How the Founders Dealt with Fake News

by Jarrett Stepman for the Foundation for Economic Education

Following the [2016] 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 fact-checkers to distinguish the “real” from the “fake” news.

Americans have been better at finding the truth than less free societies.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.

Journalists and pamphleteers were certainly vital to spreading the ideas of American rebellion against the English—names like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams were nearly synonymous with the American Revolution, and they certainly weren’t alone. Though propaganda and distortion of the news were common as well.

After America gained independence, there were still huge numbers of scribblers writing about news and politics with varying levels of credibility and accuracy.

When the framers of the Constitution met to discuss the construction of the new government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, freedom of the press and what it would mean for the future of the country was certainly on their minds.

Many Founders fretted about what the proliferation of false or destructive notions would mean for the idea of democracy and a society of mass political participation.

Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry lamented how the people in his home state were being led astray by false stories from malcontents and manipulators.

“The people do not want [lack] virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said. “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.”

So what did the Founders do to stop this problem? They created a system of government that would allow room for democracy, yet checked its vices: through institutions like Congress, the constitutional amendment process, and division of power between branches of government as well as the states and federal government. Not to mention the Electoral College, which the modern left now decries as unfair and undemocratic.

Unfortunately, some of these checks have been eroded over time and continue to be undermined. For instance, the 17th Amendment forced states to elect senators through a popular vote rather than have the state legislature choose a representative, which has reduced the power of the states in the American system.

And in some states, like California, the requirement to pass a constitutional amendment is simply 50 percent of the vote plus one, yet again increasing the chance that a temporary excitement of the populace can lead to rapid, negative changes in governance.

The weakening of the structural checks on democracy has been the greater threat of fake news’ proliferation than nonsense peddlers themselves.

Tocqueville on the ‘Liberty of the Press’

The years following the founding saw a booming and free-wheeling publishing industry, unimpeded by the licensing and restrictions common in other countries. It was not only the Founders who understood the trade-offs between a free press and misleading news. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French observer of American life, wrote about the freedom of the press in his 1835 book “Democracy in America.”

Tocqueville noted that when he arrived in the U.S., the very first newspaper article he read was an overheated piece accusing then-President Andrew Jackson of being a “heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority” and a “gamester” who ruled by corruption. This type of account was not unusual.

The years following the founding saw a booming and free-wheeling publishing industry, unimpeded by the licensing and restrictions common in other countries. Freedom allowed newspapers to proliferate throughout the United States in a highly decentralized way.

And in early American history, most newspapers were expressly partisan or outright controlled by individual politicians. They often aggressively attacked and made outrageous comments about political opponents.

Yet Tocqueville wrote that despite the general vehemence of the press, America was further from actual violence and political revolution than other societies that tightly controlled information.

While recognizing the occasional problems of an unimpeded fourth estate, Tocqueville wrote that “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.”

An attempt to submit “false” news and opinions through an official fact-checker would likely only elevate and perhaps justify a false opinion in the minds of the people, according to Tocqueville.

He continued to write that expecting to have the good of a free press without the bad has been “one of those illusions which commonly mislead nations in their times of sickness when, tired with faction and exhausted by effort, they attempt to make hostile opinions and contrary principles coexist upon the same soil.”

Americans were so used to being bombarded with opinions and information from a diverse media, Tocqueville wrote, that they were less likely to react to falsehoods and outrageous opinions.

Fake News existed in that time as well as ours, but it did little to outright convince people to change their views. This continues to be the case today.

Tocqueville concluded of a free press:

When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries and to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn. The sovereignty of the people and the liberty of the press may therefore be regarded as correlative, just as the censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things which are irreconcilably opposed and which cannot long be retained among the institutions of the same people.

The visiting Frenchman understood what Americans have almost always believed. Occasional false news stories cannot destroy a society fitted for liberty, but extreme efforts to contain them will.

The Search for Truth

The reality is, barriers to prevent modern Americans from receiving “fake news” are unlikely to succeed in a free society where a mass of information is readily available.

The internet, and a lack of trust in the legacy media, has allowed numerous new media publications to find success. It has again radically decentralized the way Americans get their information.

These legacy media organizations are attempting to reign in the chaos with new gimmicks like fact-checkers, but ultimately their influence and credibility are fading in the minds of Americans as fewer people trust or desire to read those sources.

This isn’t an anomaly in American life—it has been the norm. We must trust and maintain the mediating constitutional system the Founders created along the judgment of the American people.

The freedom of the press, enshrined in the First Amendment and tempered by institutions designed to slow governmental change and thwart temporary excitements of opinion, created a nation incredibly free, yet robust enough to withstand potential large-scale errors in judgment.

