“False Flag”: flying colors designed for deception

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Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origin of words in the news. Read previous columns here.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of numerous “false flag attacks”, most recently concerning explosions in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. Western observers have supported these claims, with the American Institute for the Study of War concluding that “Russian forces likely carried out a false flag attack in Transnistria…to amplify Russian claims of anti-Russian sentiment in Moldova. “.

Russia, meanwhile, has leveled its own accusations against Ukraine of “false flag operations”, which Mr Zelensky says are a projection of Moscow’s own intentions. “If you want to know what Russia’s plans are,” he said, “look at what Russia is accusing others of.”

The earliest recorded uses of the “false flag” refer not to the actual ensigns displayed on ships, but to more figurative emblems.

In military and political contexts, a “false flag” action is carried out in order to hide one’s own responsibility and shift blame to another party. Such a ruse can serve as a pretext for going to war, when an attack is mounted on his side and then blamed on an enemy.

The phrase “false flag” originated in the 16th century to describe intentionally misrepresenting one’s motives. A common story is that the phrase originated on the high seas, where pirate ships would disguise themselves by displaying a country’s national colors before launching sneak attacks on approaching ships.

It’s a colorful tale (literally), but while pirates probably engaged in the practice, the earliest recorded uses of “false flag” refer not to the actual ensigns flown on ships, but to more figurative emblems. . The first example noted in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a tract from 1569 in which the English writer Thomas Norton railed against an uprising of Catholic nobles opposed to Queen Elizabeth I. In an extended metaphor on “notable pirates which display “the flags of all princes and countries”, Norton accused a bishop of hanging “a false flag of religion”.

Likewise, in a spiritual essay of 1648, Walter Montagu denounces those who deceitfully display “the colors of love and sincerity, while all outward courtesies and correspondence are but presented as false flags, by which the enemy can be approached with greater security.” And in a 1688 sermon, George Halley portrayed Catholicism as “a religion which acts under disguise and masquerade, frequently changes colors and unfurls a false flag to conceal the pirate.”

Fast forward a few centuries, and the “false flag” had planted itself in the world of espionage. A 1966 New York Times article on an African spy ring explained: “‘False flag’ agents are hired in the belief that they are spying on behalf of country A when in fact their employer is the country B. In the 1979 spy thriller “False Flags” by Noel Hynd, a character says that a “false flag job” is when “someone is made to look like they’re working for one country when in reality he is employed by another”.

Conspiracy theorists have often resorted to false flag speech, such as when the so-called “truthful” claimed that the September 11, 2001 attacks were actually false flag operations carried out by the United States or Israel. As Merrill Perlman observed in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018, conspiratorial “false flag” accusations have exploded since 9/11, particularly on the far right.

In recent years, the “false flag” has proven to be a useful term in the field of information security, to refer to misleading evidence that deflects responsibility for cyberattacks. As Brianne Hughes, author of the Cybersecurity Style Guide, wrote in the latest issue of American Speech magazine, false banners can “steer investigators away from the real attackers and distract them from themselves” and are “intended to take time and cast doubt on the ability to confidently attribute an attack to anyone. Information-age hackers deceive with computer code, not colored pieces of cloth.

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