Kellyanne Conway may have created a new term when she said that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had only presented "alternative facts", but she didn't create the concept. Alternative facts have been used throughout history, but when you see them come up in history class, your teacher generally refers to them as outright lies. They come up fairly frequently; after all, they are a common and powerful propaganda technique.
Here's how it works: first, the government sets a precedent of lying to the press. Some people believe the government and some believe the press, assuming that they report what is actually correct. This creates an even deeper divide within society — the people who take what the government is saying at face value, and the people who are willing to question it. Finally, when there are two different versions of "the facts" available, some segment of the population will begin to believe that there are simple things that are "unknowable." Facts become suggestions. And once you've reached that point, the press' facts are, in many cases, no better than the governments "alternative facts."
If it sounds like the country is standing on shaky ground right now, well, it is. Numerous unsavory regimes in history have used this strategy to great effect, particularly in the 20th century. Here's a look through some examples of that, just so you recognize exactly how dangerous this is — and how imperative it is to fight against it at all opportunities.
It behooved the Soviet government for Joseph Stalin to have a full crowd behind him — so they used the photoshop technology available to them in the 1930s to fill out the crowd. As you see, though, a closer look reveals that some of the workers' faces have been copied. Donald Trump's team hasn't yet resorted to photoshopping images, but Spicer essentially did the same thing using words at his press conference.
Wiping History Clear Of Problematic People
Communist governments across the world were notorious for their use of history as propaganda. The suited man in the middle of the photograph above is Klement Gottwald, the first communist president of Czechoslovakia. On the day when he took power, he gave a speech standing next to the man who would become his government's first foreign minister, Vladimír Clementis, and of course someone took a photo to commemorate the event. Clementis, however, soon went on to become the victim of one of the regime's show trials — which meant that he was charged with participating in a conspiracy against the regime, and then executed for this made-up crime. After Clementis had become a class enemy, Gottwald could never have stood next to him — so they doctored the photo. Poof! Alternative fact: Clementis was never there, even though you can still see his hat.
Hitler's Propaganda Strategy
I'm sorry to jump so quickly to Hitler, but here is the section of his autobiography Mein Kampf where he describes his approach to propaganda and how it should be used:
Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favourable to the other side, present it according to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favourable to its own side. (...) The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. (...) Every change that is made in the subject of a propagandist message must always emphasize the same conclusion. The leading slogan must of course be illustrated in many ways and from several angles, but in the end one must always return to the assertion of the same formula.
A bit long, but worth reading just to grasp the eery similarities between the techniques he employed and Conway's strategy now.
Soviet Propaganda Posters
Soviet propaganda posters often depicted Soviet agriculture as leading the way, because, of course, the draw of communism lay in its ability to create a better functioning society than capitalism could. However, in reality Soviet agriculture was less productive than that of other, non-communist countries. The government repeated the alternative facts, even as people experienced constant shortages of food and other products.
Anti-Semitic Nazi Propaganda
The Nazis needed their scapegoat, the Jewish people, to be a powerful enemy — so they built up the country's anti-Semitism through propaganda. The lies they told ranged from the political (Bolshevism and Judaism were one and the same) to the religious (Jews need the blood of Christian children for religious ceremonies) to the biological (Jews are subhuman). Any of those stated "facts" are easily proven wrong, but the Nazis depended on their being at least partially believed. These led to an increase in anti-Semitic acts across the country — like a larger scale version of the guy who shot a doctor who provided abortions.
Spinning The Truth About Slavery
The U.S. hasn't been without its alternative fact issues even before Conway trotted out the term over the weekend. People rely on multiple misconceptions about slavery in order to assuage the feeling of collective guilt now, for example that African societies enslaved each other, so really it wasn't all that bad. During the time of slavery, white people were convinced that a slave should be looked at in terms of monetary value — a terrible and damaging lie that still has repercussions today. Anyone else notice how loud the white supremacists have gotten lately?
ISIS Erasing Syria's History
The ancient Syrian city of Palmyra no longer exists in the form that it did for almost two millennia, because ISIS couldn't square with the fact that it had once played host to alternative religious traditions. How do you get rid of that history? You blow up world heritage sites that happen to have been temples. ISIS, like all of the regimes before it, will never succeed in actually changing history, but they are certainly having a go at changing the appearance of it.
To be fair, many of these are extreme examples about the usage of alternative facts — but where do you draw the line? When does a lie about crowd size turn into a lie that tears the country apart? Donald Trump spent his whole campaign lying, and now he and his staff have started his presidency the same way. Luckily, the U.S. has a strong and free press — and it is absolutely imperative that it continues to hound him about each one of his "alternative facts." You never know when one might turn dangerous.