The Short Life of Fake News

Never believe anything until it has been officially denied

Claud Cockburn

Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare

Louis XI the Prudent, King of France (1461–1483)

Figures of speech and their trajectories make an intriguing study. For example, partly due to Covid-19, one of this year’s most popular locutions was, ‘We are entering uncharted territory’ – a portentous way of saying that we have zero understanding of it. These expressions disappear, often overnight, sometimes more gradually. Why? Their fortunes follow an erratic path, hard to decipher. For example, the term fake news has barely been used in 2020, when just three years ago it was rampaging across the media, with legislation drafted on it in various parliaments. It is not as if the world has grown more truthful over the past few years, yet now it seems to have been almost deleted from our vocabularies.

Which suggests the opposite question: how come it was only in 2017 that a stunned humanity discovered that lies are told in politics and war? It is over two millennia since the figure of the ‘doomed spy’ was first etched in The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu and transcribed in the 4th century BC. In Chapter 13 (‘The Use of Spies’), Sun Tzu identifies five types of secret agent: local (employing the inhabitants), ‘inward’ (recruiting the enemy’s officials), ‘converted’ (turning the enemy’s spies into double agents), ‘doomed spies’ – agents ‘to whom we deliberately give information we have fabricated out of thin air’ and who are sacrificed to the enemy – and ‘surviving spies’, who bring back news from the enemy’s camp. A thousand years later Tu Yu, who died in 812 AD, commented on the category of the doomed spy: ‘We allow genuinely false information to escape and we make sure our agents come to hear of it. When these agents travel into enemy territory and get captured, they won’t be able to avoid revealing this fabricated information. The enemy will believe it – because they will have obtained it through extortion – and will proceed accordingly. But we will operate quite differently and the enemy will therefore execute our spies.’ It was the discursive equivalent of the chess move that sacrifices a piece to lure the adversary into a trap.

No wonder the maxim, ‘truth is the first casualty of war’ has been speculatively traced as far back as Aeschylus. The oldest sources for that particular formulation can be traced only to the First World War, although Samuel Johnson said something similar – ‘Among the calamities of war may justly be numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages’ – in ‘The Idler’ column of the Universal Chronicle in November 1758. In general, though, this type of ‘fake news’ – the deceptions of war, or war as the art of lying – goes back to the dawn of time. Not for nothing did the Romans used to say, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’, thinking of the wooden horse the Achaeans gave to Troy – the trick that constituted the final act in the war which founded Western culture.

A second type of fake news is more ‘social’ in character, closer to civil war than war between states, and can be catalogued under the rubric, ‘slander’. Anonymous calumnies and denunciations did not need social media to cause misfortune. From the tamburo, or letterbox, in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence in which the unsigned accusation of sodomy against Leonardo da Vinci and others was deposited in 1476, through to the innumerable anonymous accusations of sorcery in Germany and Scotland in the 1600s, which led to just as many immolations: the viral tom-tom insinuating that Obama was not an American citizen and studied in an Islamic madrasa has precedents which, if not illustrious, were ancient and more lethal.

But it was in 17th-century Europe that treatises began to multiply on the art of lying, or of saying nothing; understandably, as saying what one thought risked the stake or decapitation. And it was at this time that the canonical definition was stabilized. ‘We simulate that which is not and dissimulate that which is’, wrote Torquato Accetto in On Honest Dissimulation, published posthumously in 1641, a year after his death. Francis Bacon used the same terms in his essay Of Simulation and Dissimulation (1625): ‘Dissimulation’ is ‘when a man lets fall Signs and Arguments, that he is not, that he is’. And ‘Simulation’ is ‘when a Man industriously, and expressly, feigns and pretends to be, that he is not.’

Skipping three centuries forward to 1921, the great French historian Marc Bloch turned to examine the falsehoods employed during the First World War in his Réflexions d’un historien sur les fausses nouvelles de la guerre. The era saw a vast expansion in the dissemination of mass propaganda and the wartime use of radio. So today we are not in the least surprised by a text like this:

Never have we lied as much as in our time. Nor lied in as brazen, systematic or constant a manner. We may perhaps be told that this is not the case, that the lie is as old as the world, or, at least, as old as man, mendax ab initio; that the political lie was born with the city itself, as history superabundantly teaches… All that is true, undoubtedly. Or almost. It is certain that man defines himself through speech, that this entails the possibility of lying, and that… the lie, even more than the laugh, is peculiar to man. It is equally certain that the political lie belongs to all time, that the rules and techniques of what once was called ‘demagogy’, and today ‘propaganda’, have been systematized and codified for thousands of years… It is incontestable that man has always lied. Lied to himself. And to others. Lied for his own pleasure – the pleasure of exercising that astonishing faculty of ‘saying that which is not’ and creating with his own words a world of which he is the sole author. Lying, too, as self-defence: the lie is a weapon. The preferred weapon of the low and the weak who, in deceiving the enemy, affirms himself and takes his revenge. But… we remain convinced that, in this domain, the present epoch… has made powerful innovations.

All entirely recognizable. The only problem being that ‘the present epoch’ in which we lie as never before lay 77 years ago: the original text of Alexandre Koyré’s Réflexions sur le mensonge appeared in 1943 in the first number of Renaissance, a quarterly journal published in New York – proof that the sensation of being enveloped by a world of lies and falsehoods, of swimming in an illusory reality, belongs to every age.

There is thus no doubt that the sudden discovery of fake news must have been instrumental. But what was it for? And why at that precise moment? Why do hardened liars become indignant when others lie? There is only one explanation. If, for Weber, the state holds the monopoly on legitimate use of physical force, in the world of modern communications – in which TV counts for more than armoured divisions – the state, or more precisely the establishment, is that which holds the monopoly on legitimate lying. It alone has the right to lie and to impose its lies as truth. We could therefore hypothesize that the almost hysterical indignation against fake news was caused by the dominant groups’ fears of having lost the monopoly on legitimate lying.

Social media endangered such a monopoly. Recall that Facebook was born in 2004, QZone (China) in 2005, VKontakte (Russia) and Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010. It took some years of dissemination fully to unleash their power in reconfiguring the market for truth and lies. And it was in 2016, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, that the establishment felt the earth crumble beneath its feet, when it saw the triumph of lies that weren’t its own. The campaign against fake news was therefore immediately reconstituted as a campaign to regain control of social media, to introduce a kind of censorship or self-censorship. By definition, censorship consists in giving oneself the right to decide what is true and what is false, what can be said and what it is forbidden to say, what citizens can know and what must be kept from them. Based on the behaviour of social-media platforms during the US elections this November, it seems that the objective of regaining control of the flow of news has been at least in part achieved. The category fake news can go into hibernation, ready to be brought back out in case of need, when a better liar than those in power comes to assail the power of the liars.

Translated by Eleanor Chiari

Read on: Marco D’Eramo’s history of print journalism, from the rising bourgeoisie to the new oligarchy.