A Brief History of Fake News

A Brief History of Fake News

Friday, 16 November, 2018 - 07:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987
A penchant for claiming credit for almost everything is already established as a trait of President Donald Trump’s public persona. America’s surprisingly robust economy, the biggest tax cut in US history, naming two Supreme Court judges in the first term, and increasing, in a midterm election, the incumbent’s majority in the Senate for the first time in 105 years are some of the events for which Trump takes credit.

One may quibble about all that but none could flatly reject Trump’s claim of credit. One issue on which something more than quibbling may be in order is Trump’s claim of being the first to discover fake news. For fake news dates back to the very origins of the human story.

Wasn’t the claim of the tempter that partaking of the forbidden fruit shall have only beneficial consequences a piece of fake news?

The more regular human history is full of fake news.

In 522 BC after the death of Persian Emperor Cambyses, a group of power-hunters led by Darius spread the fake news that the man who had succeeded Cambyses was not his brother and rightful heir Bardia but a usurper. The group then staged a putsch, killed the “fake Bardia” and gave the crown to its own chief Darius.

A bigger piece of fake news came in the shape of the yarn woven around Alexander the Great, the invincible conqueror. He is supposed to have lived to the ripe old age of 33.

In just 10 years, the Macedonian is supposed to have conquered almost all of the then known world from the Balkans Peninsula to Russia to the Indian Ocean and from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia and China. That involves a distance of around 40,000 kilometers, allez-retour, which means he would have been traveling quite a bit. And, yet, he is supposed to have built 20 cities named after himself, taken four wives (long before Islam) and “disappeared” for an unknown length of time looking for the fountain of eternal youth.

That there is no contemporaneous account of those marvelous deeds has persuaded some historians to doubt the existence of such a character which first appeared in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD, that is to say, centuries after the claimed events.

During the Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad, the fake news was spread by professional raconteurs known as “qas’ in Arabic, hence the proverb “al-qas la yahub al-qas” (ranconteur doesn’t like raconteur!). Under the Caliph Wathiq, Baghdad counted more than 100 “qas” some of whom made fortunes spreading the fake news for rich and powerful patrons.

Russian history is full of fake tsars, collectively known as pseudo-Dimitrius who appeared during the "time of troubles”
to claim the crown. They used the media of their time, largely consisting of priests preaching in churches and traveling merchants. Often the result was a popular revolt or civil war.

At times, the fake news could help bring peace. In the 15th century Spain and Portugal, ruled by two cousins, were often at war. Peace was established when the Portuguese king granted a reportedly rich Mediterranean island to his Spanish cousin. It didn’t matter that such an island didn’t exist and that the map presented to the Spanish was one of Serendip, now known as Ceylon in the Indian Ocean. The Spanish potentate could claim victory and have a parade.

More recently, the fake news was used to promote the French Revolution of 1789. Revolutionary leaders claimed that the Bastille prison was full of “heroic fighters for the people.” But when the building was captured it contained only seven prisoners, all of them ordinary criminals.

The revolutionaries spread many fake news items against Queen Marie Antoinette, including the one about her necklace which later inspired Alexander Duma swashbuckling yarns.

When the tide turned fake news was used against leaders of the revolution. Robespierre, the most radical of revolutionary leaders, was accused of having married the daughter of Louis XVIth in secret as the first step to claiming the crown. As a reward, he got the guillotine.

The tsarist secret service, Okhrana, perfected fake news into an art. Its masterpiece was the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion which has served in many conspiracy theories for over a century.

In 1879 the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck used a doctored version of a conversation between his King and the French Ambassador over the Spanish royal succession in order to provoke the French into a war. The fake version came in the form of the notorious “Ems telegram”. The French took the bait and lost the war along with Alsace and Lorraine provinces.

In Britain, the so-called Zinoviev Letter, named after the then leader of the Comintern, remains an example of fake news. It was published by the Daily Mail just four days before the 1924 election to foment anxiety that Communists, controlled by Moscow, were plotting to seize power through the Labour Party if it won a majority in the House of Commons.

Back to Iran, the fake news was used to promote the fable about a CIA operative named Kermit Roosevelt overthrowing Dr. Muhammad Mussadeq’s government in a 1953 coup by spending $18,000, the cheapest regime change in history.

In her memoirs, Tahia Kazem, the widow of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser recalls a trip to Yugoslavia when her husband was informed that the CIA plotted to capture him at sea on his way back home. That fake news was concocted by the Soviets and spread through Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, then Nasser’s media aides. The aim was to have Nasser flown to Moscow and thence to Cairo, casting the USSR as the protector.

Fake news does not always have political or religious aims. It could also be used to make a fast buck. In 1977 a Belgian company persuaded French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing that it had developed an aircraft that could discover oilfields by simply sniffing them. The Frenchman swallowed the wallop and coughed out 800 million francs, enabling the fakers to disappear substantially richer.

Want more? Well, go and fetch popcorn and lemonade to watch more of this three-ring circus that is politics.

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