Fake news

The dirty war of Sefton Delmer

There is an obvious problem with trying to judge who ‘won’ a propaganda war. Unlike its physical counterpart, there is virtually no real-world evidence either way, and everyone involved has spent years learning how to spin, manipulate and outright lie about reality to try to shape it into what they want. As a result, it remains the conventional wisdom – among those who think of such things, at least – that despite their eventual and total defeat in the second world war, it was the Nazis who won the propaganda war of their era. Fake letters from dead German soldiers to their parents reported thatthey had survived, deserted and were

Labour frontbencher in fake news row (again)

Oh dear. At the beginning of Covid, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan won plaudits across parliament for returning to do shifts on the NHS frontline. But in recent months the former deputy leader contender has earned herself the wanted reputation of being one of Parliament’s worst offenders for disseminating ‘fake news’ – no mean feat considering some of the contenders she is up against. In January the self-styled shadow ‘cabinet’ minister for mental health sent a bizarre tweet late one Saturday night that claimed the vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi had managed to fast track the vaccine queue. After first asking people not to pile on the minister over the unsubstantiated rumour that she herself had started,

The Independent’s peer review disaster

Oh dear. Ever since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s bombshell Oprah interview aired, a debate has been underway in the press over allegations of racism in the monarchy. So Mr S read a comment piece on the progressive newspaper-turned-website the Independent with intrigue. With the eye catching title: ‘I’m a black British member of the aristocracy – I know what Meghan said was true’, Alexander J. Maier-Dlamini the 11th Marquess of Annaville, said that he had no doubt the Duke and Duchess were telling the truth given his own experiences in aristocratic circles. The only problem? His title does not appear to actually exist.  Despite claiming to be the ‘last of the Irish peerages’ there is no record

The funniest current affairs show since Brass Eye: Into the Grey Zone reviewed

It was something a friend said to me about The Revenant, Leonardo diCaprio’s bloody-minded and brutal Oscar vehicle: ‘The problem with the film is once you start laughing, you can’t stop. And for me, that moment was the second time he fell off a cliff.’ I thought about this a lot listening to Into the Grey Zone, a new podcast hoping to educate its audience about the new forms of constant pseudo-warfare that modern states engage in. This is the world of nerve poisoning in Salisbury, airspace incursions over Taiwan, cyberattacks, mass disinformation and remote interference. None of these things can be considered open warfare but taken together, the podcast

The power of disinformation is that it’s so readily believed

On 27 November 1960 African and Indian diplomats visiting the UN in New York opened their mail to find a leaflet from the Ku Klux Clan: A foul stench spreads out from the East River and hangs over New York like a pall — the greasy sweat of the Black Races and the Yellow Races of Asia which have invaded the United Nations. It is enough to make every White Protestant American vomit. It ended with a threat: the delegates better stay close to the UN buildings and the ‘brothels of Harlem, and not defile the hotels and restaurants of the White City’. FBI officers investigating the correspondence noted a

Tacitus knew how to handle stories from ‘insiders’ and ‘sources’

We read much about ‘fake news’ these days and of efforts to rid the internet of it. But what of media that report dodgy stories derived from ‘insiders’ and ‘government sources’ and ‘contacts’? The great Roman historian Tacitus knew what to make of such sources. The first Roman emperor Augustus died in ad 14. It was a critical moment: who would succeed — Augustus’s grandson Postumus Agrippa, banished (by his wife Livia) or Tiberius, Livia’s son by her first marriage? Tacitus reported that Augustus and a companion, Fabius, arranged a reconciliation with Agrippa; that Fabius leaked and paid the price; and Livia at once recalled Tiberius from abroad, and then

Why 80 per cent of young people in this Macedonian town have turned to posting ‘fake news’

It’s such a relief to turn on the radio and hear the voice of Neil MacGregor. That reasoned authority, his deep knowledge of history and how things have come to be as they are, his measured common sense and ability to see round an argument or story. He’s like the voice of how things used to be, when the world was not so topsy-turvy and the news reports made sense. His series, As Others See Us, returns to Radio 4 this week (produced by Tom Alban), taking him this time to Singapore, the USA, Australia, Poland and Spain to talk to people there about Britain’s past connections, present woes and

