In re-defence of history - Digital Threat Digest
PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.
Over the past few months, I have been closely monitoring the Argentine elections. On Sunday, voters decidedly chose to elect radical libertarian and political outsider Javier Milei as Argentina’s thirteenth president since the country’s transition to democracy. Milei is a strong admirer of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and has pledged to employ extreme neoliberal ‘shock-therapy’ policies to repair the country’s disastrous economy. His election campaign focused on attacking establishment politicians – what he refers to as ‘the caste’ – as well as using reactionary rhetoric, such as calling the Argentine Pope Francis a ‘filthy leftist’.
More dangerously, the president-elect has on multiple occasions diminished the crimes of Argentina’s brutal 1976-83 military dictatorship, questioning the reality of the country’s most raw political era. For example, during the first presidential debate he denied the widely accepted figure of los desaparecidos (the victims of the Junta), parroting rhetoric usually espoused by dictatorship apologists and conspiracy theorists, stating “there weren’t 30,000 desaparecidos, there were 8,753”. Additionally, his running mate, Victoria Villarruel, has advocated for a “complete memory” reframing of the period in order to portray the military junta as the victims of historical slander.
This playbook has been used by a number of ‘anti-establishment’ right-wing populist politicians across the world: Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni has openly defended neofascist movements apologetic of Mussolini; former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro frequently denied the murders of left-wing activists during the country’s 1964-85 military dictatorship; and in Indonesia, outgoing President Joko Widodo has backed his defence minister and former military general under the country’s Suharto-era dictatorship, Prabowo Subianto, in the upcoming presidential election. What unites these cases is their revision of history: weaponising the past to amplify social divisions and ultimately gain power.
What I love about history is that it is not factual. Instead, history is a practical tool used to substantiate a narrative, legitimise an ideology, and organise a collective. However, this interpretive aspect of history is also what makes it so politically dangerous. While I highly support historical debate and the questioning of the status quo, when these reinterpretations are presented as historical ‘truths’ they merely further polarise society. This ultimately plays into the hands of intentionally contrarian politicians.
It is a dynamic which thrives on social media at all levels on political, cultural, and social issues, with actors from across the political spectrum framing contentious points from ongoing historical debates as established fact. The internet’s algorithmic nature allows amateur commentators to portray complex issues and themes as black and white in pursuit of virality, tribalising digital spaces and creating echo chambers which stymie sensible discussion. As such, in this increasingly binary online world, the study of history has become more important than ever.
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