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The United States Made Information Free and Foreign Manipulation Possible

How Unrestricted Broadcasting Set the Stage for a Misinformation Overload

A 3D-printed Facebook logo displayed in front of an American flag, March 2018 Dado Ruvic / Reuters

 

“[False] reports can easily be propagated on an immense scale so as to confuse public opinion.”

Today the above sentence sounds like one ripped from a news story about the role of social media—or cyberwarfare—in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the statement predates the Internet, and the anxiety it voiced was not American but French. The encroaching information superpower that the French government feared was in fact the United States, which at that time—and for decades to follow—assertively promoted its own right of way in international media traffic.

Back in the 1960s, most countries outside the Western Hemisphere publicly operated their broadcasting systems. This arrangement gave national authorities in Europe, Asia, and Africa the power to shape what people heard and saw. The United States, however, had developed a technology with potentially global reach: satellite television. U.S. companies dominated early satellite technology and anticipated

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