The Antidemocratic Origins of Fake News

Pionier U2Bakelite Radio, 1940s(Photo: Wojciech Pysz, via Wikimedia Commons)

It is obvious to most Americans that the current epidemic of “fake news” – false and misleading partisan propaganda dressed up to look like unbiased news stories – is bad for democracy. What may be less clear, however, is that fake news is specifically designed to be bad for democracy – that it stems from a fundamentally antidemocratic view of society. Fake news is not new in American history; a hundred years ago, Americans consumed biased and unethical media and debated its effects on the body politic, just as they do today. The cynical philosophy of those who peddled false information in the 1910s and 1920s can help us understand why fake news is not only bad for the public but also antithetical to a democratic culture.

In 1928, at the height of the postwar stock market bubble, Americans listening to the weekly “Halsey-Stuart Radio Hour” enjoyed the resonant tones of a man identified only as the “Old Counselor.” In a calm, confident voice perfectly suited to the radio audience, the Old Counselor dispensed seemingly-innocuous investment advice. Often, he would promote stocks belonging to a dubious holding company controlled by utilities magnate Samuel Insull – a company in which Halsey, Stuart, & Co. just happened to have invested millions themselves. The Insull holdings collapsed during the Great Depression, wiping out the savings of thousands who had followed the Old Counselor’s advice. During the ensuing congressional hearings, Halsey, Stuart, & Co. president Harold L. Stuart caused a minor scandal when he admitted that the trusted Old Counselor was not an economics expert at all; he was Bertram G. Nelson, a University of Chicago professor of public speaking. For a salary of fifty dollars an episode, the congressmen learned, Nelson had put his skills to use hawking Insull stocks – repeating in a “mellow voice” lines written for him by the investment bankers themselves.

The congressmen did not recognize the name Bertram G. Nelson, but they probably should have, for Nelson had been in the news before. During World War I, Nelson had worked for the Committee on Public Information, George Creel’s pioneering government propaganda bureau. Nelson’s job at the CPI was to train the Four-Minute Men, a nationwide army of public speakers who promoted the war effort during the four-minute transition between film reels at movie theaters. “How can we reach [the people]?” Nelson asked in a wartime speech. “Not through the press, for they do not read; not through patriotic rallies, for they do not come. Every night eight to ten million people… meet in the moving picture houses of this country, and among them are many of these silent ones who do not read or attend meetings but who must be reached.” Operating as a roving speech instructor, Nelson traveled the country showing ordinary Americans how to use mass media events to influence audiences; ten years later, he used the same skills to defraud the public for fifty dollars a week.

For Nelson, there was scarcely any difference between selling patriotism and selling shady Insull securities, because he had imbibed the ideas of social control that permeated the wartime propaganda effort. George Creel’s heavy-handed techniques – praised by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf for the “immense results” they generated – were built on a pervasive belief that people could not be trusted to make sound political choices and that experts should manipulate the media to keep the people in check. Many in the CPI were devotees of the French crowd psychologist Gustave Le Bon, who had argued in 1896 that crowds, including the voting public, were “a servile flock that is incapable of ever doing without a master.” Le Bon had urged leaders to manipulate popular opinion by first affirming a belief or political program, then repeating the affirmation multiple times, and finally enabling the operation of “a contagious power as intense as that of microbes” to spread the program through the crowd. The French psychologist had freely admitted that his ultimate goal was to undermine democracy: “To know the art of impressing the imagination of crowds,” he had written, “is to know at the same time the art of governing them.”

In the 1920s, several CPI alumni carried this approach into the burgeoning field of advertising. One was Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and a leading figure in the new advertising culture. “No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea,” Bernays declared in 1928. “The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion.” Fortunately, Bernays continued, “the minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction.”

In the 1920s, most advertising pioneers and cultural commentators agreed with Bernays. Praising the efforts of the CPI, newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken argued that democracy could thrive only if intelligent leaders “devoted themselves to the arts of the demagogue” in order to “debauch the booboisie into accepting ideas of a relatively high soundness.” “The public must be put in its place,” agreed journalist Walter Lippmann, another wartime propagandist, “so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.” The behavioral psychologist John B. Watson went further, boldly declaring that human behavior was a purely mechanical set of “responses” conditioned by external “stimuli.” By studying the relationship between stimulus and response, Watson reasoned, psychologists could develop “laws and principles whereby man’s actions can be controlled by organized society.” Forced from his professorship at Johns Hopkins, Watson left academia to put his ideas into practice at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

Bruce Barton, an advertising magnate and future congressman, exemplified these antidemocratic themes in his best-selling biography of Jesus Christ, The Man Nobody Knows (1925). The son of God, Barton wrote, was actually the “founder of modern business” whose every action was designed to manipulate the masses. “Every one of the ‘principles of modern salesmanship’ on which business men so much pride themselves,” Barton concluded, “are brilliantly exemplified in Jesus’ talk and work.” Even the divine miracles he performed were “front page stories” designed to advertise his creed. Barton’s Jesus had no interest in educating people to a truer understanding of the Gospel; he simply manipulated public opinion to win as many converts as he could.

Like Barton, Bernays, and Le Bon, today’s purveyors of fake news have little faith in the power of the electorate to make wise choices; instead, as some openly admit, they seek to control the masses in order to advance their own political agendas. Evidence indicates that their strategy is working: according to one analysis, during the three months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Americans consumed more false media content than truthful journalism. This war on truth, promoted by reckless public figures and unscrupulous media outlets alike, is so damaging to the American public sphere that Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan has accurately described “standing up for facts” as “a kind of patriotic act.”

Just as it was a century ago, fake news is an issue not of partisanship but of democracy. Knowingly providing Americans with “alternative facts” implies more than just a desire to win elections at all costs; it requires an abiding contempt for the public deliberation that lies at the heart of a free society. Americans should demand truthful information from journalists and politicians not just because fact-based analysis is the foundation of good governance. They should do so because telling voters the truth is how our leaders demonstrate respect for democracy itself.

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