Pregnancy is one of life’s most untouchable, personal experiences. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/AFP/Getty
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The feminist history of surrogacy: should pregnancy give a woman rights over a baby?

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, and 95 per cent of these births are taking place overseas. Glosswitch looks at decades of feminist thinking on surrogacy to see how women’s labour and female lived experience can be incorporated in this complex ethical debate.

Surrogacy is not a new idea; indeed, there is a precedent in the book of Genesis, with the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, the slave who bears Abraham’s son Ishmael. There have always been people (usually men) who have sought to continue their bloodlines while circumventing the social structures and sexual taboos set up by others (again, usually men). Right now, however, a combination of factors – improvements in embryo transfer technology, changing family structures, the rise of global capitalism – have created expectations and possibilities the likes of which we simply have not seen before.

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, with over 2,000 babies born by surrogates on behalf of British couples each year, and 95 per cent of these births taking place overseas. International surrogacy is described as a booming business and restrictions on the use of eggs, embryos and wombs are facing legal challenges at home. We no longer live in biblical times. We can do things differently – better, faster, and with greater choice. While the story of Hagar and Sarah might have once served as a cautionary tale, it seems that now we have the technology and the moral sophistication to make surrogacy a part of how we transform contemporary family life.

For feminists it can be tempting to see these changes in wholly positive terms, as challenges to both social norms and reproductive determinism. Henceforth the continuation of the species need not be tied to compulsory heterosexuality and innate biological functions. But this only tells half the story. For the consumer, it seems, anything is achievable. For the supplier, on the other hand, pregnancy remains what pregnancy always has been: a risky, unpredictable, deeply personal experience. Embryos can be created in laboratories but human beings take shape – where? In wombs? In mothers? In families? Such distinctions matter but it takes more than scientific progress and legal reform to make them clear. 

Neither the physical reality nor the emotional aftermath of pregnancy fit into our neat little categories for how society is organised. It produces something of immeasurable value yet it has no immediate monetary worth. It is hard, dangerous work yet it involves no skill and can be endured by even the most reluctant of participants. Whether or not one can gestate is not decided by any moral or physical examination; we may talk of “blessings” but what we really mean is “luck”. Pregnancy creates something from one’s own flesh, with lasting physical aftershocks, yet one does not own it. A baby is not one’s own self. Yet in the twenty-first century we have started to behave as though something so complex can be traded on a market whose very foundations rest on global inequality and the unpaid labour of women.

Feminists first started to express concerns about the development of reproductive technologies and the associated commoditisation of pregnancy during the 1980s. It was in some ways a natural continuation of feminist critiques of the medicalisation of childbirth found in works such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Suzanne Arms’s Immaculate Deception. It was not, however, an anxiety shared by all. Indeed, perhaps to many such concerns sounded luddite and paranoid, the fearful imaginings of women unwilling to let go of outdated beliefs in maternity as women’s only source of power. Three decades on, much of what was feared has come to pass. Proof that feminist doom-mongers were right? Or that human beings can adjust to anything, including our brave new surrogacy-friendly world?

In her 1985 work The Mother Machine, Gena Corea foresaw a time when surrogacy by donor insemination (“straight” surrogacy) would be overtaken by IVF (“host” surrogacy):

Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid women.

Of course, Corea was being somewhat alarmist. Thirty years later, if you look at the website of Sensible Surrogacy, you’ll find it’s not a tenth, but a fifth. Meanwhile, in Right-Wing Women Andrea Dworkin argued that “the social control of women who reproduce— the sloppy, messy kind of control—is being replaced by medical control much more precise, much closer to the efficiency of the brothel model.” For anyone curious as to what a “reproductive brothel” might look like, Sensible Surrogacy provide photos of their “typical surrogate apartments” (which remind me of the YWCA I lived in during the 1990s, the difference being that the women were granted a hostel room without making any commitment to conceive for others). On such evidence it seems that we have indeed sleepwalked into the very reproductive dystopia predicted by the second-wave Cassandras, yet somehow we’re okay with this. There is, after all, a competing alternative narrative, one of progress and liberation, to which we can turn our attentions.

