LONDON — Think “fake news” and a host of images — alt-right and far-left websites, Russian bots and digital algorithms, and young Macedonian men churning out post-truth content to spread on Facebook — may spring to mind.
Martin Luther, however, probably wouldn’t.
But the 16th century German theologian, argues British writer Charlotte Henry, demonstrates that there’s nothing new about fake news. He also, she suggests, graphically shows how anti-Semitism is “the original fake news.”
Henry’s new book “Not Buying It: The Facts Behind Fake News,” is a tightly written, scrupulously fair account of a phenomenon that first made the headlines in the wake of Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as US president six months later.
Fake news, she writes, is deliberately sharing information, despite knowing or suspecting it to be false, for either political or economic gain.
“It’s a fascinating topic and it’s fascinating now,” Henry says. “It’s also one of the most relevant topics because the questions around fake news and post-truth are some of the most prevalent and pressing in politics, public discourse, tech and media.”
“Fake news and post-truth have an influence in all the things that are central to a lot of our lives today,” she adds.
But though Henry believes that the impact fake news has had on Brexit, Trump’s election, the anti-Semitism crisis in the British Labour party, or the anti-vax movement is important, she is also keen to emphasize that these issues are not necessarily new.
“They’re exacerbated by technology — it would be very naïve to pretend otherwise — but we’ve dealt with these kind of issues for decades, centuries even,” she says.
“Hatred of Jews based on conspiracy and falsehood goes back centuries, in fact, to when the Romans sought to establish Christianity as the sole religion, replacing Judaism,” Henry writes.
In the 14th century, Jews were blamed by the public for the bubonic plague on the basis of falsehoods that had been deliberately spread.
Two hundred years later, Luther, the founder of Protestantism, revived and popularized the medieval blood libel. In his 1545 book “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther suggested that Jews thirsted for Christian blood and should be murdered. Christians, he wrote, should “guard against the Jews knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously and veheming his eyes on them.”
Jews, Luther continued, were “nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury.”
“Unless I’ve missed something,” Henry says, “that sounds like anti-Semitic propaganda and, by any definition now, fake news — and Luther did it, you can argue, for his own political purposes.”
Luther, of course, didn’t have social media to spread anti-Jewish hate. Neither did the Nazis, but they nonetheless had new forms of mass communication to widely disseminate their own fake news against the Jews. Unsurprisingly, too, they reprinted Luther’s treatise.
Perhaps the most pernicious modern form of fake news detailed by Henry is Holocaust denial. She cites both historian Deborah Lipstadt’s successful 2000 libel battle with Holocaust denier David Irving (the basis for the recent film “Denial”) and French academic Robert Faurisson’s claims the Shoah was “a massive lie” and Anne Frank’s diaries a forgery.
As Henry highlights, the media sometimes appear confused or unsure how to grapple with such lies. Lipstadt, for instance, always refuses to appear on television with Holocaust deniers, prompting producers to frequently ask: “Shouldn’t we hear their ideas, opinions or points of view?” Lipstadt’s response, writes Henry, “rightly, is that there is no point of view on the Holocaust, simply fact and (anti-Semitic) fiction.”
A ‘sly’ reference to Nazi jargon
Beyond such grotesque and obvious examples, there’s a tight connection between Jew-hate and fake news.
“Time and time again, classic anti-Semitic imagery appears in modern fake news,” Henry claims.
During the Brexit referendum, for instance, Leave campaigners unveiled a poster with the caption “Breaking Point – the EU has failed us all,” which showed people lining up at a border. The image – of refugees on the Croat-Slovenian border and not, as was implied, economic migrants trying to enter Britain – was heavily criticized at the time, including by some prominent Brexit supporters. As Henry suggests, it “bore a frightening resemblance” to a Nazi-era film which showed East European Jews – “parasites undermining their host countries,” in the words of the commentary – standing in line at a border.
Both Trump supporters in the US and hardline Brexiteers in the UK have also occasionally deployed Nazi-inspired language to attack the media. The phrase “Lugenpresse,” or “lying press,” was appropriated by the Nazis to discredit the media. It was also chanted by alt-right supporters of the US president at campaign rallies in 2016 and appeared on a poster carried by a protester at a pro-Brexit rally two years later. As Henry writes in the book “Hitler, it seems, invented the post-truth playbook long before we knew what it was.”
