With all this talk about fake news, you might think this is a recent phenomenon. Jarrett Stepman provides a history of fake news in the US and the attempts government and other entities have used to try to stop it.
He reminds us that the Founding Fathers were well aware of the power of the press. Many of them (such as Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine) were newspapermen and pamphleteers. That is why they were all high on King George III’s enemies list.
Three years after the Constitution was ratified, Congress added the Bill of Rights that included the First Amendment that provided protections for the press. They understood the power of the press. Benjamin Franklin explained that the press acted as the “court” of public opinion and wielded great power. But Thomas Jefferson also argued that the most effectual way for a people to be governed by “reason and truth” is to give freedom to the press.
Early attempts to suppress fake news or unpopular opinions did not go well. The Federalist Party passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams to clamp down on false writing. It became so unpopular that the party was crushed in future elections and ceased to exist as a party.
There is a lesson for the “Big Four Tech Masters” in Silicon Valley, which I wrote about recently. For some time, they have argued they are merely a platform and have no responsibility to evaluate what is posted on their sites. Now, some of them (Facebook and Google) want to develop a way to fact-check stories and limit the amount of fake news on the Internet.
The founders gave us a free press unhindered by a government oversight that could censor or modify news and information. Instead, they encouraged all of us to read widely and check out the facts. That is still the best approach for today.