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The first known use of the term is from 1591 in England. Whitewash is a cheap white paint or coating of chalked lime that was used to quickly give a uniform clean appearance to a wide variety of surfaces, for instance, the entire interior of a barn.
In 1800 in the United States, the word was used in a political context, when a Philadelphia Aurora editorial said that "if you do not whitewash President Adams speedily, the Democrats, like swarms of flies, will bespatter him all over, and make you both as speckled as a dirty wall, and as black as the devil."
For instance, during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring of 1968, the Press Group of Soviet Journalists released a collection of "facts, documents, press reports and eye-witness accounts." Western journalists promptly nicknamed it as "The White Book", both for its white cover and its attempts to whitewash the invasion by creating the impression that the Warsaw Pact countries had the right and duty to invade.
Japan is accused of whitewashing its history of warfare and imperialism during World War II by omitting or minimizing subjects such as the Nanking Massacre in textbooks.
In the study of reputation systems by means of algorithmic game theory, whitewashing is used to refer to an agent abandoning a tarnished identity and re-creating a new blank one,:682 in what is more widely known in Internet slang as sockpuppeting.
The text of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow has been identified as being whitewashed due to the bias of its conceptual framework. It omits pertinent African American people and history, as well as politically radical ideas in favor of a more conventional and mainstream perspective. Critics maintain that the text has been whitewashed for white middle-class consumption.
Novels by George Orwell have dealt with the subject of whitewash as well. In Animal Farm, the pig Napoleon tries to whitewash history by deleting a few characters from the minds of the other animals. This was perceived as a direct reference to the USSR under Stalin. The protagonist of his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, set in a totalitarian dictatorship, is employed as a routine falsifier of the historical record to ensure that it is always in keeping with the party line.
Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, described histories being revised with both text and photos being changed to take out unpopular dissidents or people on the wrong side of the government.
Since the late 20th century in the United States, new terms have been coined to relate to similar efforts to associate with desirable social goals or get on a bandwagon.