Fake News, Then and Now
from Renewing America

Fake News, Then and Now

The problem of fake news has been with us from the beginning of the Republic, and American democracy was even worse at dealing with it then than it is now.
A news stand outfitted with "Fake News" headlines as a stunt pulled off by the Columbia Journalism Review is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York
A news stand outfitted with "Fake News" headlines as a stunt pulled off by the Columbia Journalism Review is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) liked to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” But Moynihan is long gone, sadly, and his brand of Enlightenment rationalism left town with him.  

When newly elected President Donald Trump confronted the unpleasant reality that his 2017 Inaugural crowds were smaller than those of President Barack Obama in 2009, he ordered his press secretary to insist otherwise. Pressed on why the administration would utter “provable falsehoods” in its very first press conference, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway responded by saying they were not falsehoods but “alternative facts.” Over the course of the next four years, Trump would make 30,573 false or misleading claims, according to the Washington Post—21 per day, every day of his presidency. The biggest lie came at the end, of course, when he denied having lost his attempt at reelection—an assertion that inspired a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 and continues to roil American politics even now.  

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Trump’s constant prevarication posed a big problem to the country, because it pitted the core democratic value of freedom of speech against a host of other core values, from national security to public safety to the rule of law. Social media outlets in particular were torn by how they should handle this dilemma, and some of them (such as Facebook and Twitter) opted to ban Trump from their platforms. How long they will continue to do so is unclear—as is the larger question of how democracy can reconcile its love of free speech with its fear of false speech. 

Some argue that the speed of modern digital technology dramatically increases the dangers of disinformation and that as a result, contemporary politics are “uniquely stupid.” But this is belied by an old saying that a lie can go halfway around the world before truth can put its boots on—which was a hoary cliché centuries before the Internet was invented. In fact, the problem of fake news has been with us from the beginning of the Republic, and American democracy was even worse at dealing with it then than it is now. 

Franklin's Apology

In June 1731, a controversy erupted in Philadelphia over a handbill spread around town offering passage on a forthcoming sea voyage to Barbados. A note at the bottom had specified that “no…Black Gowns will be admitted on any terms,” and the anti-clerical snub caused a local uproar. The 25-year-old printer of the notice defended himself as follows:

Printers are educated in the belief, that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public, and that when truth and error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter. Hence, they cheerfully serve all contending writers that pay them well, without regarding on which side they are of the question in dispute.

Being thus continually employed in serving all parties, printers naturally acquire a vast unconcernedness as to the right or wrong opinions contained in what they print, regarding it only as the matter of their daily labor. They print things full of spleen and animosity with the utmost calmness and indifference, and without the least ill-will to the persons reflected on, who nevertheless unjustly think the printer as much their enemy as the author and join both together in their resentment….

I consider the variety of humors among men and despair of pleasing everybody, yet I shall not therefore leave off printing. I shall not burn my press and melt my letters.

Three years before the famous trial of John Peter Zenger, Benjamin Franklin’s Apology for Printers summarized a century-old British tradition regarding the importance of freedom of speech for democracy and the importance of open media platforms as the venue for that speech, in terms that would warm Mark Zuckerberg’s heart. If he and his brethren “sometimes print vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because they approve such things themselves, but because the people are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged.” Robin Hood’s Songs sell; David’s Psalms don’t. We just give people what they want.  

Franklin did believe, however, that the media should exercise some self-restraint to protect the public good. “I myself have constantly refused to print anything that might countenance vice or promote immorality, though by complying in such cases with the corrupt taste of the majority, I might have got much money. I have also always refused to print such things as might do real injury to any person,” he noted, and thus incurred “the resentment of large bodies of men for refusing absolutely to print any of their party or personal reflections.” 

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Bache’s Bombast

Sixty years later, his grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache, also a printer, embraced the free-speech-on-free-platforms concept but abandoned the self-restraint bit. Bache, who came to be known as “Lightning Rod Junior,” was one of the leading newspaper editors of the 1790s, and his Aurora was arguably the most scurrilous outlet in the most scurrilous age of American journalism.  

A passionate Republican who saw the ruling Federalists as evil subverters of popular liberties, Bache attacked them mercilessly. Politics wasn’t beanbag, he felt: “When parties run high, the good cause must be supported with enthusiasm and absolute violence, to outweigh the activity and extravagance of opposite partisans.” Bache’s paper, his biographer notes, “was one in which politicians were judged on whether the editor thought they were helping or hindering human progress.” George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton were on the wrong side of history. They were not just to be opposed; they were to be destroyed, with deliberate character assassination, regardless of the facts.  

