Has social media changed since the 1980’s? : Media History Essay

Internet in the 80's
Internet in the 80's
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It is a common misconception that people only started digesting Digital media content after the creation of HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Uniform Resource Locator (URL) and the launching of the World Wide Web, at Cern in 1991.

While the World Wide Web, or Internet as we know it now, provided an ever-growing global platform for the spread of news, information and global news was flowing between the minority of people who were using the early internet’s ‘Newsgroups’ and ‘Bulletin Boards’, with the best example of this coming in 1986 , with reports and discussion of the Chernobyl Disaster, which happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear PowerStation, near Pripyat, Ukraine.

At the time of the Chernobyl accident, which was a catastrophic nuclear incident that involved the explosion and subsequent meltdown in the No.4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the worlds geopolitical situation was vastly different to the world we know now, with the Soviet Union still in one piece and in control of Ukraine.

All Broadcast and print media in the Soviet Union was under the strict control of the Soviet state, and due to this no news came out initially in regards to the Chernobyl accident, which happened on the 25th-26th April 1986. On the 28th of April that year, the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, over 600 miles away in Sweden detected a large source of radiation, which forced the Soviet State to make a brief statement about an “incident”, but no details on what had happened.

It was at this time that chatter began to build, on the predecessor to today Social Networks,  “newsgroup” services, with users talking about the rumours and brief news reports of “Radiation incidents in the U.S.SR.”  It was almost a week later 6th May 1986, on the “net.followup” newsgroup (which was backed up and now ran by Google) where a user from the University of Sweden called Anders Andersen published news on this radiation-related incident.

Anders Andersen briefed the users of the newsgroups exactly what he thought was happening, with the lack of news and information becoming apparent as, towards the end of his report, we learn that although the Swedish know that the incident “was in Russia”, that is all they know, with the majority of the stories hinting to a “China-Syndrome” type incident, in Kiev, that may have killed between 2 and 2000 people.

Chernobyl social media : history

Chernobyl social media : history

Chernobyl social media : history

Chernobyl social media : history

It was not until the 7th of May 1986, that a user, an early, “hacker”, from the University of Lancaster, USA, who broke the news of what had actually happened, to the new.followup thread.  The user makes no indication of where he managed to obtain this information from, but going with the facts that he was an academic and a Hacker from the UK, during the cold was, we could make an educated guess that this data was being obtained in a way, that would now be considered Cyber-Espionage.


Chernobyl social media history - dave england post

Chernobyl social media history – dave england post

Images taken from Google Newsgroup Database https://groups.google.com ‘net.follow ‘


The News which David England released, in retrospect, was quite accurate to what we know about the Chernobyl incident and how we know the Russians acted after the incident in trying to cover up what happened. It could be said that if it was not for the Swedish making their discovery, then the Soviet State would have kept this a secret till the U.S.S.R was disbanded.

We could debate how David obtained the data, and the Cyber Espionage element of what he may or may have done, but it is the spread and dissemination of information which I am focusing on.  In the past, in a documentary which seems lost to the ether, I had first heard the story of how the actual, facts, of the Chernobyl incident, were, much like what happens now, found and spread through “social networks”. One could argue that if it was not for this newsgroup then we may, as already mentioned, simply not know of what actually happened until the 90’s, when the Soviet State collapsed.

It has been talked about (Paul Chadwick, Guardian) how social networks have allowed news and information, Good and Bad, to spread faster now than ever before, and that spread and connectivity allows us to be more “in the know” (or fooled), with credit given to the likes of Twitter or Facebook when really, that is only 2 of the millions of internet sites that are used for this multi-Channel, non-stop information.

In comparing this proto-social network, newsgroup chatter from 1986 to what we see on Modern Social networks like Facebook, it is amusing to me how similar the way these people in 1986  on these Newsgroup servers communicate with one another on modern social media services like Twitter, Facebook or Internet Forums

One big difference in how we take in Information and the way we act on Social Media was found to be exploitable.

Dopamine goldmine social media history

Dopamine goldmine social media history

Dopamine goldmine social media history 2

Dopamine goldmine social media history 2

American Marketing Association Website “Social Media Triggers a Dopamine High”



The American Market Association report, “Social Media Triggers a Dopamine High”, talks about how the way we act, and how what we do on social media affects how we feel, and how it can influence how we act. The research showed that every time post something to social media, and we receive a like, a share, or even just a smiley face, it makes people feel happy by way of a release of serotonin, just like illicit drugs.


I specifically chose this example, coming from the social media marketing point of view as exposed the reality behind social media, that people are easily influenced if their behaviour is reinforcing. It is this theory which was built on an almost weaponised by Cambridge Analytical, who created a game-like app to obtain information on demographical information such as what people like, what they don’t like, and their politics leaning.


The massive amount obtained Cambridge Analytica and was then used by the leave.eu political campaign, to target voters with content tailored to what was predicted to affect them most emotionally (Variants of the same MEME’s) It is said and contested that this use of Social Media Data was used to illegally influence the UK’s decision on Brexit. I feel that both the Cambridge Analytical scandal and the early and continuing like reporting of news stories like Chernobyl, back in 80’s, are great examples of how modern digital technologies, including social media, have to change the way we receive and consume information, as they have not just changed how to receive information, it has now led to influencing who runs the modern world.



Chernobyl Newsgroups thread – 1986



Why fake news on social media travels faster than the truth,Paul Chadwick.



Usenet : History Wiki


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