Nothing Older Than Fake News

Yellow journalism political Cartoon

Yesterday, many of us sat doomscrolling and watching one of the most contentious elections in US history (and the outcome is undetermined, as of the publishing of this post). It was contentious for many reasons, but this election — as well as the entire Trump administration — will go down in history because they featured alarming levels of “fake news. 

While it’s true that disinformation is a problem, this is not necessarily a new problem. In fact, we can go all the way back to the third century B.C. and Plato to find worries about false information (you’ll see that Phaedrus is the star example of most blog posts, but there’s a great and broader take here.) There’s a rich historical record of folks twisting the truth.

For example, let’s talk about Ben Franklin.

Before being a statesmen, representative to the Continental Congress, Ambassador to France, (the list goes on); he began his career as a printer and established the first newspaper in Philadelphia. This was in an era where owning a printing press could mean a local monopoly on the news. In 1782, Franklin was serving as the US ambassador to Paris, negotiating the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Seeking reparations for US citizens, he decided to try to influence British popular opinion….using fake news. 

He created a fake “supplement” to a real newspaper called the Boston Independent Chronicle, and placed within it (made up) stories that detailed all the atrocities committed by the Native Americans on the British citizens during the revolutionary struggle. (I’ll spare you the details, but there was a lot of scalping). The edition even included fake advertising, to seem more realistic. He meant for European outlets to pick up this story and run with it, however, at the time it was seemed too gruesome to be realistic. Founding father? Yes. Purveyor of fake news for political gain? Definitely.



Note: A discerning reader would have been able to tell this was a forgery, due to the unique italic typeface that only Franklin owned.

Now, fast forward in time. Any readers who recall the movie Newsies already have a good sense of the era of “yellow journalism” in the 19th century United States. This was a sensationalist style of newspaper reporting, characterized by profit-seeking coverage of world events — think modern day clickbait. This originated in the competition between two New York City newspapers in the 1890s: between Joseph Pultizer, Owner of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, Owner of the New York Journal. Both sought to increase their readership by printing sensationalist stories to inflame American public opinion, in the lead up to the eventual Spanish American War in 1898. Did this help push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines — a “war caused by the press”? Most likely not, but it showed the extent to which media could greatly influence public support.

“If I hate the headlines
I’ll make up the headline
And I’ll say anything I have to…

We need a good assassination!
We need an earthquake or a war!
How ’bout a crooked politician!
Hey, stupid, that ain’t news no more!”
– Carrying the Banner, Newsies 1992 (see here for the Broadway version)

Finally, let’s not forget wartime disinformation campaigns. One of my favorite stories comes from WWII, where a British journalist named Sefton Delmer created an engine of fake news to disrupt and demoralize the Nazis, using several fabricated radio channels and an underground daily newspaper.  (For those who want to dig deeper into the world of black propaganda, I’d suggest the documentary “Come Before Winter.”)

His “black propaganda” campaign was so successful, he was on Hitler’s hit list for immediate arrest upon invasion of Britain (the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B). All this was actually done while he was working for the British Special Operations Executive, however, not all elites were happy about this strategy — Stafford Cripps, ex leader of the House of Commons and Minister of Aircraft Production, infamously wrote “If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why, I’d rather lose it.” But wartime disinformation is nothing new.

Finally, for those who want to delve deeper into disinformation, I teach Lapham’s Quarterly’s 2018 special issue on “A History of Fake News” in my undergraduate class; it features excerpts from a number of historical sources, and I can highly recommend it.

So, what do these examples show? In addition to just being a fun survey of history, this does have implications for historical research. We are used to dealing with the missingness of historical data (Emily’s Blogstreet post on “Archival Silences” is worth reading), and potential bias in historical sources. But perhaps scholars aren’t as skeptical as they should be about newspapers. This is partially because  — as a result of our modern lens — we assume newspapers are correlated with editors, ethics, and a reputation for the truth. But this varies by context and time, and worth thinking about.

The Story of Tonight

“There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in a hundred years before ______.” 

Can you guess what year this was from? Or what century? It was actually from 1798, by President John Adams.

In all this chaos, let’s not forget that the founding fathers realized that lies were a huge threat to democracy. The freedoms of press, speech and assembly were eventually enshrined in the First Amendment, but at the writing of the constitution, these elites hated press coverage and knew that the press could eventually be highly partisan. de Tocqueville in 1835 famously claimed Americans truly understood the evils of censorship, as demonstrated in their reluctance to create a government body with the ability to assess truth —  he wrote “in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”

So the founders knew about fake news. And they put in a check, in the form of a free press. Founded on the conception of the marketplace of ideas, if you let the truth and falsehoods battle in the public discourse, the truth should eventually win. Thus the Constitution leaves the burden of fake news on the citizens, and a functioning press. 

Today, it sometimes seems like the marketplace of ideas is facing market failure. Some of this is due to changing modern circumstances. The advent of social media and widespread internet access has ensured there is a multiplicity of actors and outlets, with low costs to entry and few gatekeepers (not to mention foreign agents, deep fakes, bots, and the like). There is so much noise, the truth is struggling to clear. I’ll leave this problem to other scholars; see here, here, and here).  But now, more than ever, it’s worth noting that social media platforms were never supposed to serve as reputable news outlets, and today’s citizens need to realize that they shouldn’t rely on them for the entirety of their news coverage.

Back to Phaedrus (and the blog I linked to earlier) — he once told a fable about a lamb and a wolf, drinking at a stream. They begin to argue; the wolf telling lie after lie and the lamb trying to counter with the truth. Spoiler alert; the lamb gets eaten. But we can do better than the lamb! At the end of the day, fake news is old news — we’ve been dealing with this for centuries.


  • Alexandra Cirone

    I am an Assistant Professor and Himan Brown Faculty Fellow in the Government department at Cornell University. I am also a Faculty Fellow of the new Institute of Politics and Global Affairs in NYC. My research interests center on historical political economy, democratization and party systems in new democracies, multi-level governance, public policy, and European politics. I combine quantitative methods, historical data, and natural and/or quasi-experimental research designs with extensive archival research.

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