His targets were furious, naturally. As Abigail Adams put it, “in any other country, Bache and all his papers would have been seized and ought to be here.” The personal vituperation, moreover, was layered onto deep differences in ideology and public policy. The Federalists backed a strong national government, a commercial society, and England; the Republicans were equally devoted to state’s rights, an agricultural society, and Revolutionary France. So the partisan battles escalated and eventually resulted in the Federalists’ passing the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, a series of measures designed to suppress and cripple their Republican opposition. Among other things, they made it a crime to:  

write, print, utter or publish, or…cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or…knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States.

Bache died of yellow fever before he could be indicted. His successor was hounded by prosecutors and Congress and had to publish the Aurora in hiding.

Luckily, Adams was able to defuse the tensions with France and sign a treaty with England. Hamilton’s strong, centralized financial system stabilized the American economy and fostered growth and dynamism. Jefferson won a close rematch for the presidency in 1800 and Adams accepted defeat. Most of the Alien and Sedition Acts expired or were repealed. And then Jefferson and Madison acted more responsibly in power than they had in opposition. So, the crisis passed, and the new country moved forward into the nineteenth century with its free speech tradition intact. But it was a close call.

Biden’s Board

Flash forward two and a quarter centuries, and things look pretty similar. Today’s media platforms are online rather than in print, but they are still stinking cesspools of garbage. Vituperation and character assassination still rule the day, with truth optional. National politics is still partisan blood sport, with populist demagogues whipping mobs of supporters into frenzies of hatred. And many people on all sides are once again utterly convinced that their political opponents constitute a mortal threat to American democracy—so great a threat that they cannot be trusted with power. 

Unsurprisingly, baseless attacks on government policy and officials have triggered official attempts to purify public debate. The most of recent of these was the Biden administration’s well-meaning but ill-fated Disinformation Governance Board, announced by the Department of Homeland Security on April 27 as a measure to “coordinate countering misinformation relating to homeland security.” Its executive director was immediately subjected to a torrent of online abuse, much of it fallacious—thus simultaneously demonstrating both the potential usefulness and utter hopelessness of such a body. Within three weeks, desperate to staunch the political bleeding and change the subject, the administration put the project on indefinite hold

This was not an episode of enduring political significance. Compared to the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Disinformation Governance Board was tragedy recapitulated as farce. But it did illustrate the fundamental challenge our political system is still struggling with—the fact that free speech on free platforms can not only elevate and inform but also debase and delude. We don’t know how to encourage the good effects while discouraging the bad ones and are having a hard time even agreeing on what things fall into which category.  

One might think that a devastating pandemic that kills vast numbers of citizens indiscriminately would bring us to our senses, creating a common political front and leading to national unity in combatting a truly mortal threat. Yeah, right. But even here, interestingly, we are once again simply recycling the 1790s, when a yellow fever epidemic ripped through the new nation’s capital and produced identical results—death, disinformation, racial tensions, and partisan warfare

If one low, dishonest decade has any lessons to teach another, the biggest is that however annoying and hurtful free speech might be, and however vile and untrue, official attempts to regulate and police it end up doing more harm than good. John Adams did many positive things as president, served his country honorably throughout a long and distinguished career, and was brutally and unfairly maligned by his enemies. But the Alien and Sedition Acts inflamed American politics rather than calming them and restricted public liberties rather than protecting them. They remain a major blot on his otherwise impressive record. 

Federalist politicians were convinced the very future of the republic was at stake, when it was only its character—something extremely important, but not necessarily cause for jeopardizing basic democratic rights. As the definitive history of the age puts it, these enlightened elites were “a beleaguered company whose robes of authority were being smirched by the advancing forces of insolence, vulgarity, disorder, self-interest, faction, and demagoguery. And it was against these forces that the Federalists, with their sedition law, were now blindly striking back.”  

It would have been better then—as it would be now—for authorities to allow free speech to play out and trust that in the long run the benefits outweigh the costs. But it would also have been better then—as it would be now—for those running media platforms to embrace the responsibility and self-restraint of the original Franklin rather than the slanderous savagery of his out-of-control grandson. 

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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