Fake news and free speech gave us Adolf Hitler in the 1930s: Why should 2017 be any different?

We see fake news as a menace now, but it’s a staple of any medium of communication, and has been since time immemorial. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians in America sent fake news via smoke signals or if criers in ancient Rome spread fake news at city centres.

Fake news is a menace not only because it spreads misinformation, which it does, but because it’s fiction that breathes life into our innermost prejudices. We don’t pay attention to fake news stories that we don’t want to believe in.

Take Pizzagate for instance, that fictitious child pornography and human trafficking ring that the US Democratic Party was allegedly running. To me, the very notion smacks of utter rubbish. To a certain section of white supremacists however, this was the news they’d been waiting for their whole life. Finally, proof irrevocable that the Democratic Party was made up of reprehensible human beings who are undeserving of their political standing. Republicans rule! Trump for president!

By the same token, if someone were to tell me that cats once ruled the world, I’d accept the news without batting an eyelid (or even clicking on the link to read the story).

We’ve each got our own prejudices and we will indulge them from time to time, and that’s what fake news is about.

The only reason that fake news is such a big deal now is that Donald Trump is the President of the United States, that he’s making some really scary decisions and that fake news has been blamed for his rise to power.

Though I wouldn’t say that Google and Facebook are completely innocent of propagating fake news, I will admit that they were easy scapegoats for Americans’ ire.

The last time fake news and propaganda brought a demagogue to power was before World War II, when Adolf Hitler harnessed the power of the radio.

At the time, radio was all the rage, much as Twitter was in its heydays. Hitler used the medium to propagate his conspiracy theories and hate speech with an effectiveness and reach unmatched by any human before him. With one microphone, this man could reach the farthest corners of the globe.

His voice reached the people of the world in all its raw, emotional, unfiltered glory, and people loved it.

As The New York Times reported at the time, “Nazi Germany, in fact, has raised the effectiveness of propaganda by radio to a higher pitch of development than any other nation in Europe.”

This was a medium that was meant to usher in a new era of brotherhood, of understanding, a tool for bringing the nations of the world together. This same tool may have been directly responsible for the bloodiest conflict in the history of mankind. Sound familiar?

If anything, Hitler is the embodiment of the damage that “fake news” and the unfiltered spread of “information” can do.

With radio, there really was nothing that could be done about the spread of this fake news and propaganda.

Today, the radio is passé and the internet is king. The internet is the communication tool of choice and has a reach far greater than that of the radio. Facebook alone is home to a fifth of the world’s total population and is considered by more than half of its users to be a legitimate news source.

Again, it’s not that Facebook or Google are deliberately sharing fake news. Legitimate news sites like The Washington Post, The Guardian, Firstpost and tech2 are still around and their content is available on social media, but you can rest assured that a sensationalist piece on dastardly YouTubers teaching people to kill policemen with knives will be far more popular than a boring story on the economic policies of a president.

Fake news is entertaining, feeds our prejudices and is easy to consume passively. With fake news, we don’t need to take the trouble to confirm sources, apply our brains and check facts. I mean, why bother, right? The truth will only be disappointing, after all.

Appreciating real news, on the other hand, is hard work.

The internet age and the rise of AI, however, can do something that radio never could: Filter out fake news and harmful propaganda.

Google and Facebook are already doing their part in fighting fake news. The approaches to fighting it vary. While one prefers algorithms and user feedback, the other prefers the filtering powers of an intelligent and news-savvy human being.

As computing power increases and algorithms get more advanced, it should be possible to for these organisations to more speedily and accurately sort out the real news from the fake.

This wouldn’t have been possible in the 1930s.

There are dangers to this approach as well. How does one separate a tyrant from a revolutionary? Would Martin Luther King have a voice in such a future? That delicate balance of censorship and freedom of speech might be hard to achieve, maybe even impossible.

Will there ever be a counter to fake news? I honestly don't know. What I do know is that the only real answer is ceaseless vigilance and a great deal of self-control.

We can blame the rise of fake news for the rise of tyrants, but we must remember that it was us who wanted to believe in them in the first place.


Published Date: Apr 11, 2017 09:57 am | Updated Date: Apr 11, 2017 09:57 am