Modern history


Falsehood is probably as old as speech and certainly much older than writing. A significant proportion of ancient texts consists of lies, written with intent to deceive as part of some propaganda effort. Accusations of falsehood in antiquity are not unusual. Even the first great Greek historian, Herodotus, acclaimed by some as the "father of history," was already in antiquity denounced by others as the "father of lies." Ancient religion as well as ancient morality show awareness of the danger. The ninth of the Ten Commandments forbids the bearing of "false witness"—the original text simply says "lies." The inscription of Darius at Persepolis asks God to protect the land from the three great enemies—foe, famine, and falsehood.

In the simpler kind of falsehood, the writer simply tells lies in his own name. In a more complex and insidious kind of falsehood, he fabricates written statements and attributes them to others in order to give them greater credibility and impact. The same technique may be used without written texts, simply by starting a rumor. Flusterpropaganda, that is, whisper propaganda, was extensively used by the Third Reich during the Second World War and then by others. In the Soviet Union, the manufacture and dissemination of false news was entrusted to a department of the K.G.B. and was given a new name—disinformation.

Modern usage has adopted the terms "black propaganda" and "gray propaganda" to designate propaganda put out under fabricated auspices, the first purporting to come from the enemy, the second from uninvolved and therefore presumably impartial outsiders. Though these terms were of course not used, both black and gray propaganda have a long history.

Even inscriptions can be falsified. A famous example is the construction text inscribed in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. As is well known, this great monument was erected by the Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik in the year 72 of the Hijra corresponding to 691–92 CE. An inscription in the mosque records the construction, the date, and the name of the ruler who built it. There is something odd about the inscription. The name of the ruler is given as 'Abd Allah al-Ma'mūn, and the writing is cramped to fit into a space too narrow to hold it. What happened can easily be guessed. At some unknown later date, those responsible for 'Abbasid propaganda were uncomfortable with the idea of such excellent publicity for the dynasty that had been overthrown and superseded by them. The forger therefore set to work to change the inscription and attribute the construction, not to the Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik, but to the 'Abbasid Caliph 'Abd Allah al-Ma'mūn. The forger did not do a very good job. From the difference in the writing, the name has obviously been changed, and to make matters worse, the forger either forgot, or did not think it necessary, to change the date, so that the original date of construction remains. Most forgers, working in materials rather more malleable than stone, do a better job.

Fabrications are usually of two kinds. In the first, the forger—as in the Dome of the Rock—takes an authentic existing text and changes it to suit his purpose. In the second, he fabricates the text in its entirety and attributes it to a real or imaginary author of his own choosing or invention.

In the early Islamic centuries there could be no better way of promoting a cause, an opinion, or a faction than to cite an appropriate action or utterance of the Prophet—in a word, a hadith. The many conflicts of early Islamic history inevitably gave rise to a good deal of propagandist distortion and invention. At a very early date, Muslim scholars became aware of the dangers of spurious or dubious hadith, created or adapted to serve some ulterior purpose. They responded to this danger by devising and applying an elaborate science of hadith criticism, designed to distinguish the true from the false. Remarkably, the creation of new hadiths designed to serve some political purpose has continued even to our own time. A tradition published in the daily newspaper Al-Nahār on December 15, 1990, and described as "currently in wide circulation" quotes the Prophet as predicting that "the Greeks and Franks will join with Egypt in the desert against a man named Sadim, and not one of them will return." The allusion clearly is to the build-up of coalition forces leading up to the Gulf War. It has not been possible to find any reference to this tradition earlier than 1990, and it is not difficult to guess when, where and for what purpose this hadith was invented.

This obviously spurious hadith is a typical example of a favorite technique of the forger. He begins with a "prediction" which is remarkably accurate because it was in fact written after the events which it predicts, and, having thus gained the confidence of the listener, he continues with a prediction of events yet to occur. The second, genuine prediction, as in this case, is usually wrong.

Propagandist prediction is not limited to fabricated hadith; there have been many other kinds of pseudoprophecies in circulation. Nor is fabrication limited to prediction; many fabrications, devised for propagandist purposes, purport to be historiographic and even documentary. A well-known Middle Eastern example is the so-called Talât Pasha telegrams, a collection of telegrams purporting to have been sent in 1915 by Talât Pasha, then Ottoman minister of the interior, ordering the extermination of the Armenians. The documents were for a long time accepted without question—until their falsity was demonstrated by historical analysis. They have now been abandoned by all serious historians, including Armenian historians, but they are still much used by propagandists. The same may be said of a famous European forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These were concocted in France in the late nineteenth century on behalf of the Russian secret police; the forgers adapted them from a French propaganda tract against Napoleon III and a minor nineteenth-century novel. The so-called Protocols were extensively used in the propaganda campaigns of the Nazis in Germany and of their imitators elsewhere. Though their falsity has been repeatedly demonstrated by historical analysis and even in courts of law, they remain, like the Talât Pasha telegrams, a favorite of propagandists seeking to prove a point and not unduly concerned about the authenticity of their evidence. For a scholar, the question whether a document is genuine or fake is of primary importance; for the propagandist, all that matters is whether he can persuade others to accept it as genuine.

