Fake news and disinformation campaigns have existed throughout human history. In ancient Rome, for example, Julius Ceasar’s adopted son Octavian turned public opinion against his political rival, Mark Antony, by circulating a will purported to be Antony’s that committed many grievous sins in the eyes of the Roman people. In the 8th century, the Catholic Church produced a document allegedly from the 4th century in which Emperor Constantine transferred land and political control to Pope Sylvester I. The Church used this document for hundreds of years to justify its jurisdiction over various regions and peoples. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the document was revealed to be fake.
The speed with which fake news can be spread changed dramatically with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-15th century. Before the printing press, it cost much more money and time to create books or pamphlets and share them with people. The printing press made it cheaper and easier to spread news, both real and fake. US President John Adams complained about this at the end of the 18th century, writing, “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an [sic] hundred years before 1798.”
Another name for fake news is dezinformatsiya, or disinformation. Disinformation means false information that is meant to mislead people. It often refers to official propaganda issued by a government. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, invented the word dezinformatsiya in the 1920s. He deliberately gave it a French-sounding name so that people would think it was originally a Western tactic. Thus, an early use of disinformation came in the very coining of the term.
The Soviet Union had been an ally to the Western powers against Nazi Germany during the Second World War. After winning the war, the two sides became enemies (see Canada and the Cold War). But the Western Allies also used disinformation during the war. Starting in May 1941, for example, Nazi troops could tune in to nightly radio rants from a Nazi known as the Chief. Claiming to be in the Third Reich, the Chief blasted Adolf Hitler and other German leaders for failing the National Socialist cause. He also accused top Nazis of sexual perversity, corruption and callous disregard of German suffering. But the Chief was actually working for the British and broadcasting his mix of lies and truth out of Britain.
Three Types of Fake News
The term “fake news” describes a range of false information that can be separated into three distinct types: disinformation, misinformation and mal-information.
Disinformation refers to false reports that are intended to mislead people. For example, during the French presidential election in 2017, a bogus version of a Belgian newspaper ran a made-up article claiming Saudi Arabia was financing candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign.
Misinformation is reporting that proves to be false but was not intended to be. For example, after the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist attack, many American news outlets wrongly reported an arrest had either been made or was “imminent” when the killers were in fact still at large. Similarly, in the immediate aftermath of the Parliament Hill shooting on 22 October 2014, reports of a second attack at the Rideau Centre mall turned out to be false.
With mal-information, the information and reporting are true but are presented in a way that is designed to harm specific people or groups. For example, the release of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 US presidential election, as well as Emmanuel Macron’s emails on the eve of the 2017 French presidential election, was orchestrated with the intent of casting both campaigns in a negative light.
Classic Disinformation Campaigns
Ion Pacepa was a two-star general in Romania, a Soviet satellite state, until he defected to the United States in 1978. He said that while Western countries focused on gathering intelligence about their enemies, the Soviet Union’s intelligence agencies instead focused on “framing” past events by falsely rewriting history.
Pacepa defined disinformation as a “secret intelligence tool.” The Soviet Union’s state security agency, the KGB, gathered intelligence at home and abroad. It made up fake news and secretly planted it within Western non-government agencies and media outlets in the hopes they would spread the fake news. It would then be seen as legitimately coming from Western sources, not the USSR.
Starting in the 1980s, for example, the Soviet Union falsely claimed the United States created AIDS as a biological weapon. The CIA has reported that the KGB began the disinformation campaign by planting a letter in a newspaper in India in 1983. The false claim slowly spread around the world, and by 1986, rumours spread in Africa that the United States was using AIDS as a racial weapon. As late as 2005, US rapper Kanye West repeated the claim in his song “Heard ‘Em Say.”
Contemporary Disinformation Campaigns
The 2016 US presidential election saw a storm of fake news stories. This was due in large part to Russia’s use of “troll farms” — vast teams of government agents working online — to spread disinformation among American citizens and influence their voting decisions. This disinformation included claims that President Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had promised amnesty to undocumented immigrants if they voted for the Democrats; and that Republican candidate Donald Trump had once said he would run for president as a Republican because “they’re the dumbest group of voters.”
The disinformation became so widespread that Trump began using the term “fake news” as a catch-all description for any story or media outlet that was critical of him. His administration later began disseminating its own disinformation (e.g., that between 3 and 5 million people had voted fraudulently in the 2016 election, and that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever) while also attempting to rationalize and normalize these falsehoods as “alternative facts.”
One fake news story from the 2016 US presidential campaign led to a real-life crime. The “Pizzagate” hoax seems to have emerged in the fall of 2016 when emails sent by Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, John Podesta, were stolen and released to the public.Podesta wrote about pizza parties, which some people speculated was a coded reference to a pedophilia ring. Podesta also emailed the owner of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza place in Washington, DC, which led to online speculation that it was the centre of the supposed pedophile ring.
In December 2016, a man who believed the fake news went to Comet Ping Pong with a rifle. He fired at least one shot and searched the restaurant before being arrested. No evidence suggests Pizzagate was anything other than fake news — lies spread to harm Clinton’s reputation and political career.
In Canada in December 2016, Nick Kouvalis, the campaign manager for Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, spread false news about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Kouvalis posted online that the Canadian government was funding terrorists by sending hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian group Hamas. (The federal government classifies Hamas as a radical terrorist group.)Kouvalis said he spread the false news to learn details about people who might support Leitch. He later resigned from her campaign.
Some fake news stories gather under the umbrella of “false flag operations,” a theory claiming that some acts are orchestrated in a way to cast blame on a party that is not in fact responsible for them. In 2012, an American man killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Right-wing talk-show host Alex Jones became a prominent proponent of the claim that the mass murder was actually a hoax, staged by actors with the intent of tightening gun control laws or infringing on people’s Second Amendment rights.
Fact-checking and Defending Against Fake News
The growth of the Internet and social media has made publishing and sharing news very cheap and easy to do. Social media makes reaching millions of people as easy as clicking the share button. Articles shared online may all look similar, whether they come from legitimate sources or are completely made up. Understanding why people create and share fake news is an important step in not falling for a hoax.
Fact-checking is the best way to tell if a news story or other claim is true. Websites ending in .edu are for registered universities or colleges, while official Government of Canada websites include the following suffixes: .gc.ca; .gc/en; .gc/fr; .ourcommons.ca; .canada.ca; .parl.ca. Official websites for universities, museums or scientific institutes are typically trustworthy, as are websites for federal, provincial or municipal governments. Reputable online sources such as The Canadian Encyclopedia, Oxford dictionaries or Encyclopedia Britannica can also generally be trusted.
If the site is full of odd claims or clickbait stories about celebrities, it should probably not be trusted. Political, business or cultural sites that clearly support one position are also suspect. Open websites such as Wikipedia, which anyone can edit, should contain sources or links that can be checked. Similarly, videos on a site like YouTube should include sources in the video or the comments section.
Reputable fact-checking websites can also be helpful in seeking clarification. FactsCan, launched in 2015, offers independent, non-partisan fact-checking of Canadian politicians and political news stories. TrudeauMeter, also launched in 2015, is a non-partisan site that tracks the progress of Justin Trudeau’s 2015 campaign promises. Other fact-checking sites include FactCheck.org, International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), PolitiFact and Snopes.