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.

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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

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

The Wu-Tang Clan in 1997: l-r, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, GZA, Method Man, with RZA at the front. Credit: BOB BERG/GETTY IMAGES
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Hip-hop’s unhappy families: rappers’ tales of brotherhood and betrayal

Hard knocks and Hollywood adventures in new memoirs by Gucci Mane, Wiley and U-God of the Wu-Tang Clan.

The best pop music is a combination of individualism and unity. The Beatles, for example, earned lasting success as the sum of four very distinct parts. Few genres manage this as successfully as hip-hop, where bands such as NWA and New York’s A$AP Mob have released group albums and solo records. In a music industry run by a handful of corporations, hip-hop was always made up of hundreds of verticals.

A brace of new books act as a bridge between black music’s individuality and brotherhood. The most demonstrative example of rap’s independent streak can be found in The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, a thrilling though often superficial memoir by Radric Delantic Davis. The rapper helped build Atlanta’s “trap” sound on albums such as La Flare, has been to jail on numerous occasions and fought drug addiction for most of his adult life. His autobiography, written two years short of his 40th birthday, is an attempt to grasp the third rail of American life: atonement.

In November 2010, Davis was arrested for driving his Hummer on the wrong side of the road. He was sent to a mental health facility – the reckless driving charge was later dropped. The recording of his 2009 album, The State vs Radric Davis, went into hiatus when he failed a drug test and entered rehab. In its more satisfying moments, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is defined by a relentless pursuit of self-control. Readers may or may not entirely sympathise: Davis once spent $75,000 on a diamond Bart Simpson chain. The book ends with his release from incarceration in 2016, where he read Malcolm X, Mike Tyson and Deepak Chopra. Davis got sober, shed 80 pounds and married. A film adaptation seems highly likely.

Eskiboy by Richard Kylea Cowie, the British musician known as Wiley, is an unconventional autobiography written by a committed individualist. The book is divided into 96 chapters separated by lyrics and includes contributions from friends and relatives, including his father, his sister and musicians Wretch 32 and Flow Dan. The effect is like watching an old episode of Behind the Music on VH1 or This is Your Life.

Cowie is a grime elder who helped dig the scene’s foundations. He eventually grew weary of London and now lives in Cyprus. Newcomers to songs such as “Wearing My Rolex” will enjoy his occasionally cantankerous opinions on the capital (“this is not a black man’s country”), fatherhood and food (“Yorkshire pudding, my God”), as well as the archaeology around the early years of his first group, Roll Deep. Cowie once released 200 songs online for free and first used MSN Messenger to distribute his music. He turned 39 this year, but Eskiboy reads like the worldview of a veteran.

Twenty-five years ago a New York group released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It became one of the most consequential hip-hop records of all time, and Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang by Lamont “U-God” Hawkins offers a vivid portrait of the group that made it.

Back in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan’s prestige was initially hard won. While New York’s first wave of rap music excelled at the soldiery of hip-hop – where rappers formed constellations around groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – the East Coast had been overwhelmed by Californian soloists such as Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg. Enter the Wu-Tang removed hip-hop from the warmth of the sun and returned it to the brownstone tenements of its birth. Released one year after albums by Kriss Kross and Sir Mix-a-Lot, Enter the Wu-Tang depicts a life of defiance born of deprivation. On songs like “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck”, the group draws on stories of criminology, an African-American version of Islam called Mathematics and two obsessions, chess and martial arts.

Compared to the digital stutter of rap in 2018, Enter the Wu-Tang sounds antediluvian, with its nine rappers taking turns to deliver eight bars over dense beats. Yet the detuned rhythms of its producer, RZA, can be heard in music by Kanye West, Drake and Odd Future. The group’s core rappers – RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa – are responsible for the largest body of work in the history of hip-hop.

In the seven years between Enter the Wu-Tang and 2000, the Clan and its members released 31 albums and compilations, as well as comics, books and documentaries which have helped shape a universe built on Shaolin and numerology. One of the more poignant biographies from Planet Wu is the 2014 chronicle of the short life of Russell Jones, who died in 2004, aged 35, of a drugs-related heart attack. Jones called himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB, “because there ain’t no father to his style”. Outlandish and addicted to drugs to alleviate a host of psychological issues – he once arrived to collect a welfare cheque in a limousine – Jones attracted both tabloid and police scrutiny.

Lamont Hawkins, also known as U-God or U-God Allah, is the latest Wu to publish an autobiography. In the group’s hierarchy, he was never a top-tier rapper, but was part of a second wave who released solo records in the late 1990s. Despite his late arrival, his memoir is the most vivid piece of writing to emerge from the Wuniverse.

