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How Abraham Lincoln Confronted—and Helped Spread—Political Misinformation

On May 18, 1864, U.S. troops marched into lower Manhattan and entered the offices of two key New York City newspapers. Soldiers leveled guns at staff members’ heads. They blocked the doors with bayonets. President Abraham Lincoln had ordered the arrest of the editors and the seizure of the newspapers. That particular May morning, the papers had run a presidential proclamation announcing a draft of 400,000 new soldiers. The problem: Lincoln had issued no such proclamation.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, American life is full of misinformation about everything from the security of mail-in voting to the causes of West Coast wildfires. Despite efforts to help citizens guard against “fake news,” curtailing misinformation remains a controversial and difficult task. But, while the platforms that help today’s untruths snowball and spread are often decidedly modern, the problem itself is nothing new. During the Civil War, Americans furiously sifted false from true during a time of extreme partisan divisions, even among those who agreed on the need to abolish slavery. They even had their own version of the Internet—the telegraph—which had exposed such stark partisan divisions in the country, its inventor Samuel Morse founded an organization to rebuild national unity. Looking at that time, it’s possible to identify key lessons for navigating this 2020 election season when accusations and false brags about the candidates abound.

We have one key advantage over our predecessors. Civil War-era newspapers rarely listed a reporter’s name on an article. In the 1800s, each newspaper was considered a collective voice and reporters contributed anonymously to that perspective. The lack of personal accountability made it easy for reporters to slip a fake article into the columns. Readers had no idea if the shocking piece had been written by one of their most trusted correspondents or a rascal or even a spy.

Lincoln himself used anonymity to great advantage. His staff members, either anonymously or under pseudonyms, reported on the excellence of his administration as if unbiased. For example, covering Lincoln’s train ride to his inaugural, one correspondent, writing anonymously, noted the crowd’s “frank, hearty display of enthusiasm and affection” for the “tall, stalwart Illinoisan the genuine Son of the West, as perfectly en rapport with its people now… as when he was the simple advocate, the kindly neighbor, the beloved and respected citizen.” The readers would never know that this “anonymous” was actually Lincoln’s press aide.

Read entire article at TIME