This was evident, for instance, following Dolce and Gabbana’s recent pronouncements on IVF, surrogacy and same-sex parenting. The designers were, without question, being both homophobic and bigoted towards children conceived by so-called artificial means when they issued their messianic directive: “No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.” Nonetheless, in the furore that followed it was striking how little attention was paid to the “rented uterus” question. The responses of gay men including Peter Tatchell, Elton John and Owen Jones focused on the parenting skills of same-sex couples, eliding ethical concerns related to how parenthood is achieved in the first place. Jones claimed that “because it is harder for same-sex couples to have children, there is a positive selection for what are more likely to be doting parents”. While such an argument contains its own prejudices (are we to conclude that children conceived accidentally – as is the case with one in six pregnancies in the UK – are any less doted on?) Jones is absolutely right that children raised by same-sex parents (and single parents) fare just as well as, and sometimes better than, those raised by heterosexual couples. But this only covers one half of the transaction. It is a narrative which, as Corea put it in 1985, “stresses a partial and inadequate element of the situation (the suffering of infertile couples) and obscures a clear vision of the actual social forces. Certain facts about surrogate motherhood are highlighted in media discussions while others are buried.” That surrogacy can bring enormous happiness to those who could not otherwise have children who are genetically their own is not in question; nor is the fact that the children themselve lead happy lives. Yet this does not resolve the issue of how we place their stories alongside the broader narrative of women’s reproductive rights and destinies.

The website of Surrogacy UK has the look and feel of a pregnancy magazine, all plump little poppets in multi-coloured sleepsuits: look! Look what you could make! They describe their ethos as “surrogacy through friendship,” arguing that surrogacy “can be a wonderfully rewarding experience for everyone involved”:

For Surrogate Mothers it is a chance to do something truly extraordinary.  For those who are unable to have children by any other means surrogacy can be a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Scratch the surface, however, and the reality – that pregnancy is a physical process taking place in another person’s body, a body which one cannot wholly separate from the idea of a self – is never far away:

In the getting to know you stage take some time to talk through the details of surrogacy.  There may be certain things you want or expect from one another.  Would you be happy to have extra tests for abnormalities?  Are there circumstances in which you would consider terminating the pregnancy?  These topics can be difficult to talk about, but it is important to address them.

While such issues do need addressing, the idea that one might address them in advance is surely unrealistic. Pregnant with a baby I expect to raise myself, I’m not even sure how I’d deal with them until they actually arose. The thought of making decisions in advance and harnessing my own and the happiness of several other people to them seems impossible. It is not just raging hormones that make this difficult, but the shifting contexts of life itself (my family, other people’s families, money, security, relationships, health). And even then, hormones do matter.

It is notable that, as I am having my “own” baby, it is expected that rising levels of oxytocin will not only support my labour, but help me to bond with my child. Should this not happen (and for many women it does not) I will feel a “failure” as a mother. Yet were I a surrogate, such a “failure” would make me a success. Indidivual women are not in control of such things – if we were, conditions from the “baby blues” to postpartum psychosis would be things we could simply think our way out of – yet in a recent case involving a surrogate forced to hand over a baby to a couple who claimed this was what she had agreed to in advance, one got the impression that this woman had indeed been expected to manage her emotions more effectively. In wanting to keep full custody the baby she bore – and behaving defensively and aggressively as a result – she had done something wrong, yet, as Katha Pollitt wrote in 1987 regarding the Baby M case in the US, “when Mary Beth Whitehead signed her contract, she was promising something it is not in anyone's power to promise: not to fall in love with her baby”.

In disputes such as these, it is surely not simply a question of who would be the best parent or set of parents. There may be people in the world who could raise my own children more effectively and with just as much compassion as I am doing, but the love I have for my children is accepted as absolute unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. Is this something that could ever be signed away in advance? (According to Sensible Surrogacy, it depends on the country you go for. The UK might be a grey area but for surrogates in India, the answer is yes and there can be no turning back. Those in Thailand are permitted some legal leeway – some small loophole allowing for emotion – but thankfully “to ensure that the Thai surrogate maintains the terms of the agreement, all her compensation is withheld until she has given full rights to the Future Parents and they are on their way home”. Which, one presumes, sorts out the whole “love” issue to everyone’s satisfaction.)

