In the middle of the 2nd World War in 1941, the Johannesburg Star published an editorial which accused Hendrik Verwoerd of “falsifying war news in Germany’s favour.” Verwoerd was the editor of Die Transvaler, the mouthpiece of the Broederbond. Born originally in Amsterdam to Dutch parents in 1901, Verwoerd migrated with his parents to South Africa in 1902, receiving his first degree in Philosophy from the University of Stellenbosch in 1922, a Ph.D. in 1924 and becoming a Professor at just 26 in 1927. In 1937, he would become the editor of Die Transvaler, from where he would advance rabidly anti-Semitic, anti-black, pro-Aryan worldview.
In response to The Star’s editorial, Verwoerd sued for libel, asking for £15,000 in damages. Dismissing Verwoerd’s claim on 13 July 1943, Justice Phillip Millin ruled:
There have been proved two very grave cases of false news in reckless disregard of whether it was true or false; six cases, on the whole less serious but still clear cases of falsification, where news, originally correctly reported, was falsely restated for the purpose of editorial comment; and two cases in which news was falsified by means of misleading headlines.
Rather than damage Verwoerd’s political career, this episode may have spurred it. In 1950 he became Minister for Native Affairs in the Afrikaner government of Prime Minister, Daniel Malan, before rising to the office of Prime Minister eight years later in 1958.
As Justice Millin pointed out, there are effectively three categories of information that could pass for “fake”. These are “false news” or news published “in reckless disregard of whether it was true or false”; falsification, “where news originally reported is falsely restated”; and falsification of news by means of misleading headlines, or what would today be known as click-baiting. All of these are characterized by one common thread – an intent to mislead or misrepresent.
Notwithstanding what appears to be the considerable antiquity of false news, the Daily Telegraph in London claimedon 3 July, 2019 that “‘fake news’ was not a term many people used four years ago, but it is now seen as one of the greatest threats to democracy, free debate and the Western order.” Yet, merely a year before that, on 11 February 2018, Kenan Malik,writing in the Guardian,had reminded us that “fake news has a long history.”
The intent to mis-lead or desire to damage has always been inherent in the character of false news. Four days before the UK general election on 25 October,1924, the Daily Mail published a letter allegedly signed by Grigori Zinoviev, president of the Comintern, calling on the British left to mobilise “sympathetic forces” in the Labour Party to support an Anglo-Soviet treaty and encourage “agitation-propaganda” (agitprop) in the British armed forces.What would come to be known as the “Zivoniev Letter” cost Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, the election in a Tory landslide, returning Stanley Baldwin to office in his place. In February 1999, the Guardian in London showed that the “Zivoniev Letter” was in fact a dirty trick by the MI6 againstLabour.
The UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee Report on Disinformation and “Fake News” issued on St. Valentine’s Day in 2019 suggests that the issue now is not the age of the idea of false news but its scale. There are two dimensions to this scale. One is geo-spatial. In the words of the Committee, “[t]his activity has taken on new forms and has been hugely magnified by information technology and the ubiquity of social media.” The other refers to its political functionality. As Michiko Kakutani points out in his 2018 book, The Death of Truth, “fake news” is now an epithet used to “discredit journalism” that political higher-ups find “threatening or unflattering.”
As a formulation, “fake news” conflates three different concepts with different consequences. One is mistake. Journalism, as a human enterprise conducted under extreme time pressures is fraught with risks of mistake. The right response to mistake when it is discovered is acknowledgement and correction. But under the hyper-populist pressures of digital politics, mistake today is increasingly criminalized as “fake news”.
Two, there is propaganda. Usually, untruths and falsehood would not be acceptable as news. Sometimes, however, especially in times of extreme national emergency, they may serve a limited function. In the 2nd World War, around the Tehran Conference in 1943, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, famously declared that “[i]n war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Countries at war and their armies have always exercised military latitude with facts. Disinformation, mis-information and psychological operations are as old as war itself.
Three, there is false news. Quite clearly, this has some antiquity. The UK Parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee acknowledged that “[w]e have always experienced propaganda and politically-aligned bias, which purports to be news.” Yet, ‘fake news’ was one of Collins Dictionary’s Words of the Year in 2017, somehow suggesting that it is a new concept or new word. It isn’t.
As political currency, “fake news” corrodes leadership accountability. Quite clearly, government, senior politicians and their partisans are the people who have the most to gain and lose from deploying false news or dismissing what they dislike as “fake”. They enjoy impunity for such misconduct, which makes them unconvincing when they call for it to be punished merely because political adversaries are involved. As is evident with many contemporary political leaders around the world, a career in political falsehood can be very rewarding these days.
The privileging of “fake news” as political epithet itself shows how the digital ecosystem has changed political expression. Digital communication is underpinned by an intimacy and immediacy that lends itself to polarity, aided often by anonymity which is the opposite of what exists in analogue, hard-copy reporting. Digital posts canhave the frisson of face-to-face confrontation, largely unmediated by editorial judgement. The result, quite often, is “a well-documented ‘online disinhibition effect’, a behavioral distortion caused by the absence of social signals that surround analogue communication”, which as Raphael Baehr points out “can cause people to abandon empathy, and lose impulse control.” This leads to breakdown in the implicit civic bargains that in a different age underwrote political expression before the digital revolution.
Complaints about “fake news”, therefore, reflect contemporary tribalization of news between auto-identifying constituencies of the righteous and the despicable, an us and them tendency that breeds what former British Prime Minister, John Major, has called “the unreasoning antipathy of the extremes” in which “reasonable voices” are increasingly “drowned out by the raucous din of the loudest.” This is the rationale for the political economy of troll farms. But, far from an excuse for more authoritarianism, what this new ecosystem needs is a new bargain on civic manners to underpin remodeled ethos of political expression.
A co-convenor of Nigeria Mourns, Odinkalu works with the Open Society Foundations.