The Age-Old Problem of “Fake News”

It’s been part of the conversation as far back as the birth of the free press

John Adams didn't literally call the Philadelphia Aurora (also known as the Aurora General Adviser) "fake news," but he was not pleased by the way he was often depicted in it. Photo illustration by; Photos by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Adams-Clement Collection, gift of Mary Louisa Adams Clement in memory of her mother, Louisa Catherine Adams Clement / National Museum of American History

In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s treatise Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, President John Adams scribbled a cutting note.

Writing in the section where the French philosopher predicted that a free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public, Adams scoffed. “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798,” he wrote at the time.

The charge feels shockingly modern. Were he to have written the sentiment in 2018, and not at the turn of the 19th century, it’s easy to imagine that at just 112 characters, he might have tweeted it, instead.

While Chinese monks were block printing the Diamond Sutra as early as 868 A.D. and German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of movable metal type in the mid-1400s, it took until the Enlightenment for the free press as we know it today to be born.

Condorcet’s 1795 text expanded upon the belief that a press free from censorship would circulate an open debate of ideas, with rationality and truth winning out. Adams’ marginal response reminds us that when something like truth is up for debate, the door is open for bad-faith actors (the partisan press in his view) to promulgate falsehoods—something that a reader today might call “fake news.”

Historian Katlyn Carter drew attention to Adams’ private note at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting during a panel concerning Early America and fake news.

“A lot of things we talk about today we talk about as unprecedented,” says Carter. “It’s important to look back and see how these same concerns and issues have been raised at many points throughout history.”

Going back as early as the 1640s, partisan tones in broadsides and pamphlets published in England and colonial America were “setting precedents for what would become common practice in [the] 18th-century,” writes historian David A. Copeland in The Idea of a Free Press: The Enlightenment and Its Unruly Legacy.

Fake news, as it turns out, is no recent phenomenon. But what we’re talking about when we talk about fake news requires some clarification. In a 2017 paper published in the journal Digital Journalism, researchers at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University came up with six distinct definitions of fake news after examining 34 academic articles that studied the term between 2003 and 2017 in the context of the United States, as well as Australia, China and Italy.

Most of them you’ve probably seen examples of on your social media feeds. There’s news satire, which applies to how programs like The Daily Show use humor to contextualize and mock real-world events. There’s news parody, like The Onion, which differs from satire in that platforms create made-up stories for comedic purposes. Propaganda created by the state to influence public perceptions is another form of fake news. So are manipulations of real photos or videos to create a false narrative (such as the animated gif of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez tearing up the Constitution, when in reality she was tearing up a gun-target poster).

Content generated by advertising or public relations teams that appear as though it has been generated by news outlets also falls under the umbrella. Lastly, there’s news fabrication, the definition of fake news which swirled prominently around the 2016 U.S. presidential election in reference to pieces with no factual grounding that attempted to pass as legitimate news items. (The Pope endorsing Donald Trump was one of the more prominent examples.)

“The difficulty in distinguishing fabricated fake news occurs when partisan organizations publish these stories, providing some semblance of objectivity and balanced reporting,” the researchers note.

But “fake news” has arguably evolved faster than academia can keep pace. As the Washington Post’s Callum Borchers lamented last February, the most recent definition of “fake news” is one that’s been hijacked and repurposed by politicians, most notably President Donald Trump, to dismiss good-faith reporting that they disagree with. As Borchers points out, the framing, not the facts, are often the bone of contention for these stories. “[These politicians have] sought to redefine [fake news] as, basically, any reporting they don't like,” wrote Borchers in the piece.

Though social media has dramatically changed the reach and impact of fake news as a whole, historians such as Carter want to remind Americans that concerns about truth and the role of the press have been playing out since its earliest broadside days.

Earlier echoes of John Adams’ frustrations can be found in laments by figures like Thomas Hutchinson, a British loyalist politician in a sea of American revolutionaries, who cried that the freedom of the press had been interpreted as the freedom to “print every Thing that is Libelous and Slanderous.”

Hutchinson’s bête noire was Sons of Liberty leader Samuel Adams, whose “journalism” infamously did not concern itself with facts. “It might well have been the best fiction written in the English language for the entire period between Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens," writes media historian Eric Burns in his book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. (Burns borrows the title from the term George Washington used to refer to the media figures of the day. In a 1796 letter to Alexander Hamilton, Washington cites as a reason for leaving public office "a disinclination to be longer buffitted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”)

Hutchinson, for his part, wailed that Samuel Adams’ writing in Boston Gazette particularly slandered his name. He believed that “seven eights of the People” in New England, “read none but this infamous paper and so are never undeceived.” Among other epithets, the Gazette called Hutchinson a “smooth and subtle tyrant,” as historian Bernard Bailyn notes in The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, whose purpose was to lead colonists “gently into slavery.”

In 1765, arsonists burned Hutchinson’s house to the ground over the Stamp Act though the loyalist was not even in favor of the hated tax. “They were old men, young men, and boys barely old enough to read, all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose,” writes Burns about those behind the fire, the scene sharing eerie parallels to the 2016 shooting of a Washington, D.C. pizza shop provoked by insidious fake news reports.

For colonists aspiring for independence in this Enlightenment era, fake news reports were particularly troubling. Achieving success and establishing legitimacy depended on public opinion, which in turn relied on the spread of information through newspapers. (At that time, of course, public opinion referred generally to the accumulation of white, male landholders’ views.)

