Fake news isn't new: Modern disinformation uses centuries-old techniques, author says

Author Heidi Tworek says we can learn from media manipulation's long history to understand how disinformation functions now.

Historian Heidi Tworek says we can learn from media manipulation in 20th century Germany

In the first half of the 20th century, Germany invested in new technology, like radio, to spread disinformation. Author Heidi Tworek says we can learn a lot about today's fake news crisis by looking at the propaganda of the past.

The term "fake news" may have burst into our lexicon three years ago, but author Heidi Tworek says that to really understand online disinformation, we need to look back hundreds of years. 

The University of British Columbia historian's new book News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications looks at how German media was manipulated in the early 20th century, and she says what she found has implications for today's media landscape. 

"[Disinformation] has been one of the integral features of the media environment and news for a very, very long time," Tworek told Spark host Nora Young.

Tworek points "all the way back to when newspapers first emerged freely back to the 16th century" as a possible starting point, describing how different groups used them to spread the anti-Semitic myth that Jews were engaging in ritual murder. 

That long history becomes useful, she says, when we look at why different states have turned to information warfare at different points in their history. 

"In the case of Germany, it's when a country wants to become a global power but feels threatened by others," Tworek said.

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In the lead up to the First World War, she said, Germany started to see information as a key part of their wartime strategy, using news agencies and investing in new technology like radio to keep a firm grip on the narrative being disseminated.

Disinformation can now come in a flashy new package - but Tworek says it draws on a long history of spreading false and misleading information. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

"There are lots of parallels to the ways in which China or Russia or even Qatar with Al Jazeera see information today," she said.

For countries that feel threatened, but lack the money or ability to fight back in conventional ways, Tworek says information manipulation is a "cheaper and more efficient way to undermine a global geopolitical situation that seems stacked against them."

Tworek gave the example of state-run television stations, which deliver government messaging directly to citizens. 

"There are multiple TV channels being funded by the Russian government [and] the Chinese government ... and a lot of those are spreading in other places," she said. 

What's really changed?

Despite the arrival of troubling new technology — like deepfakes, videos that use artificial intelligence to manipulate clips of real people, and microtargeting, in which increasingly specific audiences can be targeted online based on their data and demographics — Tworek says not as much has changed about the modern disinformation landscape as we might think. 

First of all, she says, despite the internet's dominance in modern discourse, traditional media like television and radio remain a major force in many countries. 

'I'm uncomfortable with any solution that thinks that it's just about platforms and government,' said Tworek. (Heidi Tworek/Twitter)

As for online disinformation — the subject of much recent hand-wringing, including in the lead-up to Canada's federal election — Tworek points out that governments still have a number of ways to exert control. 

First, there's the physical infrastructure like fibre optic cables, which she calls "a key place where where fighting is happening." 

"I think we should be paying attention to like Africa, for example, where China has created a lot of the infrastructure for television, but also for things like 4G and 5G" wireless coverage, she said. 

Finding a 'better balance' for regulation 

Tworek says it's also important to note that the internet is run largely by private companies, which, just like they were a century ago, continue to be subject to government intervention and regulation. 

"Social media companies in the U.S. have some forms of regulation and there's currently huge debates about whether there will be more of it," she said. 

One of Tworek's messages to an anxious public is to give up on the idea that disinformation can be stamped out once and for all. 

"This is not a problem we're going to solve," she said.

When his popularity ratings faltered in 2018, footage of Russian President Vladimir Putin on vacation in Siberia was disseminated by a Russian state-owned television channel. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Instead, Tworek sees a place for ordinary people — responsible for creating the "vast majority" of content on social media platforms — to have a greater ability to give feedback on whether content is genuinely an example of disinformation, as well as appeal when they feel its been unfairly deleted. 

"We probably don't want our governments to be telling us what is true news and what is or isn't disinformation," she said. 

Tworek says what's ultimately needed is a multi-pronged approach, a "better balance between a supervision of social media companies, a regulation, a responsibility that they themselves take…. but also a role for us as citizens and civil society." 

Written by Kate McGillivray. Produced by Adam Killick.