Disinformation through the Ages

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Misinformation propagation in its current form is a global problem that requires urgent solutions. Historically, instances of misinformation publicly propagated can be found as far back as the sixth century AD. Misinformation was propagated publicly when Procopius, the historian, wrote deliberate falsehoods to tarnish the image of Emperor Justinian [1]. In the history of misinformation propagation, three periods are generally recognised by scholars as turning points: World War II, the Cold War, and the 2016 presidential elections in the United States of America [2] [3] [4]. Scholars began studying propaganda as a concept during World War II [2]. ‘Disinformation’ as a concept is a product of the Cold War, it is derived from the Russian word ‘dezinformatsiya’ [4]. During the Cold War state actors on both sides of the Iron Curtain engaged in misinformation propagation [3]. What is distinctive about present day misinformation propagation is the speed, reach and virality, propelled by online social media. During the 2016 US presidential elections an estimated 125 million Americans were exposed to online content, containing misinformation, that was sponsored by a foreign country. Such is the gravity of the challenge, and its effect on global collective behaviour, there are calls for social media/information disorder to be designated a “crisis discipline” like medicine, conservation biology and climate science [5].


[1] Darnton, R. The true history of fake news, The New York Review of Books, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/02/13/the-true-history-of-fake-news/ (2017, accessed 28 April 2021).

[2] Kreiss, D. “Social Media and Democracy: The State of the Field, Prospects for Reform,” edited by Nathaniel Persily and Joshua A. Tucker. Int. J. Press/Politics. 2021; 26(2):505-512.

[3] Freedland, J. Disinformed to death. The New York Review of Books, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/08/20/fake-news-disinformed-to-death/ (2020, accessed 22 January 2021).

[4] Marwick, A, Kuo, R, Cameron, S and Weigel, M. Critical disinformation studies: a syllabus. Center for Information, Technology, & Public Life (CITAP), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, http://citap.unc.edu/critical-disinfo

[5] Bak-Coleman, JB, Alfano, M, Barfuss, W, Bergstrom, CT, Centeno, MA, Couzin, ID, Donges, JF, Galesic, M, Gersick, AS, Jacquet, J, Kao, AB. Stewardship of global collective behavior. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2021; Jul 6;118(27).