James Smith finds disturbing echoes of a British wartime disinformation campaign in recent White House press conferences
In August 1941, British propagandists devised a sequence of disinformation rumours (known as ‘sibs’) for dissemination in Germany, with the aim of spreading “the fear of disease coming from the east, with the threefold intention of upsetting morale, of doing physical harm by the specious remedies suggested, and of making people use essential materials.”
The quotation is taken from sib ‘R/267, Germany, 22 August 1941’, and can be found in the searchable Sibnet database compiled by the historian Lee Richards, using the archives of the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), Special Operations Executive, Joint Intelligence Committee, Foreign Office and Cabinet Office: you can find it here on his invaluable online resource psywar.org.
The word ‘sib’ derives from the Latin ‘sibillare’, meaning to hiss or whisper – Sibs were rumours invented and disseminated by the PWE with the aim of deceiving the enemy, of undermining enemy morale, or of damaging perceptions of the enemy (read more about sibs here).
A remarkable example from this August 1941 sequence is ‘R/268’, which aimed to spread the lie that
The best way to keep off typhus is to take regular doses of quinine.
Quinine, of course, was a safe and effective anti-malarial drug but was ineffective (although sometimes promoted in the nineteenth century) against typhus – an often-fatal disease which saw significant outbreaks during the war. Promoting quinine’s use in this way not only increased the potential spread and fear of typhus, but also encouraged the diversion of quinine supplies away from treating malaria in other theatres of war.
It is difficult to overlook the parallels between the quinine rumour and the current high-profile advocacy by US President Donald Trump for hydroxychloroquine, another anti-malarial drug, touted and being tested as a potential coronavirus cure but which – to this point – has ‘not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19’.
The PWE used sibs of this kind to damage the war efforts of an enemy population. But to what extent, we might well ask, have Trump’s press conferences during the Covid-19 crisis unwittingly achieved these disinformation objectives against his own citizens?