Terry McLaughlin: ‘Fake news’ can’t destroy democracy, but efforts to contain it can | TheUnion.com
Terry McLaughlin
Columnist

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Terry McLaughlin: ‘Fake news’ can’t destroy democracy, but efforts to contain it can

We have all been hearing the phrase "fake news" quite a bit lately in connection with inaccurate news reports, leaks from Russian hacking, phony social media posts and tweets, scam emails making the rounds, and much more.

I recently heard someone jokingly say, "The more information you hear, the less informed you are."

And sadly, in some cases, that seems to be true.

Often what we call "fake news" isn't really phony — it is just incomplete. Media sources can decide what issues or events to cover or to ignore, and what interpretation to place on those news items. Reporters can choose to investigate all sides of an issue, or choose to focus on only one aspect. Speakers can be quoted out of context, radically changing the intent of their words. Headlines can sensationalize otherwise benign stories. If you recall the words "yellow journalism" or "propaganda," you will know that this is not a new phenomenon.

The solution to fake news, propaganda, or partisan spin is to arm yourself with an understanding of what America is and a belief in the core character of our nation.

Webster's defines propaganda as "any systemic, widespread dissemination or promotion of particular ideas, doctrines or practices, to further one's own cause or to damage an opposing one." While the American media landscape may have been changing constantly for the past 200 years, partisan, scurrilous, and phony news stories have been around since long before the founding of our country, and the idea that a free press could try to deceive rather than enlighten readers was not lost on our Founding Fathers.

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When the framers met to discuss the construction of a new government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, many worried about what the proliferation of false or destructive ideas could mean for this new democracy. Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry was concerned that people in his state were being manipulated by false stories saying, "The people do not lack virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts it has been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute."

The years following our nation's founding saw a booming publishing industry, unimpeded by some of the restrictions which were common in most other countries. Early in American history, most newspapers were partisan or even actually controlled by individual politicians. Because of this, they often aggressively attacked or made outrageous comments about political opponents. In spite of that, Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French observer of American life, and author of the 1835 book, "Democracy in America," opined that despite the general vehemence of the press, America was actually further from violence and political revolution than other societies that more tightly controlled the dissemination of information. Tocqueville understood that "in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates."

The First Amendment protects people's right to say almost anything, and if we take our First Amendment seriously, barriers to prevent Americans from receiving "fake news" are unlikely to succeed. The internet has allowed numerous new media sources to find success and has radically decentralized the way we get our information. As we welcome and take advantage of the amazing amount of information now accessible with just a keystroke on our computers or the touch of a finger on our phones, fake or biased news is the willing price we pay for such an open society. George Washington said, "If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter".

Disinformation is best fought culturally — people simply need to know when to view it with a healthy skepticism or to ignore it altogether. Propaganda is effective only because it is loosely based in truth, with plenty of room for interpretation, which provides the fertile ground upon which doubt can be sown. Propaganda or "fake news" will not gain a following in a strong society that believes and trusts in itself. Members of a strong and confident culture will realize that what they are being told simply does not jive with whom they know themselves to be.

But a society that fails to believe in itself and its people will ultimately find something else to believe in, some kind of narrative that explains the world, even if it is contrary to that society's own interests.

Even back in 1835, Tocqueville believed that Americans were becoming so used to being bombarded with opinions and information from a diverse media, that they were less likely to react to falsehoods and outrageous opinions than citizens of countries in which media and speech was more restricted. Tocqueville understood what our Founders knew, and what I hope today's Americans still believe — that occasional false news stories cannot destroy a free and democratic society, but extreme efforts to contain them will.

The solution to fake news, propaganda, or partisan spin is to arm yourself with an understanding of what America is and a belief in the core character of our nation.

Don't be fooled by those "false reports circulated by designing men," and don't be afraid to watch the network or cable news, read the newspapers, listen to the radio, or follow social media.

But before you do, just administer to yourself a very simple inoculation — believe in America.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.