Fake news, active measures, Twitter bots: Not since the 1980s have espionage and disinformation so captivated our collective mind. Many have looked back to the Cold War to understand the implications of these phenomena. After all, Russia, America’s Cold War nemesis, is considered the primary culprit in today’s most controversial disinformation campaigns.
Yet our media landscape, the breeding and feeding ground of questionable information, also has many similarities to the 18th century. The information wars of this earlier period not only provide perspective — they also provide a solution to the political divisions that disinformation campaigns seek to exploit: the need for renewed emphasis on education and a return to dispassionate behavior in the public square.
In the world of the smartphone and Internet-fueled connectivity, it is hard to imagine that printed media such as pamphlets and newspapers were once mankind’s fastest method to disseminate written information. But during the 1500s in Europe, the pamphlet became the preferred method to quickly influence public opinion and spark transformative historical events.
Martin Luther was one of the first to use pamphlets as an effective political weapon in his fight against the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s satirical pamphlet “Die Lügend von S. Johanne Chryosostomo,” for example, mocked Catholic hagiography in an attempt to undermine official Church orthodoxy. Protestant pamphlets such as these, written in the vernacular German to reach as many people as possible, probably numbered in the millions by the time the Reformation had gained full steam.
But it was in the 18th century that pamphlets reached their peak political influence. By then, pamphlets had become so central to shaping public opinion that they were frequently used by political actors in secret information wars against their enemies. During the American Revolution, for example, both the British government and the American revolutionaries secretly employed spies and other “agents” in the Dutch Republic to sway Dutch public opinion about the American revolutionary cause. Both sides hoped to gain political support and, perhaps more important, the benefits of the Dutch commercial and financial enterprises. The relatively uncensored printing press and the widespread literacy in the Netherlands made pamphlets particularly effective tools.
But it went further. In their quest for Dutch support, both the Americans and the British exploited the deep political polarization in Dutch society through the creation of inflammatory material about the revolutionary struggle. Biased accounts of the war in America and inflammatory pamphlets, such as Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” were sent to the Netherlands and translated to stir up pro- and anti-British sentiments.
Homegrown pamphlets likewise shaped the information war in the Netherlands. Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, a pro-American polemicist in the Netherlands, unleashed a pamphlet war against the British government’s request for Dutch forces to fight the American colonists. Van der Capellen’s pamphlets not only successfully prevented the British from deploying these troops in America, but also polarized Dutch society along pro- and anti-American lines.
These kinds of polemical publications heightened the already existing polarization in Dutch society and laid the foundation for the Dutch Patriot Revolution during the 1780s. The faction of the Stadtholder, a quasi-monarchical position in the Dutch Republic, was supported largely by the people in the countryside who overwhelmingly favored an alliance with Britain and a large land army to guard against the threat of French invasions. In contrast, the merchant faction in the west of the Republic despised the Stadtholder’s monarchical pretensions and British naval dominance, in part because their businesses suffered from Britain’s navigation laws. Though originally unrelated to the American Revolution, these factions were perfectly aligned with the divisions in the American conflict, allowing them to be exploited by both the British and the Americans for their benefit.
Much like our 18th-century predecessors, we live in a world in which we consume increasingly opinionated news through matured technologies, making our media prime targets to exploit for nefarious ends. Today, competing social media and cable news channels thrive on “news” that aims to please their audience politically, driving viewership and blurring the distinction between opinion journalism and news reporting. Pundits and Twitter influencers eagerly spread the latest outrage that satisfies their politically biased audience, a trend that has trickled down into mainstream journalism. In our society of gluttonous punditry and divisive politics, it is not surprising that disinformation can spread so easily.
Given that these media trends are not likely to be reversed anytime soon, how do we defend ourselves against disinformation that undermines our faith in our political system, the press and the search for truth more broadly?
Political revolutionaries in the 18th century had insights on how to defend against disinformation. Rather than advocating for censorship, they doubled down on the importance of the free press, a freedom that they had so successfully leveraged against Britain during the Revolution. Unlike authoritarian systems, which favor control over information by the state, every individual in a liberal democracy possesses the tools to counter disinformation. Even the Founders, who rarely shied away from participating in the information wars of their age, believed a free press was essential to keep the republic they created.
In addition, the Founders also stressed the importance of institutions that would create a resilient and well-informed citizenry, imbued with a healthy skepticism toward the information they consume. Figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were responsible for creating important institutions of reason and learning, such as the University of Pennsylvania and University of Virginia, precisely for the purpose of educating America’s citizens.
Inspired by this, the humanities can play a critical role in creating a modern disinformation vaccine. Schools, colleges and universities should spend more time educating future generations on the complexity of society and the various ideas and interests that shape the information we consume. As Thomas Jefferson put it, if the people are “not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
These are the lessons we need to remember today. As in the 18th century, there are invisible forces that try to incite our passions, whether that is for geopolitical gain, ad income or even something as innocent as seeking our votes. If we want to keep the free society most of us cherish, it is our responsibility to be reasonable and not rush to judgment, to consume news from multiple perspectives and be open to changing our minds every now and then. If we don’t, the makers of disinformation and “fake news” will easily abuse our passions for their benefit, and we will allow them to undermine the free society we have painstakingly built over the past few centuries.