Fake News is as Old as the U.S.A Itself
Scandals involving fake news have clogged up our newsfeeds for months. But it is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination.
By Nicole Buckler
For those of us who aren’t familiar with the American Revolution, Patriots from thirteen colonies rebelled against British control. Their struggle for independence was a bloody one, with the war breaking out in 1775 and lasting for eight years. In the end the Patriots won independence and broke from the rule of the crown. The United States of America was declared an independent nation.
During the war, African American slaves were freed to join the fight (for both sides) with a promise of freedom at the end of the upheaval. Also, African American freeman joined in the fight, on both sides. Native Americans also joined the war, on both sides.
But it seems that the Patriots won the propaganda battle by using fake news to unite the 13 colonies, at the expense of slaves, former slaves and Native Americans, amongst other minorities.
According to Robert Parkinson, assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, the Founding Fathers of the United States used fake news to unite the 13 colonies during the American Revolution. Political leaders, in collusion with newspaper printers, busted out all sorts of fake articles to unify colonists up and down the coast and keep the war momentum going.
The patriots needed more than “the British are coming” to unite the 13 colonies and scare them into action. Says Parkinson, “The patriots reached into their toolbox and pulled out their most effective weapon. They were in emergency mode. The 13 colonies didn’t like each other and didn’t know anything about each other. But if they didn’t stick together, they were in big trouble.”
And who was the common enemy? Well it wasn’t just the British that were in the firing line. The fake news stories also made enemies of slaves and freeman, Native Americans and other minorities. The newspaper articles accused these minorities of being “proxies” of the British. The newspapers claimed that they were just as much a violent threat.
Parkinson read every newspaper that is still available from the Revolutionary War era, and examined documents highlighting British tyranny from the time. He noticed that the front page of newspapers usually featured political essays stressing natural rights and liberties, while the back page offered local advertisements. The middle of the newspapers, however, featured the same dark stories about British tyranny. “I would drive home and be astounded about how much news there was about African Americans and the potential threats of Native Americans, especially early in the war,” said Parkinson.
The fearmongering against African Americans and Native Americans came thick and fast, despite the fact that these very people were fighting alongside the Patriots whilst the articles were being pumped out. Six to 10 percent of the Continental Army was comprised of African Americans. Nevertheless, “blacks were always seen in the press as helping the British,” Parkinson said. “They were portrayed constantly as aiding and abetting the enemy.”
The Founding Fathers also were not shy about fabricating a story. In 1782, Benjamin Franklin – concerned about a potential reconciliation with Britain – reported that American forces had discovered packages containing the scalps of women and children taken by Seneca Indians. Franklin then wrote a fake letter from naval great John Paul Jones urging the importance of independence because the king “engages savages to murder their defenceless farmers, women and children.”
By the war’s end, the colonies gained their independence. But the “common cause” – racial prejudice – had become ingrained in American society.
“We often give the founders a pass,” Parkinson said. “We say: ‘Look at all of the things they changed.’ It’s more complicated than that. Hamilton, Jefferson and all of the founders –despite all of their qualms about slavery – participated in the hardening and deepening of it.”
The results of the “common cause” are still resonating today more than 230 years after the end of the Revolutionary War. “At the very heart of the republic is the idea of exclusion,” said Parkinson. “It’s the idea that some people are Americans and some people just don’t belong. Those notions persist today. There are people who are automatically seen as outsiders. It is so deeply interwoven into the history of the United States. In many ways, it’s what originally united the states.”
So what can we learn from all this? A lot. The human race needs to get good with the truth, and be more aware of what is in our newsfeeds, and what is behind it being there in the first place.
This lesson applies to all of us. A war that creates profit for a small minority but uses young men as cannon fodder? Totally achievable with a hysterical media.
For further reading, the book is called The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution.
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