This week may seem the worst of Boris Johnson’s premiership, but as long ago as last April the leaders of six opposition parties penned a joint letter, accusing him of breaching the high standard of honesty demanded by both the Nolan Principle and the Ministerial Code. His defence at this week’s PMQs that he had been advised there were no parties, that what he attended was work-related and that no conclusion could be drawn until an official report was concluded was, as we say in Scotland, gallus. But weaving flimsy denials into a defensive web is not new; when it comes to disinformation, the PM has form. For a list, see:
“Lies, Damned Lies; the full list of accusations against Boris Johnson”1—The Guardian, Dec 10th 2021
People may believe BoJo, Putin and Trump share the dubious honour of having reached the top by simultaneously inventing the Machiavellian art of disinformation. This is not so. The history of the targeted lie has a long and odious pedigree, often referred as being an essential tool in political leadership. The false testimony of Richard Rich that sent Sir Thomas Moore to an unwarranted death is but one Medieval example.
Though developed into a refined instrument of policy during the Cold War, its development in earnest as a tool of the state dates from the WW1 when a self-evident superiority of imperial Europe lost its dominance and ‘civilising’ mission in the aftermath. For a few months after the October revolution, Russia teetered on the edge of democracy, but Lenin seized the initiative and steered the Bolsheviks to power.
This was anathema to the exhausted and class-ridden European democracies and to the brashly ascendant capitalist USA alike. For the first time since the revolutions of 1776 and 1789, two massively incompatible dogmas faced one another, each claiming to represent mankind’s best future.
In 1924, Ramsay McDonald led a credible effort to form the UK’s first Labour government. They were far from being Communist. But this did not stop right-wing groups in Britain behaving as if the Cossacks were coming.
“The election of a Labour government is the worst disaster, short of war.”—Winston Churchill, 1924
In an effort to discredit Labour as a credible government, 4 days before the election, the Daily Mail published a letter, ostensibly from a leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev praising Labour as a possible government, with the Soviets offering a way British workers to join their revolution. It was an early example of calculated disinformation by people in high places; it was a complete fabrication by British intelligence.
To many, unnerved by widespread civil unrest across Europe, this proved Labour was in league with the devil. Such events made the letter credible and collusion between the establishment and the press to lie, justified. Despite this, Labour polled one million more votes and took power. They proved to be nothing like as radical as the Soviets.
The Tsarist secret police had been using such techniques for years. Their boundless suspicions drive them to become masters of deceit. They created the original lie to counter growing resistance to the Tsar’s rule, a forged text called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to justify pogroms. Lenin, ruthless in his use of any method to advance the cause absorbed their techniques. Information was a weapon of the revolution so the Cheka were set up to manipulate it in defence of the state.
The Stalin show trials of the 1930’s verged on the surreal when, rather than seeking any objective goal of the truth, everything was true, except the facts. In order to destroy these perceived enemies of the state (including Zinoviev), confessions in great detail were extracted. By incriminating themselves, Stalin’s brutal trials were made to look heroic. This theatre framed the accused as someone about to stage a reign of terror. In fact the only one engaged in that was Stalin himself. The barrages of invective that concealed the flimsiness of some charges finds echoes today in mass trolling on social media.
When the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, they took up a similar theme as a warrant for genocide. Hitler was an early proponent of the “Big Lie”—an untruth so monstrous that it had to be true. Such exaggeration carried more impact than any small lie. When the Reichstag burned down and a hapless Dutch socialist was caught at the scene, the Nazis swiftly escalated the conspirators to include Communist leaders. The fact that their testimony made debunked the trumped-up charges did not save them, nor prevent Nazis popularity surging as the nation’s bulwark against Bolshevism.
Techniques of Disinformation
One key element of good misinformation is for the origin not to be apparent. The tool of planting a story in a relatively obscure publication and watching leading new agencies pick it up was developed early. This has its modern equivalent where an apparently genuine tweet waits to be re-tweeted.
Reversing the truth remains a potent trick and one that Trump in particular has developed to a disturbingly effective extent. Accusing hostile media of “fake news” and claiming he invented the phrase in self-defence deflects suspicion from his being the source of most fake news in the first place. It is a modern media variant on “the best means of defence is attack”.
