What The 1700s Teach Us About Today's Fake News Epidemic

Just as they were during the information wars of the 18th century, education and critical thinking are key antidotes to disinformation.

Old News, Fake News
Old News, Fake News
Matthijs Tieleman iQ

PHILADELPHIA — 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 a 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 vernacular German to reach as many people as possible, probably numbered in the millions by the time the Reformation had gained full steam.

Photo: Roman Kraft

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.

It is not surprising that disinformation can spread so easily.

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.

Photo: Andris Romanovskis

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.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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