Disinformation and fake news: Old wine in new bottles

As the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods continues its public hearings on the issue, it seems apt to take a step back and consider the whole matter of "disinformation" and "fake news" from a wider historical and conceptual perspective.

These terms have deeper conceptual, historical roots in the much older term "propaganda". Some scholars suggest that the word "propaganda" evolved as a result of Pope Gregory XV creating the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome in 1622. Hence, the origins of the term "propaganda" were honourable and related to the dissemination of religious ideals.

Only in the 20th century, particularly following the excesses of Nazi propaganda during World War II, did the current opprobrium associated with the word emerge. The Nazis conceived of propaganda as the "Big Lie". That is, Adolf Hitler's propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels apparently believed that by feeding ordinary people falsehoods - disinformation - enough times, eventually they would come to believe them.

However, in a strict technical sense, propaganda is any form of mass communication that is able to influence the thinking and behaviour of a target audience. The Allies during World War II, for example, conceived of strategic propaganda as directed at entire audiences within target states.

Previously, radio and newspapers - and later television - were seen as strategic propaganda mechanisms par excellence. Today, thanks to technological advances, social media platforms on non-private settings, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, could also be said to have potentially strategic impact.


While the above examples describe the mechanisms of strategic propaganda, one must also pay attention to the doctrine that governs their use. In World War II, Allied doctrine identified three categories of propaganda: the first was white - which involved basically telling the audience the truth via straight reporting by a clearly identified source.

For example, one reason why the British Broadcasting Corporation earned such a global following was its reputation for telling the truth, even bad news, in wartime.

Another approach - favoured by the Nazis - was black propaganda or disinformation.

Finally, there was also grey propaganda. This was when the information coming out contained facts and deliberate inaccuracies - and the source of it was unclear.

A famous wartime exponent of black/grey propaganda was British operative Sefton Delmer, who mesmerised Nazi audiences with his deliberately scandalous German-language radio broadcasts, while masquerading as a disgruntled senior Nazi officer.

R.H.S. Crossman, the top Allied propagandist in World War II and future minister in Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Labour government of the 1960s, observed that the British found that while black and grey propaganda were "fun", these merely succeeded in sowing confusion in a target audience. In contrast, white propaganda was better because once one had established credibility with target audiences, one could influence them to act in desired ways.


The principles of strategic propaganda remain relevant today, despite technological advances in the mechanisms of its dissemination. States still need to employ strategic propaganda to influence other states to behave in desired ways.

Strategic propaganda mechanisms in the post-war era have included such Cold War radio platforms as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, directed at the subjugated peoples of the Soviet bloc.

In more recent times, we have encountered the Russia Today television news channel and Sputnik Radio, while recent reports indicate that Beijing is thinking of setting up a huge Voice of China global broadcasting operation, apart from its Global Times newspaper.

In fact, strategic propaganda by sending states also includes so-called "agents of influence" (AOI) within target states throughout the world. These agents include foreign diplomatic, cultural and educational officials and institutions such as the British Council, the old US Information Agency, the Saudi-backed Muslim World League and the Chinese-supported Confucius Institutes in universities across the globe.

These mechanisms are actually not unusual and have been part of global diplomatic and cultural intercourse for decades.


The real problem arises when the goal of the sending state shifts from mere information influence to the more aggressive stance of information dominance within the target state. This happens when the strategic propaganda mechanisms shift from disseminating white propaganda, to employing black and grey modes as well.

This comes in the form of spreading disinformation and fake news online or in the real world through AOI, with a view to sowing confusion and discord within the target state.

The sending state may do this with a view to psychologically weakening the target state so as to better steer the latter's behaviour in desired ways. Examples of strategic propaganda being employed in the information dominance mode include reported interference by Russian strategic propaganda mechanisms and AOI in the 2016 US presidential elections and in the Brexit campaign.

Disinformation and fake news are thus nothing new. They are old wine in new bottles and should be seen in perspective. Therefore, we must avoid political overreactions that may damage our international standing.

It is when the sending state seeks to move to information dominance that countermeasures would be needed. In this regard, two possible countermeasures appear pertinent.

First, expand the scope of the current SGSecure initiative to include raising awareness of disinformation and fake news, either online or via AOI. The Select Committee has recently heard several ideas for building societal resilience against such black and grey propaganda.

These range from measures promoting critical thinking to creating independent fact-checking councils. In an age of increasingly assertive foreign AOI, however, simple counter-intelligence skills may also need to be more widely distributed in the population.

Finally, the loose local coalitions of anti-government Internet trolls, academics, activists and groups who regularly pontificate online and elsewhere about supposed historical government excesses should exercise vigilance. They may unwittingly be co-opted by AOI of hostile sending states to undermine Singapore's social cohesion from within. This would be right out of the old Cold War playbook.

As the old saying goes, those who cannot remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.

• Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor, head of Policy Studies and coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article was first published in RSIS Commentaries.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2018, with the headline Disinformation and fake news: Old wine in new bottles. Subscribe