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Fake news: An old weapon, made new again

False narratives have been around since the Trojan Horse, and feature prominently in every conflict. During the Cold War, the West was under a constant barrage of fake news that never really convinced anyone — but today it is different. How and why has this changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall?

For one, Western complicity: Russian fake news in the 1990s, designed to damage successful post-communist countries, was taken more seriously by Western governments eager to show that they would engage with Russia. I can recall numerous cases in which Western diplomats would present a false case against my country of Estonia and then we had to prove it was wrong. In this case, false news forced new democracies to work harder to debunk it, but the propagated stories did not generally make it into the mainstream.

But it was Georgia whose narrative triumphed, presenting Russian behavior as genuine aggression and not a “humanitarian action” as the Russian government maintained. Thanks to that disinformation defeat, Russia seems to have recalibrated their strategy.

By the time of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent occupation of the Donbas, Russian propaganda was heavily directed toward Western Europe, not strictly to Ukraine itself. Unfortunately, Western Europe often bought the Russians’ spin. Fake stories about Ukrainian “Nazis” and debunked reports of atrocities were repeated in Western media. Fake video clips (which employed the same actors playing different roles in “news stories”) were used in Western television news programming. The idea that one had to “balance” genuine news with Russian “fake news” took hold and continues to the present day. To this day, news outlets and even the European Union’s foreign policy arm call Russian troops in the Donbas “Russian-backed separatists.”

Given the efficacy of planting fake news in the West, it was hardly surprising that soon the practice was applied to Western countries themselves. Last year’s “Lisa” case in Germany is probably the best known: taking advantage of Germany’s growing resistance to refugees from the Syrian conflict, a confabulation by a Russian-German 13-year-old that she had been raped by “Muslim-looking men” took off in the Russian and then German media. Even though the story was quickly debunked, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was still demanding an explanation from Germany two months later.

Earlier this year, within two days of German deployment in Lithuania as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, the Russians put out a story that German troops had raped a 13-year-old Lithuanian girl. The story was utterly false, yet illustrates how in the digital age fake stories can spread like wildfire.

Democracies are in uncharted territory. Clearly in this media environment, the West is on the defensive. Buzzfeed reported that in the last three months leading up to the U.S. election, fake news stories were shared on Facebook 8.7 million times, surpassing mainstream news by 1.4 million shares. Meanwhile, the Pew Center reported last summer that

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Never before has private information been as vulnerable to hacking, never has it been so common to distribute it publicly, and never in the past 75 years has the public been as receptive to fake news. One outcome has been a major disruption of the electoral process in several countries. False stories can lead to genuine tragedy as well: After the U.S. election, a gunman with an AR-15 machine gun attacked a Washington pizza restaurant, his anger fueled by a fake story about Hillary Clinton running a child abuse ring there.

There is no need to wage a kinetic war or even to use debilitating cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure if you can sway an election to elect a candidate or a party friendly to your interests, or to defeat one you don’t like. This is clearly the goal of Russia in the German elections, where Angela Merkel’s role in maintaining EU sanctions against Russia has been critical and annoys Russia no end. It is true as well as in France, where Marine Le Pen’s Front National is anti-EU, anti-NATO, and anti-U.S. With anti-EU and anti-NATO parties rising in popularity in a number of countries in Europe, this asymmetrical attack on the democratic process is already a security threat to the NATO alliance.

The conundrum that Europe will face in the coming year is whether or not to use illiberal methods to safeguard the liberal democratic state under external attack. Social media is responding, albeit slowly. Facebook has announced a system to flag fake news; Twitter and Google are looking at the issue. For some, however, this may not be enough.

In Germany, a country that for obvious historical reasons is far more attuned than most to the dangers of demagogy, populism, and extremist nationalism, lawmakers have already proposed taking legal measures against fake news. In March 2017, the Minister of Justice introduced a bill that would fine social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook up to 50 million euros (USD$53 million) if they do not quickly take down illegal content. This includes hate speech or defamatory fake news as well anti-Semitic material. When populist, nationalist fake news threatens the liberal democratic center, other Europeans may follow suit. Democracies are in uncharted territory, and they must respond.

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The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for global affairs.

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FSI Stanford

FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.

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