In recent weeks, many have described fabricated news stories as a problem of social media. However, history tells us otherwise. Practically every communication technology – from the news pamphlet, to the printed newspaper, to the telephone, to the radio, and even the television – has been guilty, at one time or another, of disseminating untrue information and causing serious disruption in the process.
Take, for instance, the case of colonial India during World War II where propaganda by Axis powers – led by Germany, Italy and Japan – met an unexpectedly receptive audience and “went viral”, so to speak.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, German radio stations began regularly broadcasting to India, primarily in Hindustani, but also in various other regional languages.
These news broadcasts routinely and intentionally exaggerated the truth, withheld crucial information, and/or broadcast downright false stories, both about the war in Europe and about developments in India itself.
One alarmed British government official wrote in 1939 that during a relatively tranquil week in India, German radio reported that there was “rebellious activity on the frontier”, and that “labour was in violent revolt”.
British officials in India were not particularly surprised that Germany broadcast false news. After all, the Nazi government had long thrived on manipulating the press. But they were surprised at the degree of interest that people in India showed in these broadcasts, and the speed with which the fake news circulated. As a British administrator wrote: “the German broadcasts are known to be full of lies but everyone listens to them with great interest and they inevitable have an effect”.
At that time, only a small percentage of the population in India owned radio receivers. But stories first heard on the radio circulated rapidly via word of mouth throughout the cities and the countryside.
As the war moved East, Japanese and Southeast Asian radio stations too began broadcasting to India. Like their German counterparts, these stations, at best, bent the truth and, at worst, broadcast completely fabricated stories.
During the last years of the war, rumours spread throughout India, causing panic and hoarding in some regions. One rumour, for example, claimed that the Japanese were landing in Calcutta using parachutes, and the other said that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already secretly surrendered. In some cases, these circulating stories were, as one British official put it, “directly traceable to radio broadcasts”.
Mistrust of authorities
While studying wartime India, I came to understand that the circulation of fake news told us more about the political situation in India at that particular moment than about the medium of radio.
Of course, the reason why fake news stories circulated in wartime India was because they were broadcast in the first place. Axis governments deliberately put out false information about the war in various Indian languages as they hoped to further destabilise the British government.
However, that does not explain why people chose to tune in to these stations and why they believed these broadcasts.
One of the reasons why Axis radio was popular in India was because its citizens strongly distrusted the British colonial administration, and were certainly justified in doing so.
Public opinion in India was then divided, but Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s anti-imperial campaign had succeed in convincing most people that Britain no longer had a place in India.
Indians also distrusted their media sources, not least because many of them, including the national radio network, All India Radio, had clear ties to British rulers.
In an environment where cynicism and mistrust ran high, manipulative and fake radio news, and outrageous rumours, gained currency. This helps explain why Axis radio was a lot more popular in India than, for example, in France.
Tackling fake news
Similarly, this year, in the US, during and after the presidential election, fake news has met a receptive audience just as it did in wartime India.
I am not suggesting that the current US administration is analogous to the British colonial government of India. Yet, I do think that there is something about the current political moment in the US that is indeed comparable to India during World War II.
Many in the US have come to believe that the political system is rigged and that they cannot trust their government or so-called career politicians. It was that belief that helped Donald J Trump, a candidate without political experience win the November 8 presidential election.
Moreover, attacks on mainstream media sources during the presidential campaign and afterwards have a fostered suspicion and distrust of these sources among a sizable section of the population.
Most importantly, the ease with which President-elect Trump has repeatedly made sweeping claims based on flimsy evidence, if any at all, has contributed to a belief that facts are somehow unimportant.
This political context, where truths and untruths seem to be tied together in knots, has been a particularly fertile ground for bogus news sources to gain currency.
It is not my intention to exonerate social media for its role in contributing to this situation. Social media companies need to do some serious thinking about how they can ensure that their users can easily distinguish between legitimate and bogus media sources.
I also do not intend to argue that changes in media technology are not important, or that they do not affect how we consume news. Undeniably, social media has had profound effects on how news is created, interpreted, and shared.
My point is that by interpreting false news as solely a problem of social media, we are ignoring the social conditions that made it possible for fabricated stories to become believable in the first place. In doing so, we might also be overlooking crucial ways to fix the problem.
Isabel Huacuja Alonso is an Assistant Professor of History at California State University San Bernardino. She is completing a book on Hindi-Urdu radio in colonial India and independent India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.