The Founders understood that the good would outweigh the bad with a free press, and no court could justly measure the rightness or wrongness of news and public opinion. They realized that without allowing the press to operate freely and leaving the people as its ultimate tribunal, America would never truly be a land of liberty.

Fake or biased news was the willingly paid price of an open society, and the winnowing process of the American system ultimately leads the country toward the truth.

Jarrett Stepman

Jarrett Stepman

Jarrett Stepman is an editor for The Daily Signal

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

How Jesus Exorcized Ancient Collectivism

Reprinted from by David Gornoski, January 6, 2017.

Have you ever found yourself living out a role scripted by those around you?  Whether it’s a family member, partner, social clique, work rival, or boss, we tend to subsume other people’s scripts for us.

You dress very finely and people call you a snob, so you begin to behave like one.  If enough voices box you into a perceived role, you tend to adopt some of its ways.

The drug addict, if set up to play the role of the anti-social screw-up, will often become as such.

The type-A business person finds himself becoming cold, greedy, and slippery as vocal and nonverbal perceptions of his role subconsciously influence the way he acts out his persona.

These great (or grating) expectations can cause burdensome conflict and bitterness in our lives, particularly at the cultural-political level.  People tend to move in groupthink.  That’s the norm, the baseline modus operandi of our species.

That Old Time Religion

The groups we form tend to give us a sense of transcendence — that is, a feeling of being able to become something bigger than ourselves — as we adopt the same thought patterns, angers, passions, hates, rituals, rhetoric, and enemies of a common body.

Acting as groups — whether defined by Marxism, racial identity, or a libertarianism — has a way of giving our lives peace, order, and a mission.  It’s our “old time religion,” you can say.  After all, “religion” comes from the Latin root meaning “to bind together.”

Culture, be it a nation or a clique of drinking buddies, is the way we act out our religion, our “binding” together.  Our group cultures never find such ecstasy as when we find a person — usually someone who doesn’t perform a script we approve for them — to expel or wage war against.  Expelling a misfit, a stubborn devil’s advocate, or an ideological turncoat rallies and unifies our passion-driven shared beliefs and acts to the point where we become as one body eliminating the toxin for our health.

Our culture creates violent, self-fulfilling systemic purging.  Desensitized sex workers, greedy tax evaders, drug pushing gunslingers don’t just pop up in a vacuum.  They are symptoms of cycles of collectivist group purges.  Yes, they are ultimately responsible for the actions they take, make no mistake, but when we treat people as “Other” we create the monsters for which we were looking.

We need those monsters.

The cold-eyed prostitute is out there so that we are here, nowhere near her lot in life.  The gun-trading dealer is who he is so we can measure our own socially-approved markers of respectability against his contrast.  I’m exploitative, but not like him.  The billionaire finds more and more cunning ways to shelter his money and game our culture’s tax and regulation system so we can feel comparatively honest, selfless team players.

Tales of the Scapegoat

Where do we learn our collective cultural values?  From the stories we tell.  That’s what education and mass media and art provide: stories that reinforce collectivism as the way of the world; we should pick a side, play by the rules of the game, and battle for supremacy over other rival groups.  Forever, apparently.

Nightly news reports of another successful drug bust in a rejected part of town are supposed to remind us: play by the rules our collective has designed or else you will receive violence and expulsion.  You will become an Other.

There’s a bug in the script, though.  A counter-cultural force has emerged in history that produces counter-stories that are slowly eroding our dominant collectivist notions of the world.  These stories leave their fingerprints on our social norms and desires regardless of our awareness of them and regardless of how collectivist groups fraudulently misappropriate them for their own violent campaigns.  These stories are good news for all misfits, indeed, all persons looking for the courage to reject the lie of the crowd that is collectivism.

I call it the personhood revolution and its founder is Jesus of Nazareth.

Beyond just rhetoric, Jesus performed his aesthetic of personhood.  He created a subversive viral bug in our old collectivist system that reversed the mainstream script: when your group is threatened or stressed, find a common enemy and expel him.  Blame him. Dehumanize her.  Kill it.

In the new script Jesus invited all of us to perform, he first openly admits that he’s a total imitator himself.  He doesn’t set himself up as the originator of anything but points all of his ideas back to his dad, God.  He then asks listeners to imitate his imitation of God — one of mercy, not sacrifice — thereby finding transcendence outside of our collectivist violent purging.

Exorcising the Crowd from the Individual

In this performative context, the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s mission are freshly astonishing.  One such example is the story of the Demoniac of Gerasa.

A literary analysis shows us the breakthrough taking place in the narrative.  Whether every element is literal or not is beyond the scope of this discussion.  What’s in view for our literary analysis is what the narrative is doing symbolically to its audience — steeped even more than we are in a culture in which collectivist violence was sacred.

