Following the presidential election, numerous stories surfaced about how “fake news” influenced the results. This prompted a reaction from the media and a concerted effort by the social media giant Facebook to crack down on the phenomenon—announcing that it would in part by using liberal fact-checkers to distinguish the “real” from the “fake” news.
The truth is that while the American media landscape has been in a constant state of change over two centuries, the spread of hyperpartisan, scurrilous, and even phony news stories has been more common than uncommon throughout the history of the republic.
Ultimately, despite the increasingly Wild West state of journalism, Americans have been better at finding the truth than less free societies.
The media response frames the fake news issue as nearly the single greatest threat to democracy in our time. But despite the worries that surround an uptick in fraudulent news, the phenomenon is nothing new, nor does it particularly portend dark times in America’s future.
The overreaction in response, potentially damaging both the right to free speech and a culture that supports it, may be more dangerous to a free society.
‘Dupes of Pretended Patriots’
The idea that the press could try to deceive rather than enlighten readers was not lost on the Founders. In the years before and after the American Revolution there was an explosion of printing presses throughout the Western world as improved printing technology was becoming widely available.