Over the past few months I have not been able to go a single day without hearing about fake news; Facebook’s and Google’s confirmation bias bubble; and the polarization that these have created in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump. However, this is not anything new. We have heard stories recently about how a fake news story about the Clintons led a person to shoot up a pizza parlor in Washington D.C.; how fake news stories about both candidates potentially affected the outcome of the election.
Yet, in the late 19th century fake news was at the heart of a fierce competition for readership between two New York papers: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Both would use fantastical headlines and patently fake news stories to try and out sell the other. This came at time when tensions with Spain over Cuba and the Philippines were high. Most of the stories were focused on a growing anti-Spanish sentiment culminating in a story about a sinister plot by the Spaniards to sink the U.S.S. Maine. This era of yellow journalism ended shortly after the Spanish American War. Heart’s paper the New York Journal published an editorial calling for President McKinley’s assassination shortly before it occurred. There was no significant tie between the editorial and the assassination, yet it shocked both Hearst and Pulitzer out of their sensational attention grabbing head line phase.
Why did the government allow both news-papers to publish false stories?
The First Amendment forbids Congress (and through the Fourteenth Amendment, States and local governments) from making any law that abridges the freedom of speech and the press. The Supreme Court on multiple occasions has protected these freedoms stating that the only cure for false speech is true speech. Even if it wanted to the government is unable to protect the public from fake news because of the strong prohibition on any limitations of speech by the government. The same prohibition does not apply to private entities. Thus, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can and do censor speech. Facebook will censor and or remove anything that is obscene, considered hate speech, overly offensive and or a call to violence. Facebook primarily relies on the user community to report posts which are then reviewed by subcontractors who decide as to whether the offending post should be taken down. This is something that only a private entity could do, because as stated above (with a few exceptions) the government would be unable to censor these posts.
The question remains, is having Facebook, Twitter and other such entities censor speech a good thing? Should it be treated like yellow journalism was in the 19th Century, allow fake news to run its course and wait for the market place of ideas to correct itself? I will pick this up next time.
U.S. Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895–1898
A Time Line of Yellow Journalism
President William McKinley: Assassinated by an Anarchist
Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)
Justice Brandeis’ Concurring Opinion