At their root, disinformation campaigns tend to point to a "culpable" someone, Source: Depositphotos

“Alternative” Facts: a tool to make the others unfamiliar

“Alternative” Facts: a tool to make the others unfamiliar

How story fabrication about selected groups of people influenced public opinion through the centuries

The issue of disinformation has become increasingly pressing in recent years. From the Brexit vote and Trump's election to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, its influence is more evident than ever. However, framing disinformation as simply intentionally spreading false or misleading information often ignores its broader implications of knowledge-power dynamics.

As French philosopher Michel Foucault famously argued, knowledge cannot be divorced from power, since information production is an active process, that is inherently political, and those who control the discourse around a particular subject often control what is considered “true” about it.

Through this lens, we can easily understand how the creation of "alternative" facts has historically often been used as a tool for "othering", whereby specific individuals or groups are dehumanized and excluded, by being labelled as not fitting in within the norms of the larger social group. This angle can also help us grasp modern disinformation’s potential to alienate vulnerable groups.

As Old As History

Looking back throughout the centuries, elites and political opportunists have employed various tactics to promote such "alienation” to stoke a sense of distrust towards the "other". Even Aristotle and other ancient Greeks warned of charismatic "demagogues"—leaders who used rhetoric to incite fear and gain political power. One common tool of othering campaigns has been to spread false rumours and accusations, activating the prejudice when latent, or fostering it if absent.

For example, in the second and third centuries AD Christians were accused of engaging in ritual cannibalism and incest – a type of hoax narrative that was widely utilized against different communities over the course of history. And even those who sought to defend their own community from such accusations have sometimes resorted to the same tactics, as in the late third century AD, the Christian apologist Lactantius himself invented stories about pagans engaging in acts of immorality and cruelty.

Disinfo's Anti-Semitic Sway

One of the most illustrative examples of the intertwining of othering and disinformation across the ages is the anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns in Europe. Although they reached a tragic culmination in the 20th century, these had plagued history for a long time before that, resulting in the construction of very strong stereotypes and alienation.

A prime historical case of the devastating consequences of such narratives dates back to Trent, Italy in 1475 when a Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, spread the infamous story that the Jewish community had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian infant named Simonino to drain his blood and consume it for a Passover celebration. This false accusation, known as "blood libel," led to the arrest, torture, and burning of more than a dozen Jews at the stake, and inspired similar atrocities across Italy. As history has shown, it was a common theme in anti-Semitic propaganda, being adopted to fuel prejudice repeatedly.

Same Old Anti-Migrant Frame

The rise of nationalism and the massive human cross-border movements in recent years have also led to a surge in anti-migrant sentiment, further fueled by the new digital context. Online disinformation, poor journalism, and the massive flow of fake news through social media have contributed to the demonization of migrants, who are often blamed for various societal problems such as an increase in crime rates, economic crises, and job displacement.

One example occurred in Germany in 2017, where a fake story about rioting youths with migrant backgrounds at a fair went viral, with over 70,000 users sharing or commenting on the story. As the "Stiftung Neue Verantwortung" research foundation in Berlin has shown, similar cases of fake news in the lead-up to the 2017 elections in Germany focused exclusively on refugees.

Now, in the context of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the same old anti-migrant othering narrative circulates on social media in Czechia, Romania, and Poland, accusing Ukrainian refugees of receiving excessive financial and social support or committing violent crimes against residents.

Roma Rights in Peril

Much like with the anti-migrant rhetoric, false stories about Roma people have been utilized to oppress and marginalize them for centuries. In fact, anti-Roma defamation has travelled across Europe for so long, that allegations crystallising into anti-Gypsy tropes have become deeply ingrained in the continent's folklore.

However, the advent of social media has added a dangerous new dimension to the issue, allowing outrage over these tropes to turn quickly into violent mob attacks. One recent case involved unfounded rumours on Snapchat and Facebook that the Roma were child snatchers, leading to two Roma groups in Paris being attacked by a mob of 50-70 people in March 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to a surge in anti-gypsyism, with disinformation campaigns blaming the Roma for bringing the virus, which in turn led to discriminatory actions against the community in Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, and Slovakia.

LGBTI+ Demonization

Another group that has often fallen victim to “alternative” facts in the digital era is the LGBTI+ community, especially within pro-Russian media discourse, where the prevalent narrative suggests that the "gender ideology" from Europe poses a threat to the foundations of nation-states. The literature reviews demonstrate a disturbing pattern, which depicts this community as morally corrupted and a threat to society, with derogatory terms like 'perverts,' 'sick,' and 'deviant’ being rampant.

The anti-LGBI+ discourse often paints the community as a threat to child safety and paedophilia. As explained in the European Parliament's report "Disinformation campaigns about LGBTI+ people in the EU and foreign influence”, the dissemination of false information related to LGBTI+ issues intends to take advantage of social polarization surrounding their rights, incite hatred and provoke hate crimes. Russian propaganda uses othering of those groups as a handy platform to base some disinfo campaigns, with the hope of weakening the influence and importance of the EU and NATO, as equal rights for the LGBTI+ community are a divisive topic among member states.

What Lies Ahead

Looking back at the history of “alternative” facts, we can see that the use of disinformation has been a long-standing instrument to promote "othering" and justify violence. Whether used against Jews, migrants, Roma, or LGBTI+ individuals, these tactics follow the same pattern which has perpetuated hierarchies of power at the expense of marginalized communities lacking social, political, or economic might.

Many things have changed since Aristotle’s “demagogues”, though not necessarily for the better. It’s a fact that the majority of today’s population no longer relies on professionally reported news sources, and the rise of social media has given the process of "othering" an avalanche-like impetus, with false narratives and memes being spread more easily and widely than ever before. The challenge ahead is clear: in the years to come, our greatest task will be to find entirely new and adequate digital context methods for countering disinformation and promoting truth.

This article is part of Read Twice – an EU-funded project, coordinated by Euro Advance Association that targets young people and aims to counter disinformation and fake news by enhancing their skills to assess critically information, identify vicious and harmful media content and distinguish between facts and opinions, thus improving their media literacy competences.

The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Union nor of TheMayor.EU



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