Trump may have a point about fake news

In recent years, much scrutiny has been paid to the workings of social media algorithms. Driven by escalating competition for human attention, social media sites became filled with negative or controversial posts, because these attract more protracted engagement than anything else. Since reader attention attracts revenues, any profit-seeking algorithm will learn to highlight divisive content at the expense of more important topics. So a story about Hawaiian pizza might be more lucrative than one about human trafficking, since the idea of pineapple on pizzas polarises opinion more than a story about something universally agreed to be bad. But this problem is not confined to digital media. What sells newspapers, or

Words of the year

In Amsterdam the courts have given leave to ban the bierfiets. Fiets is the Dutch for ‘bike’. (The plural is fietsen.) A bierfiets is a float on which a dozen people sit on high seats facing each other across a narrow bar running fore and aft, enjoying their beer and pedalling away to power the vehicle. Someone sits at the front to steer and brake. Some suggest that bierfiets has entered the English language as the name of this newish thing. I’m not sure it really has, any more than many another name in a foreign language for foreign things (churros or currywürste). If the bierfiets itself survives it is as

Moment of truth | 18 May 2017

Two extremes of the listening experience were available on Monday on Radio 4. The day began conventionally enough with Start the Week, chaired by the deceptively genial Amol Rajan (now in charge of The Media Show), whose warm, inviting voice fronts a keen, intense intelligence. He guided his guests through a conversation about our post-truth world which, apart from the subject-matter, could have graced the airwaves in the 1950s. This was a masterclass in elevated discussion, so graceful were the exchanges, so theoretical the ideas, yet so clear the meaning. Chief among Rajan’s guests was our former editor Matthew d’Ancona, who has just published a book about post-truth and why

High life | 23 March 2017

A cloudless sky, crunchy spring snow, longer, warmer days. I’ve finally got in some good skiing, twisting around moguls like an arthritic champ. It’s all in the mind, as my old wrestling coach used to tell me. If you think the other guy’s better, you’re bound to lose to him. The same goes for the slope. If it scares you, stay in the club and have another drink. Otherwise, attack it with gusto and feel like a champ again. The same applies to the fairer sex. If you’re too nervous to speak to her, keep moving. We have four of the prettiest young women at The Spectator, all taken alas,

High life | 9 February 2017

When I was young my recurring nightmare was that I would die and be reincarnated as a polo pony. I squeezed in lots of polo during the years I played, at least three matches per week, mostly in Paris, and I felt that polo ponies had the kind of deal the mass media are now handing Trump. I wasn’t mad about the people I played with either. Back then, in the Sixties and Seventies, fat businessmen who cantered hired good Argentines to carry the can, but picked up the cup after strolling around the field and yelling quite a lot. Well, now I’m over it, but have an even worse

Long life | 26 January 2017

I keep finding myself singing ‘Nellie the elephant’ who, packing her trunk and saying goodbye to the circus, went off ‘with a trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump’. I’m hoping against hope that Donald Trumpety-Trump will also say goodbye to the circus in Washington and return to the jungle whence he came; for irrespective of whatever he does in government, even if some of it proves to be beneficial, he is unworthy to be president. The president is not only the country’s chief executive and commander-in-chief; he is the symbol of national unity and the protector of the American constitution, and he has already failed in both these last two roles. His

2017 will be one long vampire scream from the liberal elite

I’ve been looking at my predictions for 2016 made this time last year. It’s extraordinary — don’t check, just trust me — all 12 of them came true. If you had placed a £1 accumulator bet on my forecasts that Britain would vote Brexit, Trump would be elected US President, and that Scarlett Moffatt off Gogglebox would win I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, you wouldn’t need to read The Spectator any more — just the Forbes Rich List, where you’d come just between Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim. 1. 2017 will be one long vampire scream from the liberal elite. That moment when Christopher Lee finally gets