“[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 U.S. presidential election has forced Americans to grapple with the problem of information warfare, which not so long ago might have seemed like a relic of the Cold War era. Suddenly, the U.S. news media is awash in articles on cyberconflict and election security. Traditional platitudes about freedom of information have given way to the realization that information flows can be manipulated by governments and branches of state that are hostile to liberal-democratic values.

Authoritarian states, however, have not been the only force behind the rise of digital disinformation. Washington has for several decades promoted an antiregulatory vision of information freedom that now allows foreign pressure groups to manipulate what audiences in the United States read, watch, and share.

The Free-Flow Ideal

The United States first conceived of a policy supporting the free flow of information across international borders around the time of World War II. Then, influential Americans argued that a combination of political censorship and economic cartelization had enabled the rise of European dictators by isolating publics from international sources of information. Kent Cooper, head of the Associated Press and a longtime advocate for opening news markets, wrote in 1944: “Without news distortion the people of the aggressor countries could not have been deluded into supporting the acts of their governments.” A scarcity of international news, in other words, had made people susceptible to the propaganda of the extreme right. As the war dragged on, politicians, media producers, and policy intellectuals came to the consensus that after an Allied victory, Washington should play a robust role in ensuring information traffic across borders. If the free flow of information were “established and enforced,” Cooper explained, “there can never be another Goebbels.”

The free-flow ideal has guided U.S. foreign policy ever since. Washington pushed to include a strong freedom-of-information guarantee in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which announced a universal right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The same year, for the first time, information diplomacy was institutionalized in the U.S. government on a peacetime basis. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 authorized the government to distribute information abroad, which it did by continuing the Voice of America radio service it had begun during World War II, among other measures. In 1953, the government established the U.S. Information Agency, which promoted U.S. culture and policies abroad. Washington simultaneously pressed other countries to minimize trade regulations on newsprint and film.

The way to guarantee freedom against governmental abuses was to open the information spigot wider, not to filter out the bad stuff.

Over time, U.S. rhetoric came to emphasize the free flow of large volumes of information as a good in itself. On a state visit to China in 2009, Barack Obama made headlines for stating his belief that “the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world … can begin to think for themselves.” Reporting on this incident focused on the role of Chinese Internet censorship in tensions between Washington and Beijing. But the idea itself—that more information equals better information—is not a digital-age innovation. In a widely consulted 1964 book, Mass Media and National Development, the Stanford scholar Wilbur Schramm similarly asserted that the “greater and freer the flow of information, the less likely it is that manipulative communication will have any effect.” In essence, for both Obama and Schramm, the way to guarantee freedom against governmental abuses was to open the information spigot wider (and to build more spigots), not to filter out the bad stuff.

The point has never been merely academic. In the 1960s, such notions fueled far-flung American projects to spread midcentury “new media”—television and satellite broadcasting—to the postcolonial and developing worlds. Schramm advised policymakers as they introduced these new media across the globe, from El Salvador to India to American Samoa. Washington’s stated goal was to help link rural residents of the developing world to a wider community—much like Project Loon, started by Google, or Facebook’s controversial Free Basics service, both of which provide Internet access to underserved populations.

In the 1970s, U.S. tactics evolved, but the goal—ever freer information flows—remained the same. Washington was then in painful retreat from its war in Southeast Asia. Dollar devaluation and the energy crisis had crimped the U.S. budget. And so elites began to pursue free-flow policies through the private sector rather than through development cooperation with foreign governments. The rhetoric of the time reflected this convergence of public and private interests. In 1979, the MIT political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool wrote that it was in the “interest” of developing countries “to oppose all restrictions on the free flow of information. Copyright, security restrictions, and commercial restrictions… all check the progress of developing countries.” Deregulating the flow of information, in Pool’s view, was the best way to transfer the news and knowledge that these countries needed in order to modernize.

New Media and Sovereignty

The postwar idea that the free flow of information was an unmitigated good dovetailed with the United States’ domestic commitment to press freedom. The notion also reflected the belief that the global fight against totalitarianism required promoting liberal values internationally. But U.S. free-flow policies have long been controversial abroad.

Satellite communications prompted especially heated discussions in the 1960s and 1970s, as the technology began to advance. Early satellite systems beamed their signals to ground-based retransmitting stations. But newer satellites promised to transmit signals directly into homes. Known as direct-broadcast satellites, these systems would be able to circumvent national regulatory systems, a prospect that worried many governments.

