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The Cold War's Global Legacy of Misinformation

...Nor is misinformation merely a domestic problem. As the recently released Mueller report reminded the public, the spread of misinformation has been actively supported and sponsored by other countries, most notably Russia. Commentators and historians alike have warned that Russia’s nefarious efforts—in the United States and elsewhere—could bring about democratic collapse. In his recent bestseller The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018), historian Timothy Snyder claimed that Russia’s cyberattacks took advantage of American freedoms, threatening it in ways that it could never hope to do through military, economic, or diplomatic means.

This deep apprehension about the consequences of misinformation and foreign subversion can make it easy to forget that such fears are not new. Instead, they fundamentally shaped American politics, foreign policy, and understandings of democracy in the early Cold War. When American commentators and politicians warned about the threat of communism in the 1940s and 1950s, they did not simply fear the Soviet Union’s military power or the expansion of communism in Europe and Asia. They were also convinced that Communists had launched a campaign of propaganda and misinformation that sought to destroy democratic societies from within. In a predecessor to contemporary commentary, anti-Communists warned that democracy’s emphasis on rights and liberties—in particular, freedom of speech, a free press, and elections premised on the popular vote—was also its key weakness. Communists could use the principles of open debate to infiltrate democratic regimes, spread lies and propaganda, and lead the people to choose their own enslavement. Indeed, this was perhaps the scariest component of the Communist threat. What communism could not achieve through military might, it would instead accomplish through informational subversion.

This line of thinking both emerged from and bolstered a belief that democracy was not simply a political system. It was also a psychological state, what one American policymaker called a “state of mind.” Sustaining a democratic system therefore required forging a democratic consciousness. Commentators, authors, and policymakers claimed that the triumph over communism required constant spiritual and intellectual mobilization, which would reinforce Americans’ commitment to ill-defined democratic “values” and encourage them to vigilantly distinguish between healthy, “correct” ideas and harmful, “false” ones.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History