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses have reached the point where they would think that everything was possible and nothing was true, both at the same time.”—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
Lying in politics is nothing new, but organised lying by those at the pinnacle of power is less than a century old. Stalin and Hitler loosened our agreed, collective sense of the truth. The lie becomes the open secret that everyone knows is a lie bit will not admit to. If people important in your life accept the lie, then the emperor’s clothes can indeed look beautiful. Because it was so pervasive, whites in Southern states believed blacks were not capable of more than menial labour; citizens of the Third Reich accepted Jews had deserved their ostracism; Soviet citizens believed counter-revolutionaries had condemned themselves to the gulags; Serbian soldiers were protecting Christianity when they condemned the muslims of Srebrenica to death.
The demise of both Hitler and Stalin may have brought their brutal flavour of disinformation to an end, but the CIA was soon espousing a less blatant, less effective version. Their attempt to swing Italian elections against the Communists failed. Even more spectacular was an attempt to tarnish Indonesia’s President Sukarno with pornography. When a “blue” film made with a lookalike was released to the media, it only enhanced him as a “man of the world”.
“Tangled in the fallen vines—Paul Simon, 1967
Pickin’ up the punch-lines
I’ve just been fakin’ it
Not really makin’ it.”
Since the end of the Cold War, far from fading away in a world of enligtenment, the practice of disinformation has grown: more subtle; more widespread; more acceptable. Effectiveness has actually increased by such techniques as “wrapping” the actual false information in a “package” of demonstrably true information. A Soviet echo of Zinoviev was found in a falsified letter from a Rockefeller heir seeking to ensure American dominance in the Gulf to guarantee oil supplies during the 1970s oil shocks. US sensitivity over its oil supply from the Gulf made it very plausible.
Another technique is the use of neutral “front” organisations: the World Federation of Trade Unions; the International Union of Students; the World Peace Council. Who could disbelieve releases from such prestigious-sounding organisations?
The West’s approach to disinformation has been hampered by a degree of public scrutiny. The Soviets had decades of experience on which to draw. In theory, this changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and this tool of the Cold War became passé, if not obsolete after glasnost. The Letvinyenko poisoning soon changed minds. Each attempt to link this, or the subsequent novichuk poisoning in Salisbury, with Russia was met with flat denial and a flurry of semi-plausible stories to muddy the water so that media soon lost interest.
Alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, plus the release of Hilary Clinton’s e-mails confused campaign issues, leading to a plethora of big-lie disinformation from the Trump campaign, which caught the entire American political corps off-guard. The latest ploy of sabre-rattling on the Ukrainian frontier is straight out of Hitler’s playbook. He shamelessly accused the Poles of aggression against Germany while he mobilsed forces to wipe the country off the map.
“A man who tells lies merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”—Mr. Dryden, Lawrence of Arabia
It is only in the last few years that disinformation has grown from being the lingua franca among practitioners of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and sundry cloak-and-dagger operatives to become mainstream. Forty years ago, Lord Carrington resigned as UK Foreign Secretary simply because the Falklands were invaded on his watch. Such an act belongs to another era. Aided by the Wild West ubiquity of social media, Putin’s Cheka-style smokescreen has been joined by two weighty proponents equally adept at creating and sustaining realities from words alone.
Boris Johnson has used bluster and affable bloke-ishness to embellish bombast into a career. It is only his laziness and increasing public profile that has let his inconsistencies blow him off course and tarnish the image. The relatively trivial matter of “Partygate” may be the end of him.
But the master practitioner of disinformation must be The Donald. Even more self-absorbed in a world of his own creation, Trump was already practising voodoo truth in building a Ponzi scheme of property deals in New York. Spinning ever more phantasmagorical prestige fantasies, he nonetheless walked away blameless from the Taj Mahal casino white elephant, leaving contractors, employees and investors to carry the financial can.
All this turned out to be perfect training for a presidential bid. Trump had the funds and public profile to bypass the usual kingmakers. He did not flinch from preaching his big lie about representing ordinary Americans while living the high life in Mar Largo. Plus, his habit of blurting wild assertions on social media spread as entertaining gossip and completely beyond the control of party or minders.
Because blue-collar “Joe Sixpack” identified with a self-made man because he had aspirations himself and because of Pavlovian mistrust of government, embodied by insiders in Washington, he bought the Big Lie that Trump was his champion who could “make America great again”.
Even out of office, Trump dominates his party and is surfing a wave of disinformation gushing from Republicans with such breadth and conviction that they are likely to re-take the House and stymie Biden after November. The crystal is muddy as to what follows. Here in Britain, because he angered the faithful, BoJo is in no such commanding position, being at the mercy of outraged backbenchers and unlikely to survive the year as a result. His mistake? Too many lies—and not big enough.