Fake news is old news

A lesson from history about fake news

The unholy alliance between Donald Trump, the king of „alternate facts“, and the right-wing press managed to derail the election that was Hillary’s to lose. That at least seems to be the story line most liberals in America have adopted to explain the (for them) unexplainable. The alt.right rumor mongers, they say, have succeeded in turning the social web into a weapon of misconception, a tool powerful enough to sway masses of voters into making decisions based on untruth. This, they believe, is a totally new phenomenon, a dastardly and highly efficient way of corrupting the Internet and poisoning the wells of online information.

In fact, fake news is as old as politics itself, and feeding falsehood to the press has been around for ages.

One of the best examples of the unwitting collusion between the fourth estate and the powers that wish to be has been largely forgotten, but deserves to be revisited as a cautionary tale for all of us consumers of media, be it printed or distributed digitally.

I’m talking here about the Zinoviev letter, a totally fabricated document the British Daily Mail newspaper published four days before the general election of October 1924, and which, many historians believe, threw the election to the Conservative Party and leading to the ouster of the Labour minority government under Ramsay MacDonald and the subsequent polarization of British politics between Labour and Conservatives.

In the letter, Zinoview, the head of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, supposedly wrote: “It is indispensable to stir up the masses of the British proletariat to bring into movement the army of unemployed proletarians.” The letter, which was allegedly addressed to the Central Committee of British Communist Party, urges the “comrades” to make every effort to “paralyse all the military preparations of the bourgeoisie, and make a start in turning an imperialist war into a class war.”

This was hot stuff, and the Daily Mail pounced on it. It appears to have been leaked to them by conservative-leaning officials in the Foreign Office. Sound familiar?

Anyway, the result was a landslide for the Conservatives who subsequently formed a government with Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister, who refused to undertake any further investigation, despite continuing allegations that the letter was forged.

Zinoview himself issued an indignant denial, say that the letter “which has been attributed to me, is from the first to the last word, a forgery.” The denial, which was written two days before the election, wasn’t published until December, long after the MacDonald government had fallen.

Nobody really knows, by the way, who wrote the Zinoview letter, although The Guardian in an article published in 1999 alleged it was fabricated by MI6, the Britisch intelligence service. Others theorize that it was the product of a group of Czarist Ruissians based in Berlin.

The parallels with the events on November 2016, however, are obvious. Then, as now, a well-timed fake fact attack can change the course of history. And the lesson again is clear: Don’t trust everything you read, be it on paper or on the computer screen in front of you. We haven’t learned much since 1924, but we should be really worried about how easy it is to fool some of the people some of the time. Let’s just hope Lincoln was right in saying you can’t fool all the people all of the time.

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