James Madison, the architect of Constitution, perhaps best understood the power that public opinion wielded. In 1791, the same year his Bill of Rights were ratified, Madison wrote that public opinion “sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.”

Because of that, historian Colleen A. Sheehan, author of James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government, says that for Madison “the circulation of newspapers throughout the country was a critical piece of how he imagined free government working in the U.S.”

And those newspapers were always partisan. “This is just how the practical reality of it worked,” says Sheehan.

Take the National Gazette. Madison and Thomas Jefferson had pushed for Philip Freneau, a classmate from Madison’s Princeton days, to establish the paper in 1791 to give the burgeoning Democratic-Republicans an alternative platform to the Federalist paper of record, the Gazette of the United-States.

As Sheehan explains, the National Gazette became “the arm” to the newly formed party, the first opposition party in the U.S., which formally came into existence in in the spring of 1792.

This emergence of oppositional political parties punctuated Adams’ single term in office from 1797-1801. And while Adams, too, saw the free press as an essential vehicle for the spread of democracy, that didn’t stop him from feeling frustration toward the way he was portrayed in it.

The attacks against him were vicious and personal. The Philadelphia Aurora (also known as the Aurora General Adviser), which went on to become the most influential Democratic-Republican paper in the 1790s, called the president “old, querulous, bald blind, crippled, toothless Adams.”

(For the record, Adams, too, had played a part in the partisan press. Mass communications scholar Timothy E. Cook wrote in his book, Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution that back in 1769, Adams recorded in a diary entry about joining Samuel Adams and others “preparing for the next day’s newspaper,—a curious employment, cooking up paragraphs, articles, occurrences, &c., working the political engine!”)

The year 1798, when Adams was likely studying the French philosopher’s work, was an especially rough one for his administration, which was reeling from the XYZ Affair, which set off an undeclared quasi-war between the U.S. and France. The Democratic-Republican press flayed Adams and his Federalist-dominated Congress for passing the Alien and Sedition Acts into law that summer. The four overtly partisan acts, which curtailed speech critical of the Federalist government and restricted the rights of foreign residents in the country (who conveniently were more likely to vote Democratic-Republican), offer a window into how what today would be called “fake news” was viewed differently by the two political parties.

“There was a deep sense of danger and peril at the time,” says Terri Halperin, author of The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Federalists, Adams among them, were concerned that immigrants with radical politics from France, Ireland, as well as England and Scotland, working in the printing business would spread seeds of discord that would upset the stability of the union.

“[The French] didn’t just attack and invade countries, they also tried to start a collapse from within by befriending and tricking others who would separate the people from their government,” says Halperin. “That’s where the danger from the newspapers come from.”

The influential Federalist paper Porcupine's Gazette, edited by William Cobbett, urged the government to "regenerate" the press. "Unless opposition newspapers were dealt with immediately," Cobbett wrote, according to historian James Morton Smith, "a set of villainous Republican editors, 'most unquestionably in the pay of France,' would continue to distribute their corroding poison throughout the Union.”

The Federalists wanted to prevent attacks they believed were destabilizing the uncertain position of the young republic while still protecting the essential First Amendment right to a free press; it’s why they gave juries the power to decide whether printed material was truthful or inflammatory and seditious in the Sedition Act.

Halperin adds that Adams likely felt the vitriolic criticism being waged against him was unfair, and his private note in the Condorcet tract reflects that. But the Democratic-Republicans press, which could now be sent to jail for voicing its dissent, pointed out (often colorfully) that finding a differentiation between political opinion and fact was impossible. To them, the critiques of Adams were wholly valid and his party’s intrusions on the Constitution dangerous on its own.

Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was the first to be charged under the Sedition Act. During his trial, Halperin says, he argued that the Sedition Act was “unconstitutional and void;” that the allegedly seditious letter he wrote against John Adams in Spooner’s Vermont Journal was written before the act was passed. He also pointed out that he had “no malicious” intent in his writing and that his content was truthful. Calling his witness, presiding judge William Paterson, to the stand, he asked him if he had ever “dine[d] with the President, and observed his ridiculous pomp and parade?” Paterson denied it, but chose not to answer when Lyon pushed him to compare the pomp surrounding Adams’ arrangements to that of the area where the trial was occurring.

The jury sided against Lyons, who was sentenced to four months in jail and a fine. Behind bars, he remained vocal about the injustices of the Sedition Act and became the first congressman to run and win reelection in prison.

“The truth as a defense that may seem nice,” says Halperin, “but no one is ever going to be able to do it because really what you’re doing is prosecuting opinion.”

Whether it's “fake news” fabrications like those promulgated by the Sons of Liberty or “fake news” stories that in reality break down to a difference of opinion, the tradeoffs of having a free independent press has been part of American politics since the beginning.

“I think Madison was probably the best on that one when he basically said you have to tolerate some sedition in order to have free communication. You can’t root out all,” says Halperin.

Writing anonymously in the National Gazette in 1791, Madison speaks to the power of the literati, which he classified as people who are writing things in newspapers and influencing public opinion. There, says Sheehan, he articulates the importance of a free press, partisan though it may be, writing:

“They are the cultivators of the human mind—the manufacturers of useful knowledge—the agents of the commerce of ideas—the censors of public manners—the teachers of the arts of life and the means of happiness.”

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