The Antidemocratic Origins of Fake News

tags: democracy, Fake News

Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and a historian of the 19th and 20th century United States, with particular interests in the history of emotional experience, social movements, and political communication. He is the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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.” ...

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