Jesus travels across the Sea of Tiberius to the Roman pagan city of Gerasa.  Immediately, he is confronted with a possessed man.  The howler lives among the tombs away from polite society.  When he’s not moaning, he neurotically stones himself.  Apparently, this community has other-ized him so thoroughly that he performs the script of a dehumanized monster on his own.  They don’t even need to lift a pebble.

Jesus asks him what his name is.  He replies enigmatically, “Legion, for we are many.”  A Roman legion was the greatest symbol of the power of the Roman collective body.  It was the vessel by which the empire owned outposts like Jesus’s own country.

And a legion was many, anywhere from 3,000-5,000 soldiers made up a unit.  The Latin word legio was used to refer to a large group of people.  It also meant “a chosen body.”  The demoniac is the one chosen body and the many at the same time.  There’s a double entendre taking place in the narrative.  Philosophers call this the one-and-the-many paradox: the logic of humanity.

The man’s many voices beg Jesus not to expel them out of the land.  So Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs — the livestock of the community — who collectively throw themselves in the sea as one.  In Jewish literature, the sea is always symbolically associated with chaos.

In this text, we have the world’s first exorcism of a crowd out of a person.  In other words, we have a performance in which the narrative does not reinforce the mainstream narrative of collective bodies assuming possession of persons to reinforce their shared virtue against a villain.  Rather, we have a misfit reject being exorcised of the collectivist voices in his head.  These voices are given a proper home, a herd of creatures less than human who mindlessly imitate their own destruction by drowning in the sea — again, a literary device for chaos.

Left without their chosen scapegoat, the Many — the crowd’s voice that consumed the man to ostracize himself among corpses and perpetually stone himself — is symbolically unmasked by the narrative to reveal what the Gospel authors see as its future culturally perceived place in Jesus’s project: animalistic herds driven to self-destructive chaos.

Instead of Jesus helping the crowd eliminate its common enemy, he frees the person of the possession of the crowd.  The collective script no longer holds him in chains.  Clothed and in his right mind, the man — purged of the collectivist script possessing his being — can no longer provide his town with the catharsis and group normalcy yardstick on which they relied.  As such, the collective is terrified.  They beg Jesus to leave at once.  Their magic antidote for peace, order, and a shared sense of well-being has been stolen.  The man, restored of his sense of self, asks Jesus to let him join him.  Jesus tells him to stay and teach his town the way of mercy he had demonstrated to him.

Our Own Demons

We must continue to enact this counter-story today.  Our neighbors are robbed of their humanity by a society that grinds them down into scripted molds that rob them of their vibrant, dignified personhood.  We cast our misfits into human cages like animals.  We allow them to “stone themselves” as they self-medicate with destructive drugs to cope with the social alienation.  We cheapen and commodify sex every day in every aspect of popular culture and then cast sex workers and their loser clients into the living tombs of prison.

We provoke our neighbors to cling more selfishly to hyper-competitiveness and greed in the marketplace by creating ever more labyrinthine, lifeless rites of passage we call regulations they must hurdle lest we steal their money through fines or cast them into cages.

We do all of this, of course, in the new mantra of victims.  Personhood-robbing, innovation-killing laws are covered up with narratives with which we pacify our cognitive dissonance: yes, we’ll send armed agents to use deadly force to raid a raw milk farmer, but we do it because of the potential victims he might create.

Our age-old collectivist violence, fatally infected by the virus of personhood for over two millennia, must find clever ways to sneak back in faux-imitation of Jesus’s counter-narrative’s defense of victims and misfits, those most prone to receive collectivist violence.

We need the FDA’s criminalization of nonviolent acts lest the wild west of personhood-respecting voluntary exchange and innovation allow persons to become victims of fraudsters and pranksters.

No, actually, we don’t.  Protection against fraud will always be a feature compatible with a voluntary order of free persons.  It’s a self-defense mechanism that protects victims from actual violence rather than some imagined future chaos that justifies preemptive aggression.

It is collectivist violence and its possession of our minds we must exorcise.  We must cast out the accusing, belittling, abusive voice of the Many that owns the minds of our modern chosen maniacs, our necessary victims.  Our path is personal service and mercy, not collective violence.  Be it.

David Gornoski is your neighbor — as well as an entrepreneur, speaker and writer. He recently launched a project called A Neighbor’s Choice, which seeks to introduce Jesus’s culture of nonviolence to both Christians and the broader public.

My comment on this article on the day it was published: Wow!  Just wow!  Only yesterday, mumbling to myself, I said I feel like an alien in a world of mindless followers.  (I read Hoffer’s The True Believer more than 45 years ago.)  For nearly as many years I have argued that collective theft in order to transfer wealth to the thieves’ chosen groups of dependents does not meet Jesus’s exhortation that individuals, wealthy or poor, do the giving themselves, individually; not because others are needy but because giving is what humble people of God do.

=David A. Woodbury=