Posted by: George | July 31, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 18

The more effectively to nourish discord and disorder the Romans had, to the astonishment of those who confided in their sincerely, already proclaimed universal liberty throughout Greece. With the same insidious views, they now seduced the members from the league, by representing to their pride the violation it committed to their sovereignty. By these arts, this union, the last hope of Greece, the last hope of ancient liberty, was torn into pieces; and such imbecility and distraction introduced, that the arms of Rome found little difficulty in completing the ruin which their arts had commenced.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Federalist No. 18

Fake news was not born in the digital age. If we study history, Hamilton and Madison argue, we will see it has always existed and it had the power to destroy countries, especially loose confederacies. The Romans used fake news—their “arts”—to destroy the remnants of the Greek empire.

If fake news has always been with us, why are we so distressed by its current manifestation? Our nation seems to have survived Jefferson and Adams telling half-truths or outright lies about each other, Russian propaganda, the Watergate assault on our democracy, Reagan’s memory lapses, and Clinton’s “that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” statement. So, what’s different?

With the proliferation of media (talk radio, 24/7 news channels, blogs, and social media), the sources of information have become flattened. A significant portion of our population views a story invented by a be-pimpled teen in Rumania, packaged as a valid news story, and shot out across social media as beyond doubt—as true as a story in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

As media has proliferated, it has become easier to seek the news that reinforces rather than challenges beliefs. We have less dialog across the political spectrum to promote critical thinking.

The other major difference is time. When Hamilton and Madison were writing The Federalist Papers, news took days and sometimes weeks to spread throughout the colonies. Now, the effects of fake news, lies, and contradictions unfold in seconds.

On July 26, at 7:55 am, just last week, the president tweeted the following message: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……” He didn’t finish his sentence until 9:04 am. He had a little attention problem, I guess. Or, maybe we should have realized there was going to be a really long delay to the rest of the message because he put in a bunch of extra ellipsis dots.

So, what happened during the intervening hour and nine minutes? According to BuzzFeed, some generals at the Pentagon were afraid the president was going to declare war on North Korea in a couple of Tweets, spaced an hour and nine minutes apart for dramatic effect.

Here, in one social media event, we can see all of the dangers of digital communication. If the president is announcing policy on Twitter, then every medium is equally valid. If the president can announce major policies on his phone, information is not vetted. If branches of government and the American people believe that every word the president utters is important and the president shots out messages without much thought, the result is confusion, with potentially disastrous outcomes. While you might not consider a tweet from the president to be fake news, it has the same effect. Truth and clarity are lost in the muck and mire and too much information.

One other difference I should probably mention: the fake news that destroyed the Greek confederacy came from the Romans. The fake news that endangers our nation comes from the White House.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

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