Let me begin with a little story about Ellery Sedgwick that will help us understand that fake news is not new, but more pernicious.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Sedgwick was one of the country’s most esteemed editors, first of Leslie’s Monthly and later at the Atlantic Monthly.
At Leslie’s Monthly, Sedgwick had a keen interest in boosting readership. The magazine was struggling, and to get more readers, he decided one day in 1902 to make up news.
The idea was born when someone told him horses evolved into smaller species in climates where temperatures are extreme. Sedgwick proposed that this theorist write a story on how to breed “kittenish horses.”
He insisted this was a stunt, not a hoax. “Not for the world,” he said, “would I bridge that gap, but to keep that story from falling flat it must be absolutely realistic.”
So, what happened? Sedgwick tells us, “In the deluge of letters that followed, there was not a suggestion that the story was a ‘spoof.’” One man took out a bank loan so he and his family could travel to Rhode Island to see the tiny creatures.
“The American mouth is always open,” Sedgwick said. “The monstrosities it gulps down outstrip the confines of credulity.”
In view of the surfeit of bogus stories that exists today, Sedgewick’s distinction between stunts and hoaxes is precious — a distinction without a difference. Better to draw a distinction between stunts and what we call fake news.
What Sedgewick did is nothing like broadcasting false, unverified information to shape the public’s thinking about the Iran nuclear deal or the character of a political opponent.
This is as much a violation of national security as giving away state secrets. It eats away at our democracy by discrediting the institutions on which we depend for reasoned discourse.
Now, I am not saying that fake news hasn’t been used in the past to advance political objectives. Think of those rumors that Grover Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock and the chant that greeted him on the campaign trail, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha.”
But four factors make this practice more pernicious now.
First, new media allow anyone to be a journalist without editorial supervision. News gates manned by editorial gatekeepers still exist in legacy media. But many putative journalists operate on vast fields where there are neither gates nor fences.
Second, fake news spins out of control in a way that a story in Leslie’s Monthly could not do. Fake news is easily passed on and gulped down. Worse, studies show the most outrageous news is the most quickly shared, since its outrageousness vividly confirms the reader’s biases.
Third, the sources of fake news don’t have to reveal themselves. Some of the most despicable fake news appears without any obvious patrimony. Sedgwick could not hide after his midget horse hoax. He took furious abuse from that man who took out a bank loan in order to visit Rhode Island. He was accountable.
Fourth and last is the growth of government information. The government’s capacity to communicate has increased exponentially along with new media technologies.
Of course, we need government-supplied facts: daily weather reports so, if need be, we can take an umbrella to work; trade data; the names of companies that win government contracts. And we want our political leaders to make the case for their policies. That is to the democratic process what air is to life.
But we do not want the government to use our tax dollars to shape our opinions though a vast and unaccountable information machine, which is exactly what we have.
We cannot begin to tally how much money is spent each year on government communication or how many people do it. We have few laws and regulations setting out what the government can and cannot do in the provision of information.
And we have little oversight, not only because that is difficult to do but also because both political parties have a vested interest in using the apparatus for their own benefit.
This power will only grow. For instance, at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – where the Internet was invented – scientists are exploring how messages can be framed to trigger chemical reactions in the brain that lead to agreement.
This can beneficial when propagandizing your enemies, provided you don’t think your enemies are your own citizens.
Valued-based communication has never been more important. We have a lot to do to combat fake news.
The vanguard of that war is the new generation of well-trained journalists who care about fact. There is no room any longer for hoaxes, like Sedgwick’s midget horses.
As he said in one of his many serious moments, “In journalism the standard is everything.”
John Maxwell Hamilton is Hopkins P. Breazeale Foundation professor at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication. This commentary is excerpted from a commencement address Hamilton delivered last week at the College of Communication, Boston University.