FAKE NEWS & HISTORY
The idea of ‘official history’, which undermines the very basis of historiography, is connected to the concept of manipulating facts and therefore with fake news.
Official history, in the form of ‘collective memory’ or ‘national memory’ is the historical narrative a nation uses to create its past. Official histories walk the line between facts, lies, and myth. According to Pierre Nora, two factors contribute to the emergence of an official history: education programmes and political ceremonies (commemorations, monuments, memorials, etc.)2. While an official history may bring a nation together, it can also bolster warmongering nationalist movements.
For example, up until the 1980s, the official history of Israel alleged that the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 was the fruit of a heroic war of David (the Jewish people) versus Goliath (Arab peoples). This official version was subsequently revisited by a new group of historians who pointed out that the real history was much more nuanced and that the 1948 war led, among other things, to Arab populations being expelled from the territory.
Another way of interpreting history is to tie it to fake news: negationism. This ideological movement thinks that the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide are nothing but the results of a fallacious belief system that makes false claims about events that never happened. By denying the very existence of gas chambers, negationists are contradicting the vast majority of historians. For this reason, it can be said that negationism does not use the scientific method and is more comparable with a conspiracy theory.
Negationism was in the news once again when Holocaust survivors called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to take down revisionist content that had been posted on the social network.
CASE IN POINT: WESTERN HEGEMONY RHETORIC ABOUT THE BALKANS
Historian Maria Todorova has analysed the West’s discovery of the Balkans and the development of ‘Balkanism’ as well as the West’s hegemony rhetoric about its eastern alter ego. She demonstrates that Westerners have developed a ‘historical myth’ that can be likened to fake news or hate speech and is entrenched in the minds and media of Western civilisation. According to this rhetoric, originated by European travellers in the late 18th century, the Balkans are completely ‘different’ – that is, exotic – or even ‘uncivilised’ and ‘barbaric’. In this vision, the people of the Balkans are characterised by ‘cruelty, brutality, instability, unpredictability’.
After the Balkan Wars and World War I, it is this stereotype that led to the creation of the word ‘Balkanisation’. Then, in the 1990s, the war in Yugoslavia gave it new life and vigour. A new wave of caricatures and fake news emerged about the Balkans, including about how Serbs ‘play football with severed heads,’ in the words of one German defence minister that were reported by the media (Le Monde diplomatique, April 2019). Serbs were also said to have incinerated their victims “in ovens such as the ones used in Auschwitz” (Daily Mirror, 7 July).
One by one, these pieces of fake news were debunked – but not until after the conflict – notably in an investigation by American journalist Daniel Pearl (The Wall Street Journal, 31 December 1991).