Democracy and Misinformation
The Cold War and Today
Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 presidential election unleashed an avalanche of anxieties about the state of American democracy. One of the most potent has been about the status of truth: how can the democratic process continue to function when basic facts are open to constant contestation? How can meaningful debate take place when important sources of public information—most notably, the internet and social media—are saturated with falsehoods? Conservatives echo Trump’s excoriation of the press as a purveyor of “fake news,” while the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column recently invented the “bottomless Pinocchio” for a “false claim repeated over and over again.” A recent study found that some active users of social media—in particular older Americans, who are demographically more likely to vote—were often unable to distinguish between reliable and invented reporting, actively sharing fake content. American democracy, so it seems, is cracking under the weight of misinformation.
Nor is misinformation merely a domestic problem. As the recently released Mueller report reminded the public, the spread of misinformation has been actively supported and sponsored by other countries, most notably Russia. Commentators and historians alike have warned that Russia’s nefarious efforts—in the United States and elsewhere—could bring about democratic collapse. In his recent bestseller The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018), historian Timothy Snyder claimed that Russia’s cyberattacks took advantage of American freedoms, threatening it in ways that it could never hope to do through military, economic, or diplomatic means.
This deep apprehension about the consequences of misinformation and foreign subversion can make it easy to forget that such fears are not new. Instead, they fundamentally shaped American politics, foreign policy, and understandings of democracy in the early Cold War. When American commentators and politicians warned about the threat of communism in the 1940s and 1950s, they did not simply fear the Soviet Union’s military power or the expansion of communism in Europe and Asia. They were also convinced that Communists had launched a campaign of propaganda and misinformation that sought to destroy democratic societies from within. In a predecessor to contemporary commentary, anti-Communists warned that democracy’s emphasis on rights and liberties—in particular, freedom of speech, a free press, and elections premised on the popular vote—was also its key weakness. Communists could use the principles of open debate to infiltrate democratic regimes, spread lies and propaganda, and lead the people to choose their own enslavement. Indeed, this was perhaps the scariest component of the Communist threat. What communism could not achieve through military might, it would instead accomplish through informational subversion.
This line of thinking both emerged from and bolstered a belief that democracy was not simply a political system. It was also a psychological state, what one American policymaker called a “state of mind.” Sustaining a democratic system therefore required forging a democratic consciousness. Commentators, authors, and policymakers claimed that the triumph over communism required constant spiritual and intellectual mobilization, which would reinforce Americans’ commitment to ill-defined democratic “values” and encourage them to vigilantly distinguish between healthy, “correct” ideas and harmful, “false” ones.
Few documents better reflect this thinking than the April 1950 National Security Council report known as NSC 68, authored under the leadership of State Department director of policy planning Paul Nitze. Though NSC 68 is best known for its call for a massive military buildup to confront Communist expansion across the globe, it also contained lengthy reflections on the psychological nature of the Cold War. The conflict with the Soviets, it claimed, was an emotional and mental struggle between two competing psychological systems, in which democratic societies were engaged in a spiritual combat against disinformation.
As the authors claimed, Communist propaganda operated through “infiltration” into the fabric of “labor unions, civic enterprises, schools, churches, and all media for influencing opinion” to offer the masses simplistic and appealing solutions to the “anxieties, bafflement, and insecurity” of the modern world. Communists required their followers to “surrender [their] individuality” and “put themselves under the compulsion of a perverted faith.” Democracy could therefore endure only if its citizens exercised psychological strength in the form of “self-discipline and self-restraint,” which would allow them to resist Communist temptations. The authors conceded that this was an uphill battle, as “the democratic way is harder than the authoritarian way,” because democracy demands the individual to exercise “understanding, judgment and positive participation” in an increasingly complex world. Allowing free speech and tolerance to “lapse into excess” and the “indulgence of conspiracy” was a prime vulnerability of a democratic society, one that communism was primed to exploit.
Claiming that democracy stemmed from psychological vigilance, rather than representative institutions or political rights, had important political implications. In the 1940s and early 1950s, democratic societies across the globe passed anti-subversive laws, censored Communist publications, and conducted loyalty investigations and anti-Communist purges in the name of defending the democratic “spirit.” Some sought to outlaw Communist parties and activities; more significantly, West Germany actually criminalized its Communist party in 1956. Colleges and universities were an especially ironic and important site in this campaign, calling for loyalty oaths and even purging alleged Communists. As Walter C. Eells, professor of education at Stanford University, declared in a July 1949 speech in Japan, such actions were not contrary to democratic rights such as free speech or freedom of thought because Communists lacked the proper individualistic and democratic psyche. “Communist Party members are not free to think,” he explained. “They have surrendered that freedom when they joined the party. Therefore they cannot be allowed to be university professors in a democracy.” This way of thinking harshly limited the scope of the democratic imagination, eliding calls for more egalitarian politics—whether based on gender, race, or economics—as insignificant or even in tension with democracy’s “essence.”
Today’s fears about disinformation and foreign subversion, of course, are not identical to their Cold War predecessors. They are rooted in different political and technological realities: the intersection of aggressive partisanship, social media, and unrestrained capitalism has intensified the speed and spread of misinformation. They also rarely revolve around communism. Still, this history echoes through our contemporary sphere. As the growing use of the label “socialist” to deride policies such as universal healthcare or the Green New Deal indicates, there still exists an ongoing panic that redistributionist ideologies will capture and pollute the psyche of weak-minded Americans. And like the early Cold War, commentators still root this weak-mindedness in traditional American hierarchies, hurling these accusations at women, people of color, and members of the LGTBQ+ community.
Equally important, contemporary discussions echo their Cold War predecessors’ deep-seated fears about the mental and psychological “health” of the people. We also live with constant anxiety about the ability of nefarious forces—whether foreign or domestic—to infiltrate the popular mind. Such fears can serve as potent motivation to offer fuller public accounts of the historical realities behind false claims. But, in a more cautionary tale, they can also work to limit the scope of democratic action; anxieties about informational subversion and “fake news” can distract from other major challenges or, as Trump consistently demonstrates, be aggressively mobilized to challenge democracy itself. Rooting democracy in a “state of mind,” then, is a long American tradition. Like so many other historical legacies, it is laced with both legitimate fears and potential hazards.
Jennifer M. Miller is assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College. A scholar of US-East Asian relations, she is the author of Cold War Democracy: The United States and Japan (Harvard Univ. Press, 2019).
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