Fake news was a lot more fun in the olden days. Credit: SSPL/Getty Images

September 17, 2021   5 mins

Ritual killing, cannibalism, tyranny: George Psalmanazar had the most amazing news for the good people of Queen Anne’s England. Stuff that you couldn’t read anywhere else. It was all going down in his homeland — the Pacific island we now call Taiwan, but was then known by another name.

Psalmanazar’s Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704) reported the details to eager readers. Island laws, he explained, were a mixture of imperial edicts imposed by the Japanese Emperor and rules established by the local clergy and monarchy. Slap a priest and you were buried alive. Cheek your husband and he could behead you and keep your carcass for the larder. Other rules kept natural disasters in check: the high priest oversaw an 18,000-boy-a-year anti-earthquake human sacrifice programme. (Girls could be used to meet the quota if they underwent a ritual in which they were passed twelve times through the four elements.) The name of the supervising priest was Gnotoy Bonzo.

Psalmanazar, of course, was a liar. Ian Keable, author of The Century of Deception: The Birth of the Hoax in Eighteenth Century England, thinks he may have been one of the greatest who ever lived. Some of Psalmanazar’s dupes had status: the Bishop of London was so impressed by the man (and his fervent anti-Catholicism) that he funded a student place for him at Oxford. But not everyone swallowed. The astronomer Edmond Halley quizzed Psalmanazar about the qualities of the Formosan twilight. (Psalmanazar said the concept was unknown to him.) Those who wondered why he was blond and blue-eyed were told that privileged Formosans stayed pale by living in “apartments under ground”. These assertions were hard to contest. During his time in England, Psalmanazar — or whoever he really was — never met another person who had been to Formosa.

There is a canon of classic hoaxes, which have been filling anthologies and saving journalists on slow news days for generations. The best are immortal. The saga of the Tichborne Claimant, the mountainous butcher from Wagga Wagga who presented himself as the vanished heir to a Victorian baronetcy and was discredited in a court case that involved much discussion of his penis size. The affair of Piltdown Man, a confection of bones sourced from an Orangutan and an anonymous medieval human, widely accepted as evidence of an ape caught in the act of evolving into person. The tale of the Cottingley Fairies, the little paper figures pinned to the ground in a back garden near Bradford, that fooled the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

These hoaxes probably wouldn’t work today. Their effectiveness depended on various forms of absence — a missing aristocrat, a gap in the fossil record, the paucity of evidence for a supernatural phenomenon, English ignorance about Formosa. Such voids can no longer be filled so easily. Identity is far less falsifiable than it was in the 19th century. (Some complain that the state knows us too well.) An old bone can be carbon-dated. Photographic trickery is easy to detect. Britain is home to thousands of people who have been to Taiwan, and accurate accounts of it are more accessible than at any other point in human history. But the discourse of the hoax has not faded. Instead, it has become more widespread, corrosive and destructive.

Hoaxes, says Keable, “tend to be short-lived, overturned by an inevitable revelation, newly acquired information or a forced confession”. An eighteenth-century hoax, that is. The examples he gives are lies confected to mislead, often by those who craved attention. But in the information age, the hoax is, characteristically, an imagined act: a fantasy projected into a space where there is no true void of knowledge, just an event to which the fantasist objects. And these unreal hoaxes are far more tenacious than the relatively modest cons Keable describes.

The Moon landings are the founding modern example. In 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the lunar surface. But a vast literature has worked hard to cast doubt upon this event, and that doubt now exists as a measurable phenomenon in the world. One in six Britons suspects that the Moon landings were faked. We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle (1976), a self-published pamphlet that focused on apparent anomalies in Nasa photographs, found a receptive readership in a generation that believed, correctly, that the state had lied to them about Watergate and the war in Vietnam.

In the contemporary world, Syria is the ground for similar work, carried out by a small but influential group of British bloggers and academics whose views receive little serious attention at home but plenty of amplification in Damascus and on Russia’s RT news channel. Their principal contention is that evidence of war crimes by the Assad regime has been faked by foreign intelligence agencies. A strong focus of their literature is the claim that the White Helmets, a volunteer organisation that organises search and rescue work in opposition-controlled areas of the country, are not a real organisation, but a CIA or MI6-backed espionage unit that uses actors and dead bodies to create hoaxes calculated to bring the Assad regime into disrepute. (The chemical attack on Douma in April 2018 is, they claim, the group’s most audacious deception.)

Like Moon hoax culture, this world has its own set of stars. Vanessa Beeley, a 57- year-old former waste management consultant who believes that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were faked and that “Zionists rule France”, is among the most prominent. Her dubious work on the White Helmets, boosted by RT and the official Twitter feed of the Russian Foreign Ministry, has led her to assert that the NGO should be considered a “legit target” for Assad’s bombing campaign.

While Beeley toils in the field — with the co-operation of the Syrian government — a group of British academics and former academics follow the same track from their desks. In May 2019, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and the Media published a document that claimed the Douma chemical attack was a staged event, for which at least 35 civilians were killed to provide human props. “It follows from this,” they argued, “that people dressed as White Helmets and endorsed by the leadership of that organization had a key role in this murder.” There is no evidence for this.

The authors of the report are Piers Robinson (who left Sheffield University after promoting 9/11 conspiracy theories), David Miller (currently under investigation by Bristol University for his remarks about its Jewish students’ society) and Paul McKeigue (an epidemiologist who teaches at Edinburgh University.) None of these people is really a hoaxer. They don’t mean to be liars. Like Beeley, they believe that they are exposing the deceptions of others. But their work does not expand knowledge: it corrodes it. Their pronouncements, published on their blogs, relayed by Russian and Syrian state media, and echoed and re-echoed on conspiracy websites that fail to meet the most basic journalistic standards, and create territories of doubt in which authoritarians can rest easy. New Formosas, founded on a gas-choked ruin in Douma.

But there is, in all this moral awfulness, a little whisper of 18th-century wit. Conspiracy theorists with exotic ideas about the White Helmets are also sceptical about the activities of other bodies investigating war crimes in Syria, including the San Francisco-based Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). Paul McKeigue is one of those sceptics. Last year he received an email from a man who proposed to help him dig for dirt on its employees. His contact claimed to be a Russian secret agent called Ivan. They corresponded for three months, during which time McKeigue sent Ivan hundreds of pages of speculation about spies in the British media, revealed the identity of a confidential source, and suggested that members of his own Working Group were exchanging encrypted messages with a Russian diplomat in Geneva.

In the context of Russian espionage, Ivan might seem as preposterous a name as Gnotoy Bonzo. But McKeigue went on pressing send until his correspondent revealed his true nature — a fictional persona created by Nerma Jelacic, a former Observer journalist, and her colleagues at the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, who were investigating the workings of pro-Assad disinformation campaigns in the west.

Eighteenth-century commentators, notes Keable, believed themselves to be living through an age of unique gullibility. In this, at least, they were mistaken.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.