Fake news has been a part of how humans try to dominate each other since well before the ancient Greeks used a hollow statue of a horse to smuggle troops into Troy to break a 10-year siege.
That ruse worked because it appealed to two basic human needs: The Trojans wanted to believe the Greeks had, as they pretended, lifted the siege and sailed away. They also wanted to believed that the Greeks had recognised their heroic resistance and had expressed that admiration by offering tribute, through a magnificent statue of a horse. So much for wishful thinking and vanity. Troy was razed.
Those same vulnerabilities were exploited when, in 1887, The Times of London published a forged letter — for which it had paid an astonishing £1,780 — linking Parnell to the Pheonix Park murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish and T.H. Burke. Two years later, Richard Piggott admitted to having forged the letters. He fled to Madrid, where he shot himself.
The same black ops played out two decades later in Roger Casement’s trial, when the infamous ‘Black Diaries’, which focussed on Casement’s sexuality, were circulated. They, too, were a forgery, but they ensured that Casement, who admitted treason, would be denied clemency. He was hung 102 years ago last week.
Today, on these pages, Ryle Dwyer writes about a more recent propaganda campaign, intended to mislead, to discredit, to undermine, to weaken, and to knowingly create an entirely inaccurate impression of this Republic’s role in World War II.
That campaign to mislead and discredit, organised by Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, and US president Franklin D Roosevelt, resonates today, every time Ireland’s role in that catastrophe is discussed. That conversation is usually as sharp as it is inaccurate. Sadly, Churchill’s lies, with Roosevelt’s colaboration, are still, nearly 80 years after their invention, cited by those who feel threatened by the ever more positive relationship between Ireland and Britain.
It seems reasonable to argue that the ignorance of Irish affairs and history shown by the Conservative party’s hardline Brexiteers — their dreadful indifference, too — can be, in part at least, traced back to this deliberate and dangerous programme of wartime deception. That sadness is attended by deep irony as that cabal, to a man unwavering admirers of Churchill the warlord, showed, during the campaign leading to the disastrous Brexit vote, that they were as happy as he was to lie to achieve their objectives. That Churchill would, as most serious historians have argued, oppose Brexit had little or no impact on their anti-EU propaganda.
In today’s world, when Russia’s online warriors can swing an American election, and when the Piggott letters and the ‘Black Diaries’ seem as quaint as a farthing, it is increasingly difficult to winnow the truth from the chaff. It may be a tad Orwellian to suggest establishing a version of the commission set up to rule on the accuracy of election campaign claims to also rule on the veracity or otherwise of the data presented as fact. However, as teaching history is no longer a priority, we need to do something before we, like the people of Troy, fatally confuse wishful thinking with actuality.