It turns out that political entities have been using fake news in attempts to take down their opponents since way back in 1864. That’s when Democrat Samuel Sullivan Cox stood up in front of Congress and gave a fiery speech that accused Republicans of promoting the idea that, should whites and blacks have children together, they would create a “new American race.”
The newspapers ran with the accusation, which came not from the Republicans (or Lincoln, who was in the middle of a hard-fought re-election campaign), but from a 72-page pamphlet titled “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the American White Man and Negro.” While the anonymous author of the pamphlet encouraged Republicans to endorse his philosophy, the politicians had done no such thing – in fact, most mainstream politicians had likely not even heard of it.
The issue came up in more and more news sources (mostly pamphlets) of the day, but in the end, the issue wasn’t enough to stop Lincoln from winning re-election. Afterward, it came out that the pamphlet was written by Democratic journalists who wanted to fan racial anxiety among working-class, white Republicans, who subsequently obtained feedback voicing support from some unsuspecting Republicans before sending those letters to Representative Cox. The journalists also wrote additional, fake pamphlets to distribute in working-class neighborhoods.
Even though the miscegenation campaign was one of the more successful fake news cycles in history, there were other incidents in 1860 and again in 1870 that could be comparable to what we’re seeing today. Part of what allows fake news to flourish is our similar political climates – in both times, partisan newspapers abounded, public trust in government was at all time lows, and people would rather go with their gut that the news, since it couldn’t be trusted. People felt that whatever news confirmed their own fears must be the true one, but that was often not actually the truth.
As ever, history is one of the best ways to predict the future. In 1864, voters were lucky enough to elect a decent man in Abraham Lincoln, and the country survived. Only time will tell what will become of us during our own outburst of division and fake news.
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