Lessons From the Past on How to Beat Disinformation

The story of the British man who tricked Nazi Germany: Sefton Delmer took on Hitler’s information machine -his story offers valuable insights into the fight against the rise of authoritarianism.

Peter Pomerantsev in The Guardian: Thirty percent of Americans claim, despite all evidence to the ­contrary, that the last presidential elections were “rigged”. Millions are sure that the “deep state” is plotting to import immigrants to vote against “real ­Americans” in the future. Meanwhile in Russia, the majority of people claim that the Kremlin is the innocent party in its brutal invasion of Ukraine. When Ukrainians call their relatives in Russia to tell them about the atrocities, all too often they hear their own kin parrot the Kremlin’s propaganda lines: the atrocities are faked, or false flags, or necessary in order to impose Russia’s greatness.

Across the world we see the growth of propaganda that promotes an alternative reality where black is white and white is black, and where truth is cast away in favour of a sense of superiority and ever more murderous paranoia. How can we defeat it? It’s easy to despair when fact checking is rejected by the millions who don’t want to hear the truth in the first place; when worthy journalism that preaches the virtues of “democracy” crumples in the face of suspicion, seeded purposefully for decades, that the media are actually “enemies of the people”.

Propaganda is successful when it gives people a satisfying part to play: someone to be, to love and hate.

We are not, however, the first generation to confront the challenge of authoritarian propaganda. And as I looked for past experiences to inform our own, I discovered a British second world war media operation that managed to engage huge audiences who had been loyal to the Nazis and undermine their faith in Hitler’s regime. If we think reaching people in “echo chambers” today is tough, think about how hard it was to persuade Germans to trust the people who were literally trying to kill them.

This campaign was led by Sefton Delmer, who as head of special operations for the Political Warfare Executive, created dozens of radio stations, newspapers leaflets and rumours, all intended to break the spell cast by Hitler’s propaganda by fair means or foul. He employed stars from the German cabaret scene, soldiers, surrealist artists, psychiatrists, forgers, spies and dissidents from across occupied Europe. Ian Fleming and Muriel Spark lent their talents to Delmer’s operations. According to declassified UK government files, which have been unearthed and organised by the historian and archivist Lee Richards, around 40% of German soldiers tuned into Delmer’s stations. An SS Obergruppenführer from Munich complained that Delmer’s stations were among the top three in the city and were causing complete havoc. Goebbels was dismayed by how effective they were.

Sefton Delmer broadcasts to Germany in 1941. Photograph: The Guardian/Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

Delmer’s interest, however, went beyond the uniquely nasty realm of nazism. He saw the same patterns at play throughout Germany in the 20th century as well as in Britain during the first world war. And his wartime work has many lessons for us today.

The son of an Australian literature professor at Berlin University, Delmer grew up in Germany and spoke the language fluently. Australia was a dominion of the British Empire at the time, and Delmer was seen, and wanted to see himself, as British. He was 10 years old when the first world war broke out, and was bullied for being an enemy schoolchild. When he came to England in 1917, he was bullied for seeming too German, a consequence of what he described as “our British way of working up to a real crescendo of hate and fury towards the end of the war”. He would learn to play the perfect English schoolboy. But reading his memoirs I felt this bicultural childhood left him with the sense that all social roles are exactly that: roles that are there to be performed. Propaganda is successful when it gives people a satisfying part to play: someone to be, to love and hate. It also left him with an awareness of how deeply we all need to belong to a group – Delmer had found it painful to be an outsider, seen as not properly British. Until the end of his life he would remain an imperial nostalgist, performing an almost caricatured version of the Britishness he longed to be part of as a child.

It was the performative aspect of propaganda, and the simultaneous need to belong, that struck him when he observed Hitler’s success. In the 1920s, Delmer became a star reporter for the Daily Express in Berlin. He gained behind-the-scenes access on Hitler’s election flights around Germany, where adoring crowds saluted the führer. Hitler gave people the sense of being part of a huge mass, a Volk, which appealed to many after the confusing changes of the early 20th century, when the old social order had been upended. He also gave people roles to play when the old ones had vanished: in the confusing cabaret of Weimar Germany, where identities were in flux, you knew who you were when you became a Nazi party member or an SS man. These roles were emotionally satisfying: they allowed people to submit to a strong leader, and feel strong and superior through him; they also allowed them to feel the victim, which in turn legitimised anger and cruelty to others. Some psychoanalysts who observed the rallies believed these grievance narratives gave people the chance to blame external forces for all the things they didn’t like about themselves. Orators like Hitler make us feel we can crush the voice inside of us that tells us we are not good enough, by projecting it on to others.

More here.