Recalling seeing the image today, Henry says: “That was terrifying seeing that picture of someone on a pro-Brexit march with a sign that said Lugenpresse on it. My blood went a little bit cold. It isn’t just a silly throwaway sign. It’s a statement against the media and what they would argue is a liberal elite, and it has an anti-Semitic element to it.”
Asked if she is surprised at the manner in which such language has entered elements of the political discourse, Henry responds that “British Jews feel pretty safe and happy here.”
“But I think we in the Jewish community are aware that anti-Semitism is never far from the surface; we’re always slightly conscious of it,” she says.
There is also, she believes, an “element of trolling” in the post-truth discourse, “wanting to be a bit offensive and make people feel a bit uncomfortable.” In the book, she quotes the words of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer who, when confronted by a journalist about the use of “lugenpresse,” brazenly responded: “It’s typical alt-right. Serious, ironic… and with a sly reference to boot.”
“Let us be clear,” Henry writes, “that sly reference is to the Nazis.”
Terrifying from both sides of the aisle
But Henry doesn’t just examine fake news on the hard right. She is equally concerned with its prevalence on the far left. “While neither side would like it, I deliberately group the far left and alt-right together,” she says in the book. “Their attacks on the media, mainstream political institutions and the so-called elite have far more in common than either group would ever dare admit.”
Anti-Semitism also provides a common thread, believes Henry.
“The modern alt-right use anti-Semitism as part of their post-truth outlook and use those classic anti-Semitic tropes,” she says. “Left-wing anti-Semitism again uses those tropes and dismisses people trying to hold them to account for using [them].”
Both Trump and UK Labour and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, she maintains, have “encouraged quite revolting elements within their movements.”
But the similarities go beyond the issue of anti-Semitism, she notes. US alt-right media outlets such as Infowars have their far-left British equivalents in the likes of The Canary and Skwawkbox. On both sides of the Atlantic, these websites trade heavily in conspiracy theories, sometimes with potentially fatal consequences.
Infowars, for instance, promoted a story that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring from the basement of a Washington, DC, restaurant (the pizzeria frequently featured in leaked Clinton campaign emails, as it was a favorite take-out for overworked staffers). A month after the former secretary of state’s defeat, an armed man entered the restaurant declaring he was there to investigate the conspiracy.
Similarly, when Corbyn was challenged for the leadership of the Labour party in July 2016, hard-left websites detected a conspiracy at work. At its heart, they claimed, was a London PR firm whose staff contained a number of individuals who had once worked for former prime minister Tony Blair.
The conspiracy received a boost when it was peddled by a pro-Corbyn trade union leader on the BBC’s flagship Sunday morning political show. Shortly afterwards, a partner at the firm and onetime Labour parliamentary candidate received death threats, warning him that he would meet the same fate as the recently assassinated Labour MP, Jo Cox.
Journalists for the mainstream media — who are accused by both Trump and Corbyn supporters of being the true authors of fake news — have also found themselves under threat. Women reporters have been especially targeted. As Henry notes, during the 2017 general election campaign, journalists who tackled Corbyn in interviews received “a tirade of online abuse.” So concerned was the BBC that it employed a bodyguard to protect its political editor when she attended the Labour party conference a few months after the election.
Henry also believes that, while by no means alone responsible for the anti-Semitism crisis which has enveloped Labour under Corbyn, far-left websites have proven to be “an important cog in the wheel,” pumping out claims the issue has been manufactured by the party’s enemies and their allies in the media.
The manner in which Labour attacked former staffers who appeared as whistle-blowers in a BBC program exposing anti-Semitism in the party earlier this summer was also “quite Trumpian,” she argues. The party “totally dismissed it [all] out of hand” and went after those who had spoken out.
Social media is, though, not alone responsible for the prevalence of fake news, Henry believes. Political polarization and the collapse of the liberal center, as well as declining trust in institutions — including the media and politicians — play a crucial role too.
“If you didn’t have declining trust, there wouldn’t be so much prominence for these populist political ideologies, and if you didn’t have the technology those ideologies wouldn’t be able to spread so easily,” she says.
Henry prescribes a number of potential palliatives. Greater media literacy, efforts to rebuild trust in political institutions, journalistic transparency — combined with action on fake news by the social media giants — all have their part to play.
But, as her book also makes clear, the roots of fake news — intimately entangled as they are with the world’s oldest hatred — run deep.