Op-Ed: Fake News and Disinformation
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By: Sean Linnane
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Since the recent Presidential election, the term ‘fake news’ has exploded all over the media. A quick search delivers hundreds of headlines featuring the term ‘fake news’, mostly associated with the recent election. But ‘fake news’ itself is nothing new. The principle of disinformation goes back at least as far as 500 BC. The great Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher Sun Tzu stated, “All warfare is based on deception.”
If one accepts Clausewitz’s famous maxim, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” substitute ‘warfare’ for politics or political activity in that statement, then consider Sun Tzu’s follow-on thoughts:
“Your opponent is unprepared because you have deceived him. He does not expect you because you have irritated him, made him arrogant, and denied him the rest required for him to regain his senses and reconsider his vulnerable position.”
Deception, propaganda, psychological operations are powerful tools in both warfare and political activity. Consider; in Nazi Germany, the most powerful man after Hitler himself was Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. The Nazi’s driving principle of propaganda was The Big Lie: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”
In guerrilla warfare, psychological operations are considered as important as troops, guns, ammunition and other logistics. The United States instrument responsible for guerrilla warfare – US Army Special Forces – was activated out of the U.S. Army Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, NC, in May of 1952. In June 1952 the initial 10th Special Forces Group was formed, coinciding with the establishment of the Psychological Warfare School, which is now known as the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Tenth Special Forces Group was responsible, among other missions, to operate a stay-behind guerrilla operation after a presumed Soviet overrunning of Western Europe.
A modern example of political deception occurred in the 2012 Presidential campaign, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Utah) claimed that an unnamed source told him that Romney hadn’t paid any taxes for 10 years. This was a complete falsehood – Mitt Romney had in fact paid at least 13% tax for that time period – but the damage was done. The story was instrumental in Romney’s losing the election. When later asked about his smear, Reid had no regrets. “I don’t regret that at all,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash. “Romney didn’t win did he?”
Of course, the more recent election was typified an abundant assortment of rumors fed by WikiLeaks and other email leaks, disinformation, fake news and an undisguised favoritism of the mainstream media towards the Democratic candidate.
On October 20th of this year, CNN reported that Trump “implied he would only accept the results of the general election if he won,” and this became a major theme in the media in the final weeks of the election. What he actually said was: “I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election, if I win.” After raising concerns about voter fraud, Trump also stated “Of course, I would accept a clear election result, but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result,” Trump said. “And always, I will follow and abide by all of the rules and traditions of all of the many candidates who have come before me. Always.”
This kind of distortion is visible to one cynical enough, or with a seasoned political eye. What’s more difficult to ascertain or manage is the growing deluge of truly fake news emerging from the internet. NPR presented a comprehensive report regarding this phenomenon, and Public Radio International described groups of adolescents in the former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, generating fake news stories to earn money via Google AdSense accounts.
The challenge to society is that the Information Age has made it possible to transmit disinformation and deception instantly with an amplification that Goebbels could only have dreamed of. Worse still, is that a significant portion of contemporary fake stories seem to be for no specific purpose. A type of internet-induced chaos is emerging that seems to typify the ever-increasing breakdown of truth and social order.
We are living in an ever-increasing Orwellian world where truth is becoming a rare commodity. And as Orwell himself stated, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.