How the term ‘false flag’ migrated to the right

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We’ve been hearing a lot lately about “false flags,” where attacks supposedly committed by one group make it appear that another group committed them. “False flags” are (usually) far-fetched conspiracy theories launched by far-left or far-right groups seeking to deflect blame to the opposition.

Many commentators trace the use of “false flags” to pirates, who would fly the flag of a target ship until they got close enough to attack, at which time they would raise the skull and crossbones, too late for the target ship to escape.

But the history of “false flags” goes deeper, and more mainstream. Under maritime law, it was perfectly legal for one ship to fly a “false flag” to chase an enemy ship or to try to escape, though “it is universally agreed that immediately before an attack a vessel must fly her national flag,” as a 1914 law journal article said. While US maritime law prohibited the use of “false flags,” there is some evidence that it has made use of “false flags,” on the sea and elsewhere. For example, many people still insist that the explosion that destroyed the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 was a “false flag operation” to give the United States a pretext for the Spanish-American War.

While “false flag operations” have probably existed for centuries, their appearances in dictionaries is limited. The Oxford English Dictionary traces “false flag” to 1569, though its first citation is a figurative use: “a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives; something used deliberately to misrepresent in this way.”

Its first citation of the maritime meaning, “A flag used to disguise a ship by misrepresenting its nationality, allegiance, intent, etc.,” is from 1824, though it was in use much earlier.

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In 1982, the OED says, “false flag” was first used in an attributive sense, a noun modifying another noun, thus becoming an adjective, as in “false flag operation.” The OED definition for that is “An event or action (typically political or military in nature) secretly orchestrated by someone other than the person or organization that appears to be responsible for it,” closer to the way it’s frequently used today.

And the person to first use it that way was a journalist, according to the OED.

Robert Moss, described as “an internationally syndicated columnist with the London Daily Telegraph and a recognized world authority on terrorism and espionage,” testified before a Senate subcommittee on security and terrorism on the “Role of Moscow and Its Subcontractors.” Moss described international events such as the reported Soviet-directed manufacturing of weapons to make them appear as if they were from Western nations, so that the West would be blamed for terrorist activity. “This could all be viewed under the category of what the experts call false flag operations,” Moss said. “In other words, carrying out a covert operation under the flag or the label of a different country or a different interest from what you really represent.” (Emphasis added.)

We found an earlier, 1980, reference to the attributive “false flag” in The New York Times Magazine, in an article discussing Soviet moles: “Some were enlisted under ‘false flag’’ arrangements in which, for example, former Nazis were recruited by a KGB front that pretended to be a secret Nazi conspiracy.” (Emphasis added)

“False flags,” attributive or not, lived generally in the realm of spies or international relations until September 11, 2001, when conspiracy theories arose that Israel or the United States was behind what were termed “false flag attacks.”

From there, the term “false flag” seemed to migrate to the right. A 2010 letter to the editor in The Reno Gazette-Journal contended that the so-called underwear bomber was, at best, “a complete fall-down of America’s bloated national security state. At worst, it was a patently false-flag operation. It happened on Janet Napolitano’s watch, and it should be an issue when her boss is up for re-election in 2012.” (“Her boss” would be Barack Obama, in case you’ve forgotten.)

Domestic “false flags” stayed mostly in letters to the editor and opinion columns, though their appearances increased dramatically. In 2011, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported that a Republican activist in Indiana, who also happened to be a deputy prosecutor, sent an email to Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who was engaged in a pitched battle against unions. “It suggested that the situation in Wisconsin presented ‘a good opportunity for what’s called a false flag” operation,’” the report said, quoting the email. “If you could employ an associate who pretends to be sympathetic to the unions’ cause to physically attack you (or even use a firearm against you), you could discredit the unions.”

And the floodgates opened. Citations for “false flags” in Nexis jumped dramatically in this decade, even though extremist sites like Infowars and social media are not catalogued there.

Today, “false flags” (nonattributive) and “false flag operations/conspiracy theories” (attributive) seem about equally divided in Nexis citations, with most mainstream sites preferring “conspiracy theories” to describe “false flags.”

The real danger is if we use the nonattributive “false flags” as shorthand for conspiracy theories, without explaining what they are and who is promoting them. Or if the people yelling that any attack attributed to someone on “their side” was committed by “the other side” drown out the voices of reason.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.