Fake News, Then and Now

AHA Session 297
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Delaware Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Marcus L. Daniel, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
“This Plagariasm Was Falsely Sold”: Lies, Libels, and Copies in the Late 18th Century
Nora Slonimsky, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania
Robert Parkinson, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Session Abstract

The contested role of a free press in the functioning of a representative democracy is a timeless story, one that translates across cultural, regional, and chronological boundaries. What defines freedom of the press – an absence of censorship, of regulation, of proprietary or commercial weight – is similarly controversial. The circulation of information, of factual and authentic materials, serves as a pivotal bridge between those in power and the people who put them there, a means by which citizens can remain aware of the actions of their government. Without an accurate and independent press, civic knowledge and engagement falter. Both in the founding era of our nation and in its ongoing upheaval today, delineating which news is real and which news is “fake” speaks to the very survival of the Republic and the equal treatment of those who reside within it.

Our panel explores the connections between “fake news” in the Early American Republic and in the political climate today. Focusing on an interpretation of political engagement in which truth was central, each paper evaluates a facet of the indictment of fake news, both when the information was in fact true and accused of falsehood, and when it was fictionalized for a precise political reason. Katlyn Carter’s paper looks at the intersection of newspaper publishing, public opinion, and political decision-making. If public opinion was viewed as the litmus test of political legitimacy, was it the federal government’s role to ensure that the public received unbiased and reasoned information by which to make their decisions and, if so, how would it go about it? Nora Slonimsky’s paper addresses a similar concern by studying the relationship between seditious libel and cartographic copyright. In two copyright disputes of the late eighteenth century – one at the start of independence and the other in the throws of the Alien and Sedition controversies of the late 1790s – piracy was seen as more than an erosion of commercial rights but also an attack on the authenticity of geographic publications. Pirated books were tantamount to a lie, and geographers and their political allies grappled with how to protect truth without interfering in content. Ben Wright’s paper explores the opposite problem: when a made up “fact” was designed to serve an essential egalitarian anti-slavery principle. Designed to stimulate a reform minded public, abolitionist activists circulated two fabricated stories of slave ship captains and their brutality. While the core issues at stake – the violence and viciousness of the slave trade – were true, the detailed “factual” accounts were fictionalized in pursuit of garnering public opinion.

Fact and fiction were used to powerful ends. Yet, there was a dangerous risk involved in presenting one as the other, a risk that has become heightened amidst the rapidly shifting space of digital information access and new media. Taken together, our papers seek to link the struggles and efforts involving factual texts in the development of a more inclusive and egalitarian federal system with assaults on that sovereignty today.

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