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Fake News is Nothing New: Censorship in the First World War



Fake news is nothing new. 100 years ago, censorship restrictions in place during the First World War saw newspaper headlines portray disastrous battles like those at Gallipoli as decisive victories.

A new campaign from WW100 (First World War Centenary Programme) puts wartime censorship itself under the spotlight. The online campaign features a series of animated videos, essays and cartoons which investigate the impacts of censorship historically, as well as considering some of the issues which affect the free flow of information in New Zealand today.

Censorship was introduced in 1914, long before New Zealand troops fired their first shot. It imposed restrictions on the information which could be shared via newspapers, telegrams and even private letters. It was considered essential to the war effort.

Historian and archivist Jared Davidson says, “Censorship was designed to keep crucial information like troop movements from falling into enemy hands. But it was also used to conceal the war’s grim realities from those at home and as a tool to keep domestic dissent in check”.

“More than a million letters, postcards and packages were opened and examined during the war and news of military campaigns were heavily censored to portray the allied cause in the best possible light. It was illegal to screen any film that had not been approved by a government censor and in 1917, even the sale of invisible ink was banned.”

“As the fighting dragged on, war weariness and unrest grew on the home front. Foreign nationals, pacifist and dissenters increasingly found themselves under the watchful eye of the censors. By November 1918, 287 people had been charged or jailed for seditious or disloyal remarks,” says Davidson.

The WW100 campaign also contrasts First World War censorship with what’s happening in 2018 where issues like information overload, algorithms, social media silos and media law figure prominently in conversations about freedom of information and expression.

Opinion pieces by commentators including Massey University journalism lecturer James Hollings, RNZ Digital Editor Megan Whelan, cartoonist Sharon Murdoch and Henry Talbot from the Office of Film and Literature Classification, explore these and other issues.

WW100 Director Sarah Davies says, “This campaign is designed to help people gain a deeper understanding of the realities of life in the First World War. Looking at the issue of censorship in connection with things we see happening today, makes it that much more relevant”.



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