Paris – William Boyd’s spy novel Restless shines a light on how false information was used and fiction was disguised as fact as means to a strategic and political end in the second world war.
Readers of the spy thriller, published in 2006, would be struck by the relevance in today’s turbulent times, where disinformation is deployed in politics and on social platforms, where falsehoods are liberally strewn in the real and virtual world.
The novel draws on a little known fact: the MI6 Secret Intelligence Service backed the British Security Coordination office, which operated in 1940-41 from three floors in the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, working on “news manipulation and black propaganda,” the author said in the Guardian newspaper in 2006.
The aim of was to feed doctored news stories to radio, newspapers and noted commentators, to win public support for America to enter the war and back a besieged Britain, which stood alone – with its empire – against the Axis powers led by Nazi forces.
Flash forward to today, the need for discernment between truth and lie can be seen by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube backing a bid to check facts and remove false claims based on anti-vaccination views. YouTube is a unit of Google.
That move against widespread misinformation against vaccination will be led by Full Fact, a fact-checking outfit.
Those vast social platforms have long avoided editorial control, but the scale of the deadly pandemic appears to have finally led to their Pauline conversion, leading them to accept that accuracy counts.
An acceptance of editorial responsibility raises the issue of the need for debate and to avoid debasement of debate. How will social platforms exercise editorial control of content? There is need to be free from control from government and the intelligence community, critical issues which will rise in the years ahead.
Facebook also switched commercial tracks by banning ads promoting anti-vaccination.
That exercise of editorial and commercial control came as the UK said it had approved the distribution and use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID 19.
News of a breakthrough did, however, lead to the British education minister, Gavin Williamson, fly the Union Jack in an empty boast: “We’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have.
“That doesn’t surprise me at all, because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
Those remarks, carried on LBC local radio, belayed the fact the manufacturers of the vaccine are Pfizer, a major US company, and BioNTech, a German firm founded by a couple who are of Turkish origin.
In another editorial step, Facebook also said it will take down content which denies or distorts the Holocaust, changing policy of two years standing. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has previously said he was against banning such content, despite his taking deep offence against Holocaust denial.
“We have banned more than 250 white supremacist organizations and updated our policies to address militia groups and QAnon,” Monika Bickert, Facebook vice president of content policy, said Oct. 12.
“We also routinely ban other individuals and organizations globally, and we took down 22.5 million pieces of hate speech from our platform in the second quarter of this year.”
The political world has also seen a disregard for fact, such that the legal team of the Donald Trump campaign had to take distance from a campaign official, Sidney Powell, who had spoken beyond the realm of fact.
Powell, a lawyer, had suggested a server holding proof of voting irregularities was located in Germany, that software used by Georgia and other states to count votes was written at the request of Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela, and votes for Trump had been switched in favor of president-elect Joe Biden, The Associated Press reported. There was no proof to back up these remarks.
Back in the novel Restless, the narrator Eva Delectorskaya tells her story of a fictitious spy unit, Actuarial and Accountancy Services, running a small Belgian-based news agency, Agence d’Information Nadal, dubbed the Rumor Factory, led by the unit head, Lucas Romer.
From Belgium, the unit moves to New York in an effort to sway American anti-war public opinion, and allow the then president Roosevelt to take up arms against the Axis powers.
In the US, there is deadly intrigue, underlining Romer’s counsel to Eva, not repeat not to trust anyone.
The Canadian founder of British Security Coordination, William Stephenson, commissioned an official account of the unit, with three ex-officers drafting the secret report, Boyd said. One of the authors of the BSC report was Roald Dahl, who went on to become a best selling author whose children’s books included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
That report carried this observation by British spies on the American host nation, “The simple truth is the United States is inhabited by people of many conflicting races, interests and creeds.
“These people, though fully conscious of their wealth and power in the aggregate, are still unsure of themselves individually, still basically on the defensive.”