As the Dolce and Gabbana responses showed, the sexual, racial and economic disempowerment of surrogates can be effectively played off against the disempowerment of those who do not conform to so-called “traditional” family structures. In much the same way that the sex trade can be positioned not as a marker of women’s subordination, but as one in the eye for bigoted puritans, surrogacy can be positioned as a challenge to those who see the “natural” family as Mummy, Daddy, missionary positioned-conceived baby. Yet legally things are not so straightforward. It is not just that access to paid surrogacy is contingent on economic advantage. In the UK, the law regarding surrogacy ultimately favours couples, particularly heterosexual and all-male ones. The legal solution of a parental order following the birth of a child by a surrogate is not available to single people (despite the fact that single people are permitted to adopt). While lesbian couples can apply for parental orders, this is made more difficult by the fact that at least one person must be a genetic parent (meaning “straight” surrogacy, bypassing egg donation, cannot be an option).  It is for this reason, one presumes, that Surrogacy UK only provide prospective parent application packs to heterosexual and male same-sex couples. I doubt it is intentional in some deep, conspiracy theorist way (indeed, I doubt that much to do with patriarchy is), but the structural implications of this are that yet again, the exploitation of female reproductive labour is directed towards the continuation of male family lines and two-parent families. Looked at from this perspective, surrogacy is not as much of a challenge to traditional family values as one might have thought.

The current legal structure also, inevitably, reinforces the age-old tradition of downplaying women’s contribution to the creation of life while exagerrating men’s. As female academics from various disciplines, such as the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and the anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy have pointed out, narratives of human reproduction are not based purely on objective scientific observation. They interact with cultural beliefs and can be gendered in such a way as to bolster ideas of male agency and dominance versus female passivity and subordination. Aristotle believed that women merely supplied matter that the active male principle formed into a human being. Women might have been the ones who gestated and gave birth, but they were merely potting soil for the male seed.

In Mother Nature, Blaffer Hrdy describes how seventeenth-century scientists “thought they saw a miniature man, a little ‘homunculus,’ through their microscopes, folder up inside a human sperm, waiting to be deposited inside the womb […] Even though mothers contributed egg cells, they were viewed as passive vessels, awaiting the life force conveyed by males.” We may scoff at such things today, but in 2015 Nick Loeb, the ex-partner of Sofia Vergara, still describes the frozen embryos formed from his sperm and Vergara’s ova as “the two lives I have already created”. Taking things a step further, Loeb argues that “a man who is willing to take on all parental responsibilities” should be “entitled to bring his embryos to term even if the woman [meaning the supplier of the eggs] objects”. Entitlement is one thing, but capability is quite another. By “bring his embryos to term” Loeb means “pay someone with a womb to perform the magic that transforms embryo to living, breathing child”. However rich a man is, he cannot purchase that capability in its own right. Yet female reproductive agency, once rendered invisible by patriachal quackery, is now undermined by the belief that everything can be bought by the highest bidder (and as ever, those with the most to bid tend to be male). 

Those who provide sperm make an obvious contribution to the creation of new life. Theirs is not, however, an equal one. Those who gestate, birth and suckle babies do far, far more. Yet ironically, providing sperm is all it takes to be said to have fathered a child. Meanwhile, the verb “to mother” encompasses a far broader range of activities than “just” supplying an egg. Pregnancy could almost kill you but still you won’t have proven you’re a “proper” mother. Alas, it has long been the case that under patriarchy, if one wants female reproductive labour to be recognised at all, such recognition will take the form of discrimination against women as a class.

For women, reproductive difference has long been tied to economic dependency, sexual exploitation and social exclusion. Male scientists used to argue that women’s reproductive role made them unfit for anything else. As Blaffer Hrdy puts it, the assumption was that “because females were especially equipped to nurture, males excelled at everything else.” More recently, the neurosexism of the late 90s and early noughties has pushed an insidious “different but equal” line, with popular works such as Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference suggesting that women’s reproductive history has led to a situation in which most female people – regardless of whether or not they ever become mothers themselves – are “hardwired” for empathy (and lower-paid care work) in a way that most male people are not. It doesn’t take a genius (nor indeed the possession of a “male brain”) to see how this works to perpetuate longstanding inequalities between men and women, not just in economic terms but also through all the ways in which women are expected to perform the emotional donkeywork in informal relationships extending far beyond those between mother and child. No wonder, to quote Blaffer Hrdy, “biology itself came to be viewed by women as a field sown with mines, best avoided altogether,” or, as the feminist legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman writes, “the idea of mother as a specifically gendered concept is cast by some feminists as particularly threatening to women’s sense of individuality […] discussions about motherhood are likely to be labelled ‘pronatalism’ and condemned as harbouring the subtext that all women must mother.” As new mother Ari puts it in Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth, “Heaven forbid it might be true that female bodies are different”:

Heaven forbid we admit that living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful. Because, what? We might lose the vote? Because we might get veiled, imprisoned? Best deny it, deny it, make it to the Oval office, win, win, win.

For some feminists there is much appeal in insisting that all things are equal in human reproduction. The truth, however, is that they are not, and never will be until we take the physical, emotional and social context of women’s lives as seriously as we take those of men.

In her 1995 work The Neutered Mother Albertson Fineman explores ways in which liberal feminist calls for gender neutrality in parenting play into the hands of fathers’ and men’s rights groups, creating a theoretical equality which, due to its failure to account for women’s “material and psychological circumstances,” ends up reinforcing male control of families and marginalising single mothers in particular. Although in general fathers do not spend as much time caring for children (and those who do have been shown to spend more time on play while Mummy still deals with the less glamorous side of things), the idea that they could has been used, not to make men more responsible, but to downplay the specificity of what women are actually doing in practical and biological terms.

The idea that biology has historically led to women being granted more rights over children is, as feminists have long pointed out, a myth. Until the mid-nineteenth century fathers were automatically assumed to have possession over their children. It was not a corresponding assertion of maternal rights, but a move towards favouring “the best interests of the child” which led to more mothers being awarded custody. As Susan Maushart comments, “ironically and inaccurately, we now describe as ‘traditional’ those judges who persist in reflexively granting custody to mothers”. To assume that mothers should have rights relating to childrearing based on the contribution they make – as opposed to “naturally” ordained responsibilities – is not traditional, but revolutionary.

This is relevant to surrogacy because, as Pollitt pointed out in relation to Baby M, “it is a means by which women sign away rights that, until the twentieth century, they rarely had: the right to legal custody of their children, and the right not to be bought, sold, lent, rented or given away.” One could of course argue that to have a right and sign it away is different to never having had it at all. Nonetheless, the conditions under which women sign away their assumed “rights” – which, in the broader context of reproductive justice, are on shaky ground to begin with – cannot be ignored.

I do not think the surrogates who apply to Surrogacy UK are all victims of false consciousness. I don’t necessarily disbelieve them when they argue that being a surrogate can be an positive, empowering experience. While the word “empowering” itself may have fallen out of favour in feminist circles, it seems to me that such an act of physical creativity and emotional generosity could, in another world, fall within feminist definitions of maternal power – the power not to dominate, but to nurture and share. Perhaps some interactions between intended parents and surrogates already come within touching distance of this. Nevertheless, the world we live in is one in which for the majority of women, gender-based economic and reproductive coercion are the norm. One witnesses this at the extreme end in the pregnancies of schoolgirls kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram, but even in places where women are considered economically and physically secure, abortion is rarely considered a basic right. A woman’s positive choice to reproduce is treated as public property. She will be judged and found wanting – for being too young, too old, too independent, too poor, for being employed or unemployed, for belonging to the wrong ethnic group, for having the wrong partner or no partner at all. For a minority of women, a combination of the availability of contraception, changes to employment legislation and class privilege have made reproductive choice a meaningful reality. These women are the exceptions to the rule. We cannot claim individual women can choose to be generous with their reproductive capacities until such a time when, in reproductive terms, all women are truly free.

How much of a right should pregnancy give a woman over a baby? What does it count for? I am not sure but I can’t help feeling that our current thinking, with its impulse towards gender neutrality and the insistence that female reproduction is neither inherently different to nor more costly than its male counterpart, is flawed. Having the ability to gestate new life does not make you a perfect parent. It does not impart some great, mystic wisdom. It doesn’t even make you a nicer person. Nonetheless, going through pregnancy and giving birth are, like being born and dying, essential, untouchable, personal experiences. As Ari puts it, “there’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another”. It ought to be possible to state that biology is not destiny, insofar as women are varied human beings and not carers by default, without erasing vast swathes of female lived experience and the needs that arise from it. But where should we go after that? Wherever it is, we must do so listening to all sides of every story, thinking beyond artificial separations of the world of the mind and the creations of the flesh.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March