Could footnotes be the key to winning the disinformation wars?

Karin Wulf at the Washington Post: “We are at a distinctive point in the relationship between information and democracy: As the volume of information dissemination has grown, so too have attempts by individuals and groups to weaponize disinformation for commercial and political purposes. This has contributed to fragmentation, political polarization, cynicism, and distrust in institutions and expertise, as a recent Pew Research Center report found. So what is the solution?


Outside of academics and lawyers, few people may think about footnotes once they leave school. Indeed, there is a hackneyed caricature about footnotes as pedantry, the purview of tweedy scholars blinking as we emerge from fluorescent-lit libraries into the sun — not the concern of regular folks. A recent essay in the Economist even laid some of Britain’s recent woes at the feet of historians who spend too much time “fiddling with footnotes.”

But nothing could be further from the truth. More than ever, we need what this tool provides: accountability and transparency. “Fiddling with footnotes” is the kind of hygienic practice that our era of information pollution needs — and needs to be shared as widely as possible. Footnotes are for everyone.

Though they began as an elite practice, footnotes became aligned historically with modern democracy itself. Citation is rooted in the 17th-century emergence of enlightenment science, which asked for evidence rather than faith as key to supporting a conclusion. It was an era when scientific empiricism threatened the authority of government and religious institutions and newly developing institutional science publications, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, for example, began to use citations for evidence and reference. In one of Isaac Newton’s contributions to the journal in 1673, a reply to queries about his work on light and the color spectrum, he used citations to his initial publication on the subject (“see no. 80. Page 3075”).

By the 18th century, and with more agile printing, the majority of scientific publications included citations, and the bottom of the page was emerging as the preferred placement. Where scientific scholarship traveled, humanists were not far behind. The disdain of French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes for any discipline without rigorous methods was part of the prompt for historians to embrace citations….(More)”.