false flag

[ fawls-flag ]
/ ˈfɔls ˈflæg /

noun

an attack or other hostile action that obscures the identity of the participants carrying out the action while implicating another group or nation as the perpetrator (often used attributively): Evidence suggests that the covert operation was a false flag.The false flag terrorist attack lured the military into a hasty response.
a misrepresentation of affiliation or motivation or a false equivalence deliberately put forth to manipulate the context, perception, or frame of an action, object, or argument (often used attributively): Public schools are losing tax dollars to private schools under the false flag of school vouchers expanding parental choice.
a flag flown to disguise the nationality or affiliation of a vessel, vehicle, or base of operations: Surviving sailors reported that the privateer was flying a false flag on approach and attacked as soon as cannons were in range.

Origin of false flag

First recorded in 1560–70
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

ABOUT THIS WORD

What is a false flag?

A false flag is intentional misrepresentation, especially a covert political or military operation carried out to appear as if it was undertaken by another party.

Where does false flag come from?

The term false flag first appeared in the 16th century as a metaphor for an intentional misrepresentation of one’s motives. The idea draws on military flags flown to signal one’s allegiances, with a false flag thus misdirecting an opponent.

In the 1800s, actual false flags were flown in naval operations. Officers or pirates would fly the flag of their enemy to approach them slowly without trouble, only to switch back to their true colors in an attack. It wasn’t long before the cannons fired.

In the late 20th century, false flags persisted as a metaphor for when perpetrators make it look like another group initiated the attack. In contemporary contexts, it’s more likely to be terrorists, militants, political operatives, or governments engaging in false flagging, or carrying out false flag operations. Notable false flag operations in history include the Gleiwitz incident during World War II and the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the Vietnam War.

False flag came into the public spotlight in October 2018 when pipe bombs were mailed to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Some right-wing observers claimed, with no supporting evidence, that these pipe bombs were false flags, sent by liberals but made to look like a conservative carried it out in order to drum up outrage ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

How is false flag used in real life?

The term false flag is frequently raised in news reporting on major geopolitical incidents. In 2016, for instance, a journalist for the BBC reported that some speculated Turkey’s 2016 military coup could be a false flag, stating of the attempted coup: “One theory suggests it was a ‘false flag’ event staged by President Erdogan to gain more power, but common sense dictates the event went too far to be a false flag.”

False flag is also used by conspiracy theorists who allege that such incidents are in fact “inside jobs,” including 9/11 and the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting.

More examples of false flag:

“‘False Flag’ Theory on Pipe Bombs Zooms From Right-Wing Fringe to Mainstream”
—Kevin Roose, New York Times (headline), October 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.