History: the ultimate battleground of disinformation


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chris Kremidas-Courtney
Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security & Defence at Friends of Europe (on sabbatical) and Lecturer for Institute for Security Governance (ISG) in Monterey, California

“Who controls the past, controls the future.” – George Orwell, 1984

Prior to the pandemic, I was sitting down with a few top disinformation experts in Brussels discussing deep fakes. We discussed the various tools available to news media sites to detect and remove them in order to avoid the public being misled by such falsified videos.

But then our attention turned to the vast global library of old videos and sound recordings, and how vulnerable they are to being exploited by hybrid actors as raw materials for an unlimited number of deep fakes, which could be used to destabilize societies.

History has always been a battlefield of disinformation, especially in places like Russia where historical figures are either erased or elevated depending on the current regime in charge. Lies told in the past still linger today; the blood libel tales of ritual child abuse which fuelled anti-Semitism as early as the 1100s in Europe live on today in the outlandish beliefs of QAnon followers.

Disinformation is the plastic waste of the information sphere

Lies told about the EU in the British press during the 1990s planted the seeds of discontent which led to Brexit. Even the falsehood accusing the EU of regulating the bend of a banana can be heard repeated today nearly 30 years later.

The same can be said of groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy in the United States, which for decades sought to rewrite the history of the American South’s memory of the Civil War. In fact, their “lost cause” narrative is partly what animated and energised a significant number of the Trump supporters who sacked the US Capitol on January 6th of this year.

Disinformation is the plastic waste of the information sphere; it lasts for hundreds of years and continues to pollute the atmosphere.

In Hungary, the regime of Viktor Orban has embarked on a similar campaign to rewrite history, demoting 1956 hero Imre Nagy’s memorial to a less prominent place in Budapest while simultaneously attempting to rewrite the history of Hungary’s role in the Second World War.

Turkey continues to deny the genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks despite brave Turkish scholars publishing strong evidence to the contrary. Under Erdogan, Turkey’s most recent attempts at revisionist history are aimed at claiming not only Greek islands, but also territory in Iraq and Syria.

We must provide resources to allow local and regional historians to counter these false narratives

Up until now, the front lines of the battle against disinformation have been taken up by journalists, policymakers and cyber experts. More recently, psychologists have entered the fray, and rightly so.

But what this struggle for the truth desperately needs are credible scholars of history to be more involved in the early stages of countering disinformation because the societal wounds which hybrid actors seek to twist and exploit were caused and are written in history.

The justification for violent action and unrest which hybrid actors seek to ignite through disinformation are often found within lies told in the past. Therefore, if we don’t address and correct these falsehoods, they will remain a societal vulnerability to be exploited by malign actors.

A 2020 European Parliament study on the Western Balkans highlighted how Russian disinformation is exacerbating ethnic enmity in the region by exaggerating past disputes and each group’s role in them – all with the obvious intent to destabilize the region and reverse the decades of progress they have made on democracy and the rule of law.

To thwart these efforts to distort and twist history, we must provide resources to allow local and regional historians to counter these false narratives. Media outlets can invite more historians onto their programmes to help clarify a situation and place it into historical context, habituating the public to value the inputs of historical scholars rather than just the pithy soundbites of social media experts. By drawing historians into the conversation early, they can also help us ensure that history is not whitewashed by those with the power to do so.

Even when the lies are cleaned up, their echoes can remain

This same effort should seek to provide historians and media archivists with resources to archive video and audio history in a more durable way so they will be available to quickly debunk deep fakes and cheap fakes.

It’s worth noting that ridding ourselves of this plastic waste of the information sphere will take years to achieve – much like the cleanup of plastic waste itself. Even when the lies are cleaned up, their echoes can remain.

For example, many today still believe the myth that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute when there is no evidence she was anything but a very devout follower of Jesus Christ and perhaps even the sole female apostle. But a pope described her as a “sinful woman” in 591 and this falsehood spread throughout the Christian world. Despite the Roman Catholic Church correcting the record 1,378 years later in 1969, the negative impact remains with many still believing this myth. One can only wonder what the role of women in Christianity would be today had this falsehood not been told nor sustained for so long.

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