Disinformation: A Problem as Old as America Itself
Disinformation in American politics existed well before last month's winter storm in Texas or even the Trump era. It's been used by political protagonists to cudgel opponents as far back as the days of President Washington. Back when Thomas Jefferson, then-Secretary of State, surreptitiously funded the free-wheeling National Gazette to spread conspiracy theories alleging Alexander Hamilton was a British patsy. Despite Colonel Hamilton being a bonafide hero of the revolution, Washington's former aide-de-camp, and as influential as Madison in the ratification of the Constitution -- Jefferson was determined to protect state's rights, and by association, slavery.
In 2018, at the American Historical Association's annual meeting, a panel on America's deep history with fake news referenced the following quote by President Adams: "There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in a hundred years before 1798." During the discussion, historian Katlyn Carter stated, "A lot of things we talk about today as unprecedented . . . It's important to look back and see how these same concerns and issues have been raised at many points throughout history."
"Much like fossil fuel-advocates spreading half-truths on behalf of powerful interests to resist climate action, [Thomas] Jefferson was brilliant at using proxies to attack his opponents."
In his book, The Idea of a Free Press: The Enlightenment and Its Unruly Legacy, historian David A. Copeland, writes:
Going back as early as the 1640s, partisan tones in broadsides and pamphlets published in England and colonial America were “setting precedents for what would become common practice in [the] 18th-century."
Isn't it interesting to know that Americans have traveled these roads many times as a society? Before there was the powerful current of social media and Fox News there were many equivalents of Jefferson's Gazette.
"Disinformation isn't new and won't be going away any time soon. If anything, today's decentralized and chaotic media landscape makes it an even more potent weapon."
What can this teach us?
Much like fossil fuel-advocates spreading half-truths to resist climate action, Jefferson was brilliant at using proxies to attack his opponents. Jefferson was, of course, on the wrong side of history: he was so convinced that Hamilton's federal schemes would kill States rights, and by association, slavery in the South, that he resorted to desperation and dishonesty. Many standing in the way of climate action have likewise decided not to fight on the grounds of facts, and instead promote dangerous fictions. Most recently we saw this blatant dishonesty after the power outages in Texas -- as World War Zero investigated.
Disinformation isn't new and won't be going away any time soon. If anything, today's decentralized and chaotic media landscape makes it an even more potent weapon. However, what hasn't changed and never will, is that disinformation is the tool of desperate actors who at best can use it to delay the inevitable.
The irony is that as president, Thomas Jefferson basked in the glory of a sustained period of economic growth and prosperity, due in large part to Alexander Hamilton's Treasury department. Perhaps today's climate deniers and clean energy critics will eventually get behind the greatest investment opportunity of our time, and reap the benefits of an economic transformation. As a Saudi Oil Minister once said, "the stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones, and the oil age won't end because we ran out of oil."