“Fake news” is perhaps the most successful of the many expressions that US president Donald Trump has introduced or popularized since the 2016 presidential campaign.
These days the president directs the term at any news he perceives to be critical of his work. In 2018, he even gave out “Fake News Awards” to the media outlet he considered most hostile to his government—a government whose rise was, paradoxically, propelled in part by actual “fake news.” Trump’s repetitive use of the term gave the expression great ubiquity. In 2016, it went from being practically absent from digital search records to a top-searched term.
But Trump didn’t coin the phrase. It was first used by the investigative journalism organization First Draft to describe inaccurate or outright erroneous news, particularly if fabricated with the intent to mislead.
In a way, the spread of fake news, especially as aided by social media, is a quintessential phenomenon of our time. But it’s actually much older. The creation and spread of false information is as old as human history, of course. But there is a specific precedent both to the way the circulation of false information is helping the rise of right-wing populist movements, and to Trump’s accusations against the free press: The rise of fascism.
The original fake news farm
Fake news—of the deliberately misleading kind—doesn’t just happen. It’s often an organized effort. In Macedonia, the whole town of Vale, once famous for its porcelain, is now a global fake news hub. In India, fake news is generated at mind-boggling speed, and used as just another campaign tool. In Italy, the Five Star Movement managed a network of independent news sites in large part devoted to fake news.
This isn’t simple propaganda: Fake news doesn’t necessarily, or only, serve to promote a government, its vision, and its work. It instead builds a murky news environment in which all trust is lost and facts cease to matter. That is precisely the kind of environment that fascism built in Italy before WWII, one in which totalitarian regimes are able to thrive.
When the Italian leader Benito Mussolini founded fascism in Milan in 1919, he was a journalist. He had been one for a decade, and knew well the power of news—real, or otherwise. Manipulating, controlling, and attacking information was at the core of his rule from the beginning, and as the fascist regime progressed and became more extreme, so did the measures employed to effectively destroy not just the institution of a free press, but any accurate information.
From 1924 on, with increasing detail and frequency, the fascist party, and later the regime—through the hands of its infamous MinCulPop, or Ministry of Popular Culture—began sending so-called veline to the press: Messages with directives on how and what to report (or not). They were named after the thin paper they were typed on (carta velina is Italian for tissue paper), which was used to facilitate the ease of making many carbon copies as fast as possible.
The role of the veline was to introduce suggestions (which quickly became orders) about things that ought and ought not be discussed, while providing direction on the tone, style, choice of words, and sometimes even the grammar. Directives were given on how women should be discussed and portrayed in the press (no thin women, longer skirts, no criticism of women with no tights), and on what words to use (foreign words, especially, were to be avoided).
Altogether, these veline created a filtered, fictional Italy and world, whose traits at times ran counter not just to reality, but common sense. Everything was unbelievable, hence everything was believable.
“Highlight how the Duce wasn’t at all tired after threshing for four hours,” reads one of the thousands of veline sent to the press during the two decades of fascist rule. (Duce, from the latin dux, means leader and was the popular title for Mussolini.) Others go: “review all reporting from Sicily, because it can’t be published that the Duce danced,” “never care about anything concerning Einstein,” “absolutely do not mention in today’s reporting the ballet the Duce attended in Belluno,” “no longer share the news of kids running away to Rome to see the Duce.”
Through the years, papers published stories in which Mussolini raced (and won) against boats, and Italy had the world’s most powerful arsenal. Italy was eased into a collective suspension of disbelief.
Suspension of disbelief is exactly what someone like Trump counts on as he, example, claims to have had the largest inauguration crowd in history, or to be the most effective president in history (bar Abraham Lincoln). It’s his opinion versus demonstrable evidence. Yet both are considered on the same level. Vladimir Putin goes face to face with tigers, and even bears fear him. Narendra Modi fearlessly rescues crocodiles.
The ideological heritage of fascism
Lies aren’t just a fascist tool, they are foundational. They manifest an ideology in which what is real—facts—is secondary to what is true: The thoughts and ideas of the leader.
Federico Finchelstein, a professor at The New School who researches populism and fascism, explains that fascism has no regard for factual information. In an Italian essay that he developed in his upcoming book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies, due to come out in early 2020, Finchelstein analyzes the way fascism—and fascist-inspired ideologies—divorces reality from truth. As anti-fascist thinker Alexandre Koyré (quoted in the essay) writes:
The official philosophies of totalitarian regimes identify unanimously as devoid of meaning the idea that there is only one objective truth […] this way myth is better than science and rhetoric that works on rooted beliefs preferable to intellectual reasoning.
“[Under fascism] the truth was embodied by the leader,” Finchelstein told Quartz, and this is replicated, although in a milder fashion, by populists. Fascism eventually gets rid of a free press, as it does of democracy, while populism simply attacks it as an “enemy of the people.”
But, Finchelstein says, these populist attacks still contain the ideological heritage of fascism in that they are rooted in the leader’s, and his supporters’, belief that what he thinks and says is the truth, whether or not it is substantiated by verifiable facts.
So when the press reports facts that are unpleasant to the leader, or in disagreement with him, they become lies. They are fake news, in the way Trump uses the term, because they deny the truth spoken by the leader.
Finchelstein says this leads to an ideological equalization of the leader’s ideas with reported facts: Everything becomes an opinion, and the leader’s opinion is truth. The more fake news spreads, the more people become accustomed to the idea that nothing is real and everything can be debated, and the more likely they are to believe a leader’s opinion over any evidence.
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