By Bill Powers
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain
“Fake News”, also known as disinformation, is not new. These days It gives rise to a toxic environment that splits Americans, and negatively affects our political process, our institutions and the integrity of our democracy.
These days with disinformation running rampant, it becomes difficult to be sure that what you think you know is based on fact. Outright lies and messages of hate are intentionally spread through the traditional media sources, social media and social networking in efforts to persuade. Messages of disinformation arise not only from domestic sources but also from foreign sources often originating from places such as Russia, Iran and China. In the 2016 U.S. election Russian operatives famously flooded social media with disinformation designed to influence the election. In 2022, China has ratcheted up their ability to “create controversy along racial, economic, and ideological lines” while targeting American voters, according to Clint Watts of the Microsoft Threat Analysis Cener (September, 2023). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also recently warned that China is attempting to influence U.S. elections. On September 9, 2023, President Biden extended the National Emergency for Foreign Intervention in U.S. Elections citing “unusual and extraordinary threat” to national security. Domestically there is an overabundance of nonsensical conspiracy theories that infest our society today.
Is “disinformation” the same thing as “misinformation”? During the cold war of the 1950s, the term “disinformation” became popular to describe the intentional spreading of false information in order mislead. The word propaganda also comes to mind especially during the mid-1900s. The term “misinformation” is used when incorrect information is spread without the intention of misleading. These days we need truth more than ever before, since there are now countless sources of information where real facts and the truth can be so elusive.
A popular term used today is “fake news” that can be defined as misleading information presented as intentionally and verifiably false news. A concern is that being barraged by so much information in a short period of time by so many sources can be so confusing, overwhelming, and confounding. Rephrasing Mark Twain’s quotation: “What gets you into trouble is what you think you know, that factually isn’t true.” It’s hard to know if what we know is true, especially these days. Thinking critically involves sorting out fact and truth, and that takes time and energy. Frequently, I endure the many pundits and bloggers who put forth all sorts of ideas and I’m not really certain if I have just been bedazzled by brilliance or baffled by bullshit. When that happens, I try to pay attention to the resulting unsettling disparity that I am experiencing and simply try not to just laugh it off.
“Fake news” was a factor 100 years ago. It was the topic of a September, 1923, Willimantic Daily Chronicle editorial titled “FAKE NEWS ITEMS”. Here’s what the editor wrote: “Every now and then some person with a poorly developed sense of humor sets to work to get a fake news item printed, either telephoning it to the office or sending in an unsigned communication.
“This is one of the many things with which newspaper workers have to contend and to their credit let it be said that a few items of this nature appear in print. It takes all kinds of persons to make the world and we suppose that there is bound to be a certain percentage of these so-called humorists among them. A law making it a criminal offense to furnish a fake news item to a newspaper or its workers would go a long way towards stopping this despicable practice.”
Clearly, one hundred years ago fake news was a concern and according to the editor, in an effort to prevent fake news, the Chronicle employed a practice for screening anonymous items. However, one could provide disinformation or misinformation as long as they took credit for it. Effective screening is not so easy these days with so many sources of information and fake news. Screening or thoughtful review is preferable to censorship or suppression; finding a happy medium can also present a slippery slope.
From the time of Colonial America, newspapers in America were very politically biased. Using the Willimantic Chronicle as an example, its first issue was published on December 3, 1879 and it succeeded a weekly paper called the Willimantic Enterprise, thatwas first published only two years earlier. The Chronicle incorporated many new changes compared to the Enterprise. Perhaps the biggest change was its devotion to a political ideology. Whereas the Enterprise had been apolitical, the Chronicle immediately declared itself to be the local advocate for the Democratic Party’s views and ideals. As explained in the first issue: “The need for such a paper as we intend for the Chronicle, has been felt by those in this community who are in sympathy with the political struggles which it is designed to advocate. Within the past eight years the growth of the Democratic party in the town of Windham from a minority, counted by hundreds, to a majority, has been in the face of the open or disguised opposition to our local press. It is high time the party had some local organ which will inspire into its ranks a united, organized and persistent zeal, and to marshal an unbroken phalanx to the triumph at the ballot box of liberty, equality and law.”
The reporting of the news in America, when first amendment freedoms exist, has always been biased and polarized and to some extent characterized by disinformation and misinformation. However, today’s electronic social media, with or without interference from foreign sources, further splits Americans and predisposes the destruction of trust in our political process, our institutions, and the very integrity of our democracy.
Perhaps the Willimantic Chronicle editor’s intuition, from a century ago, calling for “a law making it a criminal offense to furnish a fake news item”, was on the right track. The problem has grown one hundred fold since that time. The editor got it right! “Fake news” is a “despicable practice” especially when it undermines trust of our political process, our institutions and the integrity of our democracy.
Bill Powers is a retired teacher and resides in Windham