France wanted to ban the technology outright, while Egypt suggested similar restrictions until an international treaty could be agreed upon. Sweden and Canada proposed developing direct broadcasting on a regional basis, in order to foster cooperation among neighboring countries. What all these countries shared was a belief in the validity of regulating international communications—an idea that Washington was starting to question. In a 1972 U.N. General Assembly vote, 102 countries agreed on the need to “elaborate principles governing” direct broadcasting “with a view to concluding an international agreement.” Supporters included such traditionally liberal U.S. allies as Britain and the Netherlands. The United States cast the only ballot against the declaration, framing its stance as a matter of upholding free-flow principles. “You don’t negotiate free speech,” Frank Stanton of CBS commented.

Thanks in part to forceful American opposition, direct broadcasting never became the subject of a legally binding U.N. convention.

Washington had other levers to pull. It put political and economic pressure on its allies to deregulate broadcasting and telecommunications, and it threatened to walk away from international organizations that supported regulation, such as UNESCO, from which the United States withdrew in 1984. Thanks in part to forceful American opposition, direct broadcasting never became the subject of a legally binding U.N. convention.

The intensity of the reaction to direct-broadcast satellites may seem strange in today’s world, where global connectivity is often heralded as an unambiguous blessing. But such anxieties were conditioned by experience. During the Cold War, Washington (and Moscow) often used media and communications to impinge on other states’ political sovereignty. In Italy’s 1948 national election, the Communist Party appeared to be running strong—until U.S. intelligence mounted a propaganda campaign to defeat it using film, radio, and print media, among other means. Washington’s efforts to suppress the Latin American left dovetailed with a long-standing project of hemispheric hegemony. The U.S. telecommunications firm International Telephone and Telegraph was implicated along with the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1973 military coup in Chile, which ousted democratically elected president Salvador Allende and installed Augusto Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship.

The list could go on and on. To observers outside the United States during the Cold War years, such incidents gave the lie to the U.S. pretense of spreading freedom and revealed the real motives behind U.S. foreign policy: dogmatic anticommunism and market access for U.S. corporations.

The Free-Flow Boomerang

The free-flow ideal was never politically neutral. To open a country’s media space to transnational information flows might protect its people from heavy-handed domestic censorship, but at the cost of leaving them more susceptible to outside manipulation and to the ideological headwinds sweeping the globe. The United States learned this lesson only recently, when foreign powers seeded their interests into the domestic debate before the 2016 presidential election.

Scholars of the Cold War have pointed out that, in the broad sweep of history, what happened in the 2016 U.S. elections was nothing new. Even before the advent of digital communications, domestic political processes around the world have been subject to pressures from foreign governments, particularly from Washington and Moscow. The novelty of 2016, commentators have noted, was largely the fact that this challenge to sovereignty was taking place inside the United States.

The United States’ role in global media and information traffic after 1945 might have given Americans a feeling of invincibility or control. But the country turned out to be vulnerable to the forces it had set loose. U.S. free-flow ideals had underpinned the global diffusion of communications technologies ranging from satellite broadcasting to social networking. But these same ideals also obscured the ways in which such technologies might be used contrary to U.S. interests. Seen in this light, 2016 was the moment when free flow boomeranged, with cross-border information traffic being manipulated to undermine U.S. sovereignty.

The exchange of information across borders does not require completely unregulated communications. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a coalition of Third World diplomats advocated what they termed a “free and balanced flow of information” in response to the perception that primarily Western companies stood to benefit from growing information traffic. They proposed subsidies for indigenous Third World news production, as well as stricter regulations that would help ensure that developing markets would not be flooded with developed-world media. At the time, U.S. journalists and diplomats justifiably criticized this approach for underplaying authoritarian abuses of press and speech freedoms. But the attempt foreshadowed more recent developments. In 2018, the European Union and Japan cemented a joint commitment to “free and safe data flows” by aligning their regulatory standards on intellectual property and the protection of personal information. The agreement, like the E.U. General Data Protection Regulation implemented the same year, was linked to concerns that American tech firms had been trampling social values such as privacy.

In the satellite debates of the late twentieth century, some Americans argued that information flows were ungovernable, both normatively and practically. As Philip H. Power and Elie Abel wrote in the New York Times magazine in 1980, “[The] pace of technology may well outrun the ability of international political institutions to catch up.… Governments may struggle to control the flow of news and information across their borders, but satellites and the technology behind them may make such efforts futile.” If the authors sounded sanguine about this development it was likely because in 1980 American companies were at the forefront of developing these new communications tools.

Fast-forward to 2019. The United States is still the global leader in technology, but countries like China are fast catching up. Moreover, in the decentralized landscape of contemporary social media, one doesn’t need a billion-dollar defense budget to influence public opinion. The time has come to reconsider whether the free flow of information can keep American democracy secure.

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  • DIANA LEMBERG is Associate Professor of History at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and is the author of Barriers Down: How American Power and Free-Flow Policies Shaped Global Media.
  • More By Diana Lemberg