ‘wait, what? Are you sure?’ When you’re already converted, it might sound to you like something she’d so. If you’ve been somehow screwed over, or think you’ve been screwed over, by the system, and it feels true, that’s enough. Yet under normal circumstances few people who aren’t in Trump’s camp already would believe a story like that. So few people who aren’t part of their fake news safe-space, where challenging that kind of nonsense isn’t allowed, get to see it.

This election was different. Fake news had greater power, because one of the candidates kept confidently quoting it without leaving a source. As journalists struggled to figure out why on earth he was saying that Ted Cruz’s father killed JFK, they were forced to report that he said it confidently. If you, like millions of normal people, aren’t that interested in politics, hearing those claims put authoritatively and repeated on CNN makes it sound true. By the time journalists are able to fact check it, the story becomes boring again. Suddenly it’s just journalists and politicians calling someone a liar, which is very easy to zone out on.

Did fake news win its first election? Well, I don’t know. With the margin of victory, it could have done. Very clearly, if you forget why people believe in fake news stories- even those repeated like never before.  Less clear if you look for the underlying reason. People felt like they were being screwed over somehow, and a fair amount were sucked into the cult the moment the legitimate news reported on something about Hillary they didn’t like. Perhaps because of the stories manufactured by the FBI or by the Russians which became legitimate but baseless news. Perhaps because they want a strong man, or they like Putin, or don’t like women, or really don’t like Mexicans or Muslims, or enjoy memes a bit too much, or because the Democrats had won the previous two terms, or Clinton wasn’t that likeable, or Sanders made the Democrats look like a bunch of horrendously annoying students, or because they totally know what a private email server is, or because the new Daily Show is still finding its feet. Regardless of why they drifted away from Clinton, the echo chamber probably only stopped them returning once they were gone.