After the American election last fall, we all came into contact with a seemingly new trend; fake news. It felt like it was everywhere, the internet was full of contradictory headlines and newspapers struggled to keep up. An article presented as fact one hour was debunked the next, and we suddenly had to come to grips with something we in the West have largely taken for granted for the last 50 years, the news is not always real.
Image: [detail] “Pour hâter la Victoire et pour nous revoir bientôt, Soucrivez !”, Auguste Leroux, 1918, Collections CCGW/CCGG.
Think pieces abound now on the topic, and we are having to rethink the role of news agencies, journalists, and information in our lives. The idea of fake news, however, is not new, it has just changed its name. Canadians living during the First World War were equally familiar with fake news, but it was known by its earlier name, propaganda.
The First World War saw the institutionalisation of the use and dissemination of propaganda information through official government bodies such as the, The Ministry for Information (British), directed by Canadian newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook, the Committee for Public Information (American), and the Image and Film Office (Germany). Official state organisations all sought to influence public opinion towards the war using posters, news articles, and new mediums like film.
Propaganda used, to great effect, one of the new trends of the pre-war years, advertising. People were already sensitised to visual language and product placement, and the propaganda posters of the time reflected that by engaging artists already used in the advertising world, and using similar motifs. The messages were simple; support your country, support your soldiers, support your family, enlist, contribute, work. Posters like the one below were colourful and caught the eye, they were also everywhere.
Official efforts also controlled the news. Access to the front was strictly controlled and journalists were frequently given stories and facts to publish by official press contacts; in the early years of the war the British government for example continually put a positive spin on the bad news from the front, casting every failed battle as a heroic last stand. To bolster public hatred against the enemy, both sides also turned to atrocity propaganda, spreading stories about rape, murder, and torture to ensure that the civilians at home continued to call for war against the “savage Huns” or “British dogs”.
I have written before about the Lusitania Medallion, which is an excellent example of the propaganda war at work. Originally a German production that cast a negative view of the United States and the decision to allow the Lusitania to sail despite warnings from the German consulate about the submarine war, the medallion was recast in a British copy with a contrary explanatory text that pointed to German celebrations of the killing of civilians and general “beastliness”.
The Lusitania, along with the execution of Edith Cavell as a spy and the treatment of Belgian civilians, remained a call to action throughout the war and were used as justification for the conflict for many years afterwards. As the war dragged on, civilians and soldiers became increasingly distrustful of official news and the use of propaganda became subtler and more refined. By the end of the war, winning hearts and minds was just as important as winning a battle, and propaganda at a national scale became an integral part of any military action.
Though today propaganda from the First World War seems overly direct and ham fisted, we have proven ourselves to be just as vulnerable as our great grandparents 100 years ago. The form is different, but the messages are still the same, and we still respond to them in the same way. Fake news, it would seem, was here to stay.
Throughout the First World War, 2,500 Canadian nurses served abroad, 2,000 of them fully trained nurses, and 500 VAD nurses who signed up when the