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Mon Jul 19, 2021, 02:51 PM

Disinformation: It's History


ďThe Internet: An Unprecedented and Unparalleled Platform for Innovation and Change.Ē That was the title of a chapter published by the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2012. It echoes a commonly expressed sentiment. Back in 2012, most proclamations about the internet praised its unprecedented power. Just five years later, most proclamations about the internet criticized its unprecedented power. Commentators, analysts and policy makers worried that the internet, and social media platforms in particular, presented wholly new threats to democracy, global governance and the integrity of information.

There is a lot to question in the underlying assumption that the internet is unprecedented and unparalleled. That assumption makes it seem as if history is no longer a useful tool of analysis to guide future policies. But history is ubiquitous in our discussions around the internet and disinformation. While some discuss history by claiming that our current circumstances are unprecedented, assumptions about the history of disinformation are everywhere in policy making.

Policy makers in some countries deploy history quite often to guide their regulatory approaches. German policy makers refer frequently to the Nazi and Stasi pasts to justify their actions. Finnish policy makers invested early in media literacy because of long experiences with Russian and Soviet disinformation. Finally, itís a historical judgment to claim that something is unprecedented; often that turns out not to be true!

As a trained historian, I have spent much of the past decade studying earlier communications technologies, such as radio and telegraphy. And Iíve spent time briefing policy makers in multiple countries about different approaches to our present problems, including what we can learn from the past. Itís given me ample opportunity to consider the uses and abuses of history in addressing contemporary disinformation. And many historians engage in this type of work: in fact, there is a network in the United Kingdom, History & Policy, composed of more than 500 historians who offer their expertise to policy makers and journalists on myriad topics.


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