The History of Fake News in the United States
Fake news isn’t suddenly ruining America, but putting government in charge of deciding what news is fake will.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, numerous media outlets ran stories claiming that many websites had published false stories that helped Trump beat Hillary Clinton.
Since then Left-leaning opinion writers have called for a solution to this alleged epidemic. The New York Times reported last January that Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Google will team up with legacy media outlets to fact-check stories and curtail the proliferation of “fake news.”
However, intentionally misleading news has been around since before the invention of the printing press. In fact, our Founding Fathers grappled with this very issue when they created our system of government. They saw that while it was tempting to censor fake stories, ultimately the truth was more likely to be abused by an all-powerful government arbiter than the filter of unimpeded popular debate. Attempts to weed out factually incorrect news reports can quickly morph into fact-checking and manipulating differences in opinion.
Fortunately, there have been few serious calls in the United States for official censoring of political news or media, in contrast to most of the world, including Europe. Freedom of thought, freedom of the press, and even the freedom to be wrong make America great and exceptional. In addition to preserving liberty, our free-wheeling tradition gives the United States an edge in adapting to the increasingly decentralized media landscape that is a natural product of the Internet Age. Most importantly, it produces a more critically informed populace in the long term.
The Founders and the Free Press
The Founding Fathers were well aware of the power of the press, for good or ill. After all, many of them, such as Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, were newspapermen and pamphleteers. The revolutionary ideas they disseminated throughout the colonies found eager readers, putting them high on King George III’s enemies list.
Three years after the Constitution was ratified, the American people amended it by adding the Bill of Rights, which included the First Amendment and its protections of the media. However, the Founders understood that a free press was not an entirely unqualified blessing; some had reservations.
Elbridge Gerry, who was present at the Constitutional Convention, lamented how con artists in his home state were manipulating the people. “The people do not [lack] virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said at the convention. “In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.”
The Founders saw that while it was tempting to censor fake stories, ultimately the truth was more likely to be abused by an all-powerful government arbiter than the filter of unimpeded popular debate.
Benjamin Franklin also warned about the power of the press, which the public must put so much trust in. In a short essay, Franklin explained how the press acted as the “court” of public opinion and wielded enormous unofficial power.
For an institution with so much influence, Franklin noted that the bar for entry into journalism is remarkably low, with no requirement regarding “Ability, Integrity, Knowledge.” He said the liberty of the press can easily turn into the “liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another.”
The Founders wrote constitutional protections for the press with open eyes, as their written remarks record. Yet, the evils that come through the occasional problems of a free press are heavily outweighed by its benefits. Lies may proliferate, but the truth has a real chance to rise to the top.
Thomas Jefferson said that the most effectual way for a people to be governed by “reason and truth” is to give freedom to the press. There was simply no other way. He wrote in a letter to Gerry:
I am […] for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.
Liars and scandal mongers may occasionally have success in a system without censorship, but truth was ultimately more likely to be found when passed through the people as a whole. Jefferson wrote:
It is so difficult to draw a clear line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press, that as yet we have found it better to trust the public judgment, rather than the magistrate, with the discrimination between truth and falsehood. And hitherto the public judgment has performed that office with wonderful correctness.
Despite full knowledge of the media’s often unscrupulous power over public opinion, the Founders chose to grant broad protections to a decentralized press, opting to place their faith in newspapers checking one another with more efficacy and less risk of bias than heavy-handed government crackdowns.
When the Federalist Party passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams to clamp down on “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government in the midst of the “Quasi War” with France, there was an immense backlash. A few journalists were arrested, but the governing party was crushed in future elections and ceased to exist shortly thereafter. In the United States, press freedom would become an almost unquestioned element of American culture and policy.