Since the dawn of the American republic, the First Amendment to the US Constitution has guaranteed freedom of the press. It reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.
The First Amendment doesn’t contain any exceptions to press freedom. But it didn’t take Congress long to find one.
In 1798, just seven years after the Constitution was ratified, Congress enacted the Sedition Act. The law made it a crime for citizens to “print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about their government.
Those prosecuted under the Sedition Act tended to be the editors of newspapers who criticized the administration of President John Adams. And to put it mildly, the new law was unpopular.
In the election of 1800, Adams’ Federalist Party was swept out of power and Thomas Jefferson elected president. Jefferson pardoned the imprisoned editors, and the law expired in 1801.
Sixty years later, the Civil War began. And there was far from universal approval in the northern states for a war against the 11 states that had seceded from the United States.
President Abraham Lincoln had a simple solution. In 1861, he began shutting down newspapers opposed to the war – more than 300 in all. Some of their editors were imprisoned without charge after Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
Lincoln set a template for interference with a free press that politicians have emulated ever since. A case in point is Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who in 2019 was indicted on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act.
In 2007, WikiLeaks released a secret manual written for prison guards at the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Hundreds of suspected terrorists were detained there without being accused of any crime. The manual instructed guards to “exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee.” It also outlined the rules for permissible types of torture to be used against detainees.
Three years later, in 2010, WikiLeaks published top-secret materials supplied by Army intelligence analyst Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. Among them was a video taken from a US helicopter gunship in which at least 12 Iraqi civilians were deliberately slaughtered. The leaked files also revealed that 66,000 civilians had been killed by American forces in Iraq and that thousands of prisoners had been tortured by Iraqi forces.
We criticized the Assange indictment for numerous reasons. Among them are that revealing embarrassing facts shouldn’t be a crime and that the Espionage Act shouldn’t be used against journalists. At the same time, we were keenly aware that Assange’s indictment was part of a long historical tradition, dating back to the earliest days of the Civil War.
But the government was doing much more than that. Indeed, as we wrote in 2022:
For over a century, Uncle Sam has used the mass media to manipulate public opinion; particularly to justify its direct or indirect involvement in foreign wars.
A notorious example was Operation Mockingbird, a CIA initiative beginning in the late 1940s in which the agency paid journalists to write and distribute fake news for intelligence purposes. Its goal was to shape the narrative Americans experienced so we would believe the news the government wanted us to believe.
The program was never officially disbanded and today, such operations are perfectly legal. That’s thanks to a 2013 amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act which allows the government to target propaganda and psychological operations directly at the American population. That’s one reason why you now routinely see supposedly ex-CIA, FBI, NSA, and Homeland Security operatives on the payrolls of mainstream media outlets and Big Tech companies.
Thus, media intimidation, censorship, and narrative-shaping are nothing new. They’re nearly as old as America itself. But the lengths to which these measures are now being taken is frankly breathtaking.
Consider the origin of the COVID-19 virus, for instance. In the early days of the pandemic, we found a paper published by Chinese scientists on ResearchGate (and quickly removed) which concluded the virus couldn’t have a natural origin. The paper is now available at this link.
But in February 2020, The Lancet, a medical journal that bills itself as providing “the best science for better lives,” published a statement signed by 27 scientists that called the lab leak hypothesis a “conspiracy theory.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases also issued a statement rejecting the lab leak theory out-of-hand.
A month later, the journal Nature Medicine published a paper by five infectious disease experts which concluded that the virus was “not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” The mainstream media latched on to this statement from purported experts to reject as disinformation any alternative scenario.
But behind the scenes, something much more insidious was occurring. Once it became legal for the government to target Americans with propaganda, it wasted no time in doing so. Initially, the Pentagon began funding the development of tools for detecting and countering terrorist messaging on social media. But these techniques were quicky employed for political purposes. And by the time COVID arrived, Uncle Sam’s social media fight against terrorism had morphed into the fight against supposed disinformation.
As COVID spread, censoring “deadly disinformation” became an urgent need. For instance, Google, along with its YouTube subsidiary agreed to “removing information that is problematic” and “anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations.”
While the bounds of acceptable speech constantly shifted, writings or videos that suggested the COVID virus might have originated in a laboratory were suppressed. Takedown requests originated from several different federal agencies, along with a company called Graphika funded by the Department of Defense. And for the most part, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest of the media complied.
We now know the conclusions published in The Lancet and Nature Medicine were at best disinformation and at worst outright lies. Proof came in the form of Slack messages and emails subpoenaed and released by House Republicans last month. The reason for the disinformation campaign with respect to COVID’s origins was to avoid angering the government of China, which had consistently denied the possibility of a lab leak origin. And the mainstream media and Big Tech (with the notable exception of Elon Musk’s Twitter) has been visibly silent on the matter.
What’s more, COVID is just the tip of the iceberg. Similar efforts were made by the Biden administration to manipulate media coverage, search engine results, and social media discussions in controversies ranging from Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia to the war in Ukraine to Hunter Biden.
The good news, if there is any