by Jon Atack

Fake news is a form of propaganda. Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Worldwide Web, has said, “misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”

It is sad, but most of us can experience pleasure at the distress of another. In German, this is called schadenfreude. Perhaps this is why we so often accept ridiculous fake news because we do want to see the mighty fall. We are drawn to scandal, so gossip and trolling circulate the globe.

Sometimes fake news is a hoax or conspiracy theory, sometimes it is a financial scam, but it is increasingly an aspect of political manipulation. Since the 1970s, political parties have spent vast amounts on professional public relations (or propaganda) advice. They want to have the best possible image in the world, and to minimize the damage of bad news – by spinning it with a better front-page revelation. Overnight, the spin-doctors were rampant. They tailor an approach and often provide a script for our politicians. Political parties will move as close to the ethical line as they can in attacking opponents.

In an early use of fake news, John D Rockerfeller junior’s PR man, Ivy Lee, issued libelous bulletins every few days about Mary Harris Jones, the social rights activist and labor organizer for whom the magazine Mother Jones is named. After the the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, where 14 men, women and children were murdered to break a miners’ strike, Lee, to steer attention away from Rockefeller’s criminal and immoral activities, portrayed Jones, who was almost 80, as “a prostitute and keeper of a house of prostitution”.

Lee admitted at Congressional Hearings that he made no effort to check the information given to him about protestors: “I had no responsibility for the facts and no duty beyond compiling them and getting them into the best form for publicity work.” Ivy Lee prefigured contemporary “alternative facts” by telling railway executives: “It is not the facts that strike the popular mind, but the way in which they take place and in which they are published that kindle the imagination.”

Today, not only is fake news used to malign, confuse and misinform, but the term can be turned on itself, and used as a label to discredit genuine news sources. It is important that we learn how distinguish between falsehood masquerading as truth and truth mislabeled as falsehood – our propaganda section shows how to recognize fake news – stories that are exaggerated or completely invented – for what it is.

See our articles on human predators and recruitment and seduction.