Falsehood, to be effective, must be credible—that is, with the audience to whom it is addressed, even if it may seem comic to others. Thus, for example, the common accusation that all aid workers are really spies may be very credible in a community where no one in his right mind would endure hardship and danger in a far place to help total strangers of another country, nation and religion. For such seemingly irrational behavior, there has to be a rational explanation, and espionage is the most plausible. In isolated individual cases, it may be true. As an explanation of such enterprises as a whole it is grotesquely false—but it can provide excellent propaganda.

Much the same may be said of the conspiracy theories that figure prominently in low-grade propaganda and seem to have a wide appeal. All of us, from the most sophisticated to the most primitive, tend to attribute our own values and motivations to others and to explain their actions and utterances in terms of what we ourselves would do. By this standard, the actions and utterances of others are sometimes totally incomprehensible, and the wildest explanations may therefore acquire a spurious plausibility. Not all conspiracy theories are just theories. There have of course been many plots and conspiracies in the history of the Middle East as of other parts of the world, and these have left their mark on history. But most of the conspiracy theories in circulation at the present time are false to the point of absurdity.

A somewhat comic example is the occasional attempt to attribute a defeat in an international sporting event to some sinister plot involving players, referees, sponsors and, of course, mysterious secret agents rather than considering the possibility that the opposing side might have fielded a better team. Other, more overtly political conspiracy theories, though no less fanciful, are sometimes more sophisticated.

In societies where the legal and social system permits the expression of more than one point of view, propaganda is usually somehow related to truth, and the propagandist proceeds by the selection and interpretation of truth in such a way as to serve his purpose. Total disregard of the truth would be fatal; even the distortion of the truth is hazardous, since, where criticism and contradiction are permitted, any failure in truth is inevitably and immediately seized upon by propagandists for adverse interests. In contrast, in a monolithic political order, of whatever social, cultural, religious or ideological complexion, truth is unnecessary and indeed irrelevant, and, since in general a strict adherence to truth is an impediment to the effective conduct of propaganda, truth in such a society tends to disappear. When the propagandists of open and of closed societies meet on equal terms, the former, schooled in free controversy, usually prevail. For this reason the propagandists of closed societies usually try to avoid such a confrontation. But, helped by coercion and suppression, they can be very effective on their own ground.

Modern technology, however, is making this increasingly difficult. The ban on listening to foreign broadcasts, the control, and in extreme cases the destruction, of satellite dishes and even of television sets may delay but cannot in the long run prevent the spread of the open market in information. Indeed, one of the major reasons for the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War and its subsequent collapse was its failure—indeed its inability—to cope with the information revolution. The maintenance of the communist system and the survival of the Soviet state depended on the strict control of the production, distribution, and exchange of information and ideas. Confronting the challenge of the new information technology, the Soviet leadership faced an agonizing choice. They could reject and refuse the new technology and thereby inevitably fall behind the advancing Western world—just as the empires of the sultans and the shahs fell behind the advancing West when they in their time, for structural or ideological reasons, failed or refused to assimilate the industrial revolution. The other choice was to accept the communications revolution—and thus, inevitably, to lose the total control on which the survival of their system depended.

Other regimes, maintained by the same methods, have faced or are facing the same challenge. A good example is the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran. As long as the Ayatollah Khomeini was in Iraq, he was unable to communicate with his followers, even though he was next door. When he moved to Paris, thousands of miles away, he could talk directly to his followers by telephone, thanks to the direct-dial link installed by order of the Shah. He also had at his disposal the resources of modern technology for the production and distribution of cassette tapes. These enabled him to speak directly to vast audiences in a manner and to a degree inconceivable in earlier times.

The Iranian Revolution was the first electronic revolution in modern history. It will not be the last. The regime which that revolution installed has been challenged by the same methods—and those methods have become vastly more sophisticated in the last 30 years, now including fax, e-mail, the Internet, and no doubt more to come.

In modern times, the propagandist thus has at his disposal an immense apparatus—the mass media, radio, television, the press, as well as—in some though not all societies—the educational system. Even in medieval society, before the invention of most of these devices, propaganda was an important element. It has become vastly more so in modern society and pervades almost every aspect of public and, increasingly, even private life.

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