Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, "Fake News"

Fake news seems to be everywhere. The President of the United States calls the work of the mainstream media “fake news.” Mainstream media such as the New York Times have reported extensively on the hundreds of thousands of fake Twitter accounts that flooded the public with anti-Clinton messages during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and posts that comment on current controversies “by simultaneously sending conflicting messages to different users segmented by political and racial characteristics.”  Even Pope Francis is concerned, announcing this month that the 2018 World Day of Social Communications will focus on fake news, as will his January message. In making the announcement, the Vatican said it “wishes to offer a contribution” to the discussion of fake news, “proposing a reflection on the causes, the logic and the consequences of disinformation in the media, and helping to promote professional journalism, which always seeks the truth, and therefore a journalism of peace that promotes understanding between people.”


Of course, fake news and fake messages, ranging from satire to propaganda to outright lies, have been with us for a very long time. The 1905 publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purported to show a Jewish plan for world domination, is a hideous example that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum calls “an important part in the Nazis' propaganda arsenal.”  But the ease with which fake news can be produced and the speed with which it can be spread today make it enormously troubling. Add to this two trends that appear to be growing and we have a particularly virulent climate.


First, we see efforts by a number of countries to reshape or ignore history. Here are a few:


*The 50th anniversary of the 1965-1966 Indonesian state-sponsored purges of those suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers not only was not commemorated solemnly, but, according to Reuters, “a mob opposed to public discussion of Indonesia's 1965 massacre of communists tried to force its way into a Jakarta building where they believed communists were meeting, injuring five policemen.” Twenty-two people were arrested.  “The Indonesian government and its powerful military and security forces have failed to confront the darkest chapter . . and in fact continue to actively suppress public discourse about the massacres,” the New York Times wrote in the wake of the mob attack.


*A legal scholar who examined two Chinese digital platforms “found that two of China’s main online database for scholarly articles had removed dozens of articles” from the 1950s that “questioned the Communist party’s commitment to the rule of law at the time,” the Financial Times reported.


*A long-time student of Russia reported that the current Russian government “has selected particular events to which it has given a meaning very different” from that of the archival record. Officials in the North Caucasus recently commemorated the “460th anniversary of the voluntary inclusion of the Kabards within Russia.” A Kabard activist points out that while in the 16th century the Russian and the Kabard entities concluded a treaty, the Kabards “later joined other Circassians in fighting the Russian military conquest of their land.” Writing in Eurasia Review, the scholar says that ultimately Russian citizens “will have to unpack and reject” these conflicting interpretations “if they are to have any hope that “they can coexist [with their neighbors] in a positive way in the future.”


*Forty years after the Vietnam War ended, the U.S. public is still arguing about whether the war was a “noble cause,” as former president Ronald Reagan said, or good for absolutely nothing and a tragic conflict for Southeast Asians and the U.S. and other non-Vietnamese who fought in it. A new television series on the war, generally praised by media critics, has drawn much sharper responses from historians of the war. (For a sample, see the “Members Forum” of the American Historical Association at


*And in Japan many peace museums “face difficulties, including insufficient storage space and staff, in accepting” donations of materials from World War II. A professor told the Japan Times, “Japan has yet to reach a public consensus on how we should view its role in the war, so we do not have a budget set aside for collecting war-related materials for public memorial museums.”


The second trend is even more ominous. Archives contain the records that can help counter these pernicious trends toward dissimulation and falsehoods about history. Access to archives has long been a major issue, but many people have advocated for freedom of information laws to overcome at least government barriers to archives. What is now happening—see the items on India and the United States below—is that people who seek information are attacked or forced into expensive litigation over the legitimacy of the request. 


While we resign ourselves to the fact that fake news will forever be with us, we must not resign ourselves to any interruption in access to the archives that provide the evidence to counter it. A 19th century U.S. president said, “Government resting upon the will and universal suffrage of the people has no anchorage except in the people’s intelligence.” Archives provide the material—the heavy iron—for the anchor for the people.