Hawkins grew up in a single parent family in Brooklyn and Park Hill on Staten Island. Whenever he inquired about the family patriarch, his mother would reply, “God is your father!” Unlike Mane, who describes being orbited by grandparents, aunts and uncles, Hawkins’s childhood was blighted by black-on-black crime and drugs-related violence. He describes witnessing his first death when he was four years old and watched a woman leap or fall from the roof of an apartment building. “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton was playing on a radio in the street. Hawkins was a member of gangs called Baby Cash Crew, Dick ’Em Down and Wreck Posse. He carried a gun from the ages of 14 to 21 and recalls watching one of his babysitters shooting up heroin on the couch. Years later, Staten Island’s rappers would describe Park Hill as “Killa Hill” in their music. “Dudes would shoot dogs and leave their carcasses behind our building all the time,” writes Hawkins. “It was like a concentration camp for poor black people.”

While Raw is full of the despairing tales that inform the Wu-Tang’s music, it is also fuelled by the gallows humour that runs through albums staffed by fictionalised gangsters called Tony Starks or Lex Diamonds. Hawkins describes watching thieves steal his mother’s handbag on five separate occasions. One day, as she walked him home from school, a young man pulled the jewellery off her ears. Years later, she saw a man on TV who she swore was her attacker – it was Mike Tyson.

Hawkins’s teenage years were a fountainhead of illegal and legal labour. Like Gucci Mane, who describes selling marijuana by the age of 13 (the discovery led his mother to evict him from the family home), a teenage Hawkins was selling crack and making a profit of $2,500 each day. He met his future Clan bandmates before he was 14. In one passage in Raw, he relates how authorities in Park Hill struggled to process the daily body count. He wanted to become an embalmer and applied to study mortuary science before deciding to follow a career in music.

The early years of the Wu-Tang Clan were a maelstrom facilitated by the kind of family grift that usually leads to acrimony. The group already contained RZA’s cousins GZA and ODB, as well as friends such as Cappadonna, a part-time taxi driver. The Clan was managed by RZA’s brother, Mitchell “Divine” Diggs. A third RZA cousin called Mook became their road manager. Mook drove the tour bus and accepted cash-only payments from promoters.

Any attempt at organising the group was futile. On tour, the crew sometimes numbered 60 members. Cappadonna failed to make recording sessions for Enter the Wu-Tang when he was sent to jail. Hawkins was incarcerated four times for parole violations and only managed brief contributions to two tracks. It would be different four years later when the members had all signed to major labels and the Clan’s second album was released, selling 612,000 copies in its first week. Hawkins writes with eye-opening details about how his life changed; at one point, he was dating 12 women.

He also expresses regret at the group’s more lurid behaviour. He describes arriving at a Beverley Hills party after consuming a large quantity of rum; other guests included Leonardo DiCaprio, the rapper Q-Tip and members of Metallica. At the party, Hawkins got into an argument with DiCaprio, Ghostface urinated off a balcony and later destroyed some flowerbeds. A moment of kismet is delivered on another occasion when the Clan reaches Mike Tyson’s house only to discover the world heavyweight boxing champion won’t allow them entry.

For a group of young men who had never left the US, hip-hop also presented an opportunity for travel. A trip to the Colosseum in Rome provided a hilarious awakening. “I thought it would be big like fuckin’ Yankee Stadium, but that place was a Little League arena at best,” writes Hawkins, bitterly. “The reality of it broke my heart. I remember thinking Hollywood had fed me some bullshit with the Gladiator movie and all that about its size.”

The final section of Raw returns to the matter-of-factness of its beginning. In the period between the Wu-Tang Clan’s first and second album, Hawkins’s two-year-old son, Dontae, was shot in one hand and kidney when, during a gunfight, one participant picked him up to use as a human shield. Dontae lost his kidney and has walked with a limp since. “RZA and the others didn’t make it any better, ’cause they didn’t give a fuck,” writes Hawkins.

The Wu-Tang’s once indomitable friendship has occasionally publicly soured over musical differences and financial disagreements. In 2007, the group even embarked on a tour without RZA. He replied with a rival series of solo concerts.

Wiley writes equally frankly about his long-running feud with former Roll Deep rapper Dizzee Rascal. The pair have quarrelled since Rascal was stabbed in Ayia Napa in 2003. “I am a part of why he’s Dizzee,” Wiley writes, offering reconciliation. “And he’s a part of why I am Wiley.”

Hawkins admits that the challenge of competing for space on albums has taken a toll: “Nine MCs going at each other, battling for who gets on the song can lead to some hard feelings.” In the mid-2000s, RZA became a filmmaker and the Clan felt his attention diminish. Hawkins describes Wu Tang-Clan’s 2014 album, A Better Tomorrow, as “some wack shit from start to finish”. In 2016, he sued RZA over unpaid royalties. Hawkins was also absent from last year’s album, The Saga Continues.

It isn’t wholly surprising that a group of middle-aged rappers is often at loggerheads over their direction and legacy. In the final pages of his fearless memoir, Hawkins unexpectedly calls for a renewal of the brotherhood that bent him to its will. “Yeah, we don’t always get along,” he writes, “but what family does?” 

Eskiboy
Wiley
William Heinemann, 352pp, £20

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin
Simon & Schuster, 304pp, £16.99

Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang
Lamont “U-God” Hawkins
Faber & Faber, 292pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game