Fake News

Having abolished the truth, we crave it

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times recently featured articles on “fake news” which some alleged was so widespread it elected Donald Trump. The WaPo wrote: “Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg took to the social network’s website over the weekend to dispute allegations that ‘fake news’ had tilted the election for Republican Donald Trump. ‘More than 99% of what people see is authentic,’ he wrote, adding it was ‘extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election.'”


But in another Washington Post article Craig Timberg argued it was extremely consequential. “The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.”

Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.

Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.

As if to prove the point the New York Times went “inside” a fake news factory where they claimed misinformation was manufactured like sausages by unemployed Georgian college graduates — the Georgia in question being in the Caucasus, not the United States. “By some estimates, bogus news stories appearing online and on social media had an even greater reach in the final months of the presidential campaign than articles by mainstream news organizations.”


So successful was the formula that others in Georgia and other faraway lands joined in, too, including Nika Kurdadze, a college acquaintance of Mr. Latsabidze’s who set up his own pro-Trump site, newsbreakshere.com. Its recent offerings included a fake report headlined: “Stop it Liberals…Hillary Lost the Popular Vote by Several Million. Here’s Why.” That story, like most of Mr. Latsabidze’s work, was pilfered from the web.

It would be wrong however, to trace the “fake news” phenomenon to the Satanic cleverness of Vladimir Putin.  As Robert Rowen showed in a presentation to the New York Military Affairs Symposium at CUNY “gray” and “black” news has been around for a long time. “The origins of gray and black propaganda extend back to Sun Tzu around 500 BC postulating rumor as a weapon of war.”

During the Spanish Civil War, Goebbels supplied a mobile transmitter that worked in the guise of a Republican station. … As the Phoney War evolved into the conquest of France, the French heard unidentified radio stations which seemed to be Communist urging pacifism and peace and messages that “France was weak, Germany was strong, and Britain was using France for its own imperialist purposes  …

It was not long before the British were running their own fake news operation against Nazi Germany under the 20 Committee.  In this they were materially aided by the power of American technology.  Rowen notes “If you ever listen to radio these days, you’ve probably heard “50,000 watts clear channel”. Today, as in the 1940s, it is still the maximum power allowed a US radio station. But in 1941, the RCA Corporation in New Jersey built for WJZ a transmitter 10 times more powerful. When the Federal Communication Commission refused to lift its ceiling of 50,000 watts, the WJZ 500,000 watt transmitter was briefly orphaned. Until the British heard about it. The transmitter was crated up, shipped to the UK and installed in bombproof headquarters in Sussex. They named it after a song sung by the English music hall entertainer, Gracie Fields: The Biggest Aspidistra in the World!”


The 20 Committee plus the Radio Corporation of America provided the backbone for fake news operations in WW2.  The Soldatensender Calais was widely followed and believed in occupied Europe.

“Soldatensender Calais” using the all-powerful Aspidistra on medium-wave, began reaching an enormous audience in France, operating on a frequency close to the German national “Deutschlandsender” home service. …

As the Allied invasion progressed, the breakdown in the Germans’ field communications became so grave that many of their commanders began tuning in to Soldatensender Calais for situation reports, and using them to constantly update the changing order of battle on their staff maps. The reports, obtained directly from SHAEF headquarters, were accurate 99 times out of 100. The hundredth time came when some false information was inserted at the request of tactical deception experts, to send the enemy headlong into a trap.

The reason why Allied deception operations were so effective against Hitler was because Goebbels had reduced German reporting to a lie machine, thereby destroying its credibility.  Allied news, even Allied deception was more believable by comparison.  The Russians had their own deception operations too.  They continued against the West all through the Cold War.  However for as long as the mainstream news outlets had widespread credibility they were confined to the margins, getting as far as the top floors of Marxists bookstores or academic faculty lounges, but no further.


If the Washington Post and the New York Times are wondering why fake news is now so effective they must at look in part at their own editorial policies for an answer.

“News” is information from others we believe to be true. Rumor, by contrast, is information from others whose truth is indeterminate. Being by definition to be at second hand, the validity of news crucially depends on trust.  The two ways trust is maintained is by consistent subsequent vindication or verification by an independent trusted party. If the weatherman says expect a storm and the storm nearly always comes the weatherman acquires trust.  Alternatively if the prediction can be confirmed by access to a radar display or looking out the window the weatherman will gain credibility.

If the news reader predicts Hillary will win with a 91% probability and Hillary loses, what will listeners think?  If immediately after Al Gore gives a speech on Global Warming a blizzard frequently strikes what conclusions will the audience invariably draw?

The success of “fake news” is inextricably linked to the state of credibility of the media. Fake news would get no purchase if the media’s credibility were high. But surveys showed it has been declining for years and the Russians could not have helped but notice.  They very cleverly exploited the fact that news organizations were increasingly used by politicians to spread lies. Talking Points, which made the coordination of lies easier, also made them easier to detect.  They ironically provided ample clues as to the nature of the disinformation and by simply negating the talking points it is sometimes possible to accidentally stumble on the truth, and thus scoop the media by hoisting them on their own petard.


Fixing fake news  necessarily means repairing the credibility of the media.  This can be done in two ways: by improving its reporting or providing the audience with tools to collaterally and direct check the facts.  It cannot be solved by automatically letting David Brock do the “vetting” or getting Mark Zuckerberg to pre-censor Facebook.

That will only increase the persuasive power of the unemployed Georgian gray news merchants.  Sun Tzu would understand.

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