How the Confederacy Invented Fake News

The American Civil War was a conflict of many firsts. Those innovations included the first use of Fake News or propaganda and disinformation to influence political events in another nation.

Strangely, it was the Confederacy, which was supposedly fighting to end Northern interference that began such meddling. The target of the Confederate disinformation campaign was the most powerful entity on Earth – the British Empire.

In the 1860s, Britain was the only nation with the military and industrial power to intervene in the American Civil War. There was also a strong incentive for British intervention.

King Cotton

In the mid-19th Century, textiles made from cotton were the basis of Britain’s economy and wealth. Textile exports generated the revenue that paid for the Empire and the Industrial Revolution.

Moreover, millions of British families depended on textile workers’ wages for survival. Similarly, Britain’s upper class relied on textile mill investments for their wealth. The Southern hope was that Her Majesty’s government facing economic collapse, mass unemployment, and civil unrest would enter the war on their side.

Many Confederate leaders; including President Jefferson Davis (D-Mississippi), thought the need for cotton would bring Britain into the war on their side. Some Confederates were not so sure so they launched a covert effort to bring Britain into the war on their side.

The Confederacy’s Secret War

On 5 October 1862, an important event in the history of warfare and media occurred. A man named Henry Hotze arrived in London.

The Swiss-born Hotze was a former newspaper editor who had been a clerk in the Confederate government and a diplomat for the US State Department. The Confederate War Department sent Hotze to England to spy and buy munitions.

In London, Hotze realized that the popular Confederate assessment of British public opinion was wrong. Most of Queen Victoria’s subjects were against intervention in the American Civil War. Even those Britons sympathetic to the Confederacy were reluctant to intervene.

British Public Opinion

The reasons for the reluctance were several. Most Britons were against slavery and proud of the Empire’s ban on slavery in 1833. Helping the Confederacy defend and expand slavery was a betrayal of that ideal.

Moreover, Britain had just been through two bloody wars. The Crimean War and the Indian War of Independence or Great Mutiny. Consequently, few Britons were ready for another round of combat.

In addition, much of Her Majesty’s Army was tied down in India where the East India Company’s Sepoy Army had proven a threat to the Empire. Plus, the British Army itself was in sorry shape. Its performance in the Crimea had been poor and glaring deficiencies particularly in supply and the officers corps’ had come to light.

Additionally, British intervention on the Confederate side could have set a dangerous precedent for the Empire. Other European powers had not intervened in India on the side of mutineers even though they were supposedly fighting for India’s legal “Emperor” and official ruler Bahadur Shah II.

British interference in American affairs could have provided a pretext for Union or Russian aid to anti-British rebels in India or Ireland in retaliation. It was in the interest of an imperial power such as Great Britain, not to help any rebels anywhere.

Finally, many Britons thought the real solution for the cotton problem was to grow their own. Why send British soldiers to die for slavery in America, when Britain owned cotton fields in India?

Against that backdrop, Confederate agents such as Hotze found intervention an unexpectedly hard sell. However, they were not about to give up and their efforts led to the first media disinformation campaign directed by a government against another nation’s people.

Hotze’s Secret War

Hotze returned to Richmond and explained the British situation to Confederate leaders.

Hotze believed that Confederate propaganda had to be about more than cotton. To explain, Hotze thought the Confederacy needed to convince the British public and leaders of the righteousness of their cause.

The Confederates needed to make a moral case for invention and present it to the British people. In addition, Hotze felt there was a widespread anti-American sentiment in the United Kingdom he could use.

Hotze succeeded in convincing Confederate leaders to give him $750 (presumably in US currency because Confederate money was worthless). The leaders appointed Hotze an agent whose mission was to influence British public opinion to supporting the Confederacy.

Thus, Hotze became of the first agents of influence. An agent of influence is a covert operator whose mission is to influence public opinion and political decisions. An agent of influence’s weapons are money and propaganda. Hotze was one of the first agents of influence to masquerade as a journalist.

Corrupting the Press

Hotze returned to the UK where he planned a three-pronged assault on British public opinion.

First, Hotze paid journalists to write pro-Confederate articles and wrote propaganda of his own. Hotze’s articles appeared in some of Britain’s biggest newspapers including The Morning Post, The London Standard, and The Herald.

Hotze found that getting published was easy because journalistic ethics were in their infancy in the 1860s. Many editors were willing to publish anything in exchange for a bribe and even top journalists had no qualms about writing propaganda for money and passing it off as “news.”

Second, Hotze founded his a newspaper The Index. The sole purpose of The Index was to spread pro-Confederate propaganda. Unlike, its pro-Union competitor The London American, The Index tried to hide its true nature.*

Third, Hotze tried to influence politics by working with members of the British parliament. Hotze helped Lord Campbell, a British nobleman, write a speech attacking the Union blockade of Confederate ports. Campbell delivered the speech in the House of Lords.

Hotze’s tactics were not new. Americans had been using similar methods in political campaigns since the early 1800s. However, Hotze’s efforts marked the first time a government agent used such methods to corrupt and influence another country’s political process.

Hotze’s efforts collapsed after the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery the central issue of the Civil War. Although he continued with political activity such as organizing mass meetings in textile-producing cities such as Manchester. His efforts failed after the House of Commons rejected a resolution to recognize the Confederacy on 13 July 1863.

Information Warfare

After his efforts in Britain failed, Hotze made an early effort at information warfare. Hotze’s attack was directed at French public opinion.

Hotze analyzed the Havas Agency a press organization that distributed news to French newspapers. Hotze convinced the agency’s head, Auguste Havas that he could supply “exclusive news.”

The news was exclusive because Hotze wrote it. In other words, Hotze was spreading fake news designed to turn the French public against the Union.

Hotze was hoping to force French Emperor Napoleon III who had already invaded Mexico to send his armies north to help the Confederacy. Fortunately, Napoleon III, ignored Hotze’s fake news and the French confined their meddling to Mexico.

Hotze made similar efforts to spread fake news in Ireland and Germany. However, he found himself competing with better-financed Union agents who could pay more for journalists’ services.

The Effects

After the Civil War, a disillusioned Hotze stayed in Europe where he worked as a journalist and a business executive. Hotze died in his hometown of Zieg, Switzerland, in 1887.

Hotze’s methods lived on. During World War I, the British government launched an enormous, sophisticated, and well-financed effort to influence American public opinion. That effort included fake news, propaganda, and the promotion of anti-German bigotry. The British effort paid off when the United States Congress declared war on the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in 1917.

Since World War I, many governments have engaged in similar disinformation campaigns. In particular, the Soviet Union bribed and tricked journalists into spreading propaganda and financed Communist newspapers such as The Daily Worker in the United States. In other words, the self-proclaimed promoters of global revolution were using tactics developed by the defenders of slavery.

During the Cold War, the US government adopted similar tactics. Financing anti-Communist media outlets, anti-Communist journalists, and intellectuals. More recently, the Russians have engaged in information warfare through social media by weaponizing Facebook Posts.

The Confederacy is long gone but information warfare, propaganda, and fake news live on. I guess fake news is now a permanent part of warfare and will remain so.

The Lesson we can learn from the Confederacy’s Fake News is not to trust the media in times of conflict. Whenever you see news that takes one side in a conflict get suspicions, there is a strong possibility somebody paid for that “news.”  

For a brief overview of Hotze’s activities and British propaganda during World War I see The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq by Philip Knightley page 34.