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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 enhancing the “free flow of information” by developing satellites that could broadcast directly into individual households all over the world. To Washington, a global media system dominated by the United States seemed like a positive development, both for U.S. interests and for democracy writ large. Outside of the United States, however, the prospect of unrestricted broadcasting, disseminated through a technology controlled by a foreign power, did less to inspire paeans to freedom than to set off diplomatic alarm bells.

More than half a century later, we live in a world shaped by U.S. policies dedicated to the free flow of information across international borders. The rise of the Internet, another technology incubated in the United States, put distant corners of the world in communication with one another. Many Americans still assume that the unobstructed traffic of information delivers freedom to all. As recently as 2011, the State Department celebrated the role of American tech companies like Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring protests.

But a darker side of this world has recently come into view. Russian interference in the 2016

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