In his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the bestselling author turns his attention to the problems we face today. Here, he argues that ‘fake news’ is much older than Facebook
We are repeatedly told these days that we are living in a new and frightening era of “post-truth”, and that lies and fictions are all around us. Examples are not hard to come by. Thus, in late February 2014, Russian special units bearing no army insignia invaded Ukraine and occupied key installations in Crimea. The Russian government and President Vladimir Putin in person repeatedly denied that these were Russian troops, and described them as spontaneous “self-defence groups” that may have acquired Russian-looking equipment from local shops. As they voiced this rather preposterous claim, Putin and his aides knew perfectly well that they were lying.
Russian nationalists can excuse this lie by arguing that it served a higher truth. Russia was engaged in a just war, and if it is OK to kill for a just cause, surely it is also OK to lie? The higher cause that allegedly justified the invasion of Ukraine was the preservation of the sacred Russian nation. According to Russian national myths, Russia is a sacred entity that has endured for a thousand years despite repeated attempts by vicious enemies to invade and dismember it. Following the Mongols, the Poles, the Swedes, Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht, in the 1990s it was Nato, the US and the EU that attempted to destroy Russia by detaching parts of its body and forming them into “fake countries” such as Ukraine. For many Russian nationalists, the idea that Ukraine is a separate nation from Russia constitutes a far bigger lie than anything uttered by President Putin during his holy mission to reintegrate the Russian nation.
False stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people
Humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time trying to control the world than trying to understand it