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Ben Franklin Used Fake News

Published: February 28, 2017

It may seem like our political climate, in which politicians and journalists are accused of inventing phony stories, is unprecedented. Yet there are similarities to past events, and some of the perpetrators of early political chicanery may surprise you.

For example, in 1782, while still representing the United States in Paris, Benjamin Franklin printed a fake edition of an actual Boston newspaper, The Independent Chronicle. Amid the fictitious ads and articles, Franklin inserted a made-up story about the massive slaughter of white settlers on the frontiers of New York. Native Americans, in the service of the British forces, had collected 700 scalps from men, women, children, and even infants, Franklin lied.

When the news reached America, it was reprinted in papers throughout New England. The story helped stiffen American resistance to the British, who were now seen as using Indians to terrorize settlers. Released in Paris, the story also helped sway European opinion against England.

Franklin’s “fake news” was just the start of a long tradition in American politics.

As we noted in “Crude Language on the Campaign Trail,” presidential campaigns have often been marked by fabricated stories and synthetic scandals. Even after the race, the slander often continued.

In 1939, Stephen T. Early, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary, shared several examples of disinformation campaigns directed against the president.

Roosevelt enjoyed broad support among voters, particularly in the early years of his presidency. But he remained a controversial leader for many Americans. Some of his opponents hoped to blacken his reputation with reports of corruption or dishonesty in the White House.

In a file he marked “Below the Belt,” Early gave examples of these fake news stories. Some hinted at sinister, international conspiracies implicating Roosevelt, a foreign-born Supreme Court justice, and labor leaders, among others. One story claimed President Roosevelt had prevented the capture and trial of the true kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby. The kidnappers, it argued, were protected by the president and were still kidnapping and murdering.

Early wondered, as many Americans do today, “just how gullible do these muckrakers think the American people are?”

Roosevelt, however, refused to be baited by these stories. When a publisher reported that the president had fallen into a coma, he offered to print a retraction if the White House issued a denial. All he got was silence. Roosevelt refused to reward him with more media attention.

Unfortunately, in our era of 24-hour information, ignoring even flagrant fake news doesn’t seem to be an option. What and whom are we to believe? In both the literal and figurative sense, we are left to our own devices.

First page for the article "Below the Belt"

Read “Below the Belt” by Stephen T. Early, in which the secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt discusses the file maintained by the White House of false stories and slanderous accounts about the president.

 

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  • Ima Ryma

    New York white settlers massacred
    By natives at British command.
    In Paris this headline assured
    Anti British feelings as planned.
    And who was behind this fake news?
    Ben Franklin had made up the tale.
    He feared that his comrades would lose.
    The Revolution could not fail!
    And sure enough, the tale did tell
    Of how and why the British should
    Be considered demons from hell.
    Revolution support was good.

    To be true or not – who can guess
    When reading freedom of the press!

  • Don M

    It is written in the Bible. “Thou shall not bear false witness” A lie is still a lie and is the work of the devil. There is no good that comes from creating false information about an adversary.

    Any person can if they will look closely can find truthful reasons to criticize another person. But another biblical example mentions that as well. “May he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

  • Aline Guillot

    … and what about Thomas Jefferson’s hiring of a man to distribute broadsides accusing John Adams of being a “hermaphrodite” and other spurious claims during the Presidential campaign of 1800? That surely was “fake news”! The two men didn’t speak to one another for many years after that. (Of course, I believe I remember Adams referring to Jefferson as a “howling atheist” – which was at least partially correct).

  • Was surprised to hear of the history of our famous people. Would like to read the newsletter.,

  • Though admittedly unexpected and perhaps even a bit shocking, we shan’t question Ben Franklin’s indulgence in such a tall tale at the time knowing it was best for the common good.

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