Would you click on this headline? In the last few months, the issue of “fake news” has dominated the airwaves. People have argued what fake news is and isn’t, its purpose and whether it’s harmful.
What is not discussed is that fake news has been around since the founding of our nation, and has even involved some of the Founders. The Washington Post shares how John Adams wrote in his diary in 1769 how he had spend the evening occupied with “a curious employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurrences etc. — working the political Engine!” He, cousin Sam Adams and other Boston patriots, were planting false and exaggerated stories meant to undermine royal authority in Massachusetts.
Colonial New Jersey governor, William Livingston, sent a copy of The Impartial Chronicle to George Washington for his amusement. Of course, The Impartial Chronicle was anything but, “reporting” that King George III was sending thousands of foreign soldiers to American soil: I take the Liberty to inclose you The impartial Chronicle in ridicule of Gain’s lying Gazetter, which is a Jersey Production, & will probably afford you a little Diversion in a Leisure moment.I am Sir with great Regard your most obedt Servt. Wil: Livingston
In 1782, when he heard that Great Britain was advocating for reconciliation, Benjamin Franklin took some time off as Ambassador to France to concoct a fake story that ran in the real Boston newspaper, the Independent Chronicle. His anger about the injustices and atrocities committed by Great Britain led him to create a gory story of how Indians, in league with the king, had scalped hundreds of children and soldiers in the New York frontier.
Franklin wrote a friend about the power of what he had done, saying “By the press we can speak to nations,” he wrote with pride. With the power of the newspaper, politicians could not only “strike while the iron is hot,” but also stoke those fires by “continual striking,” Franklin wrote with a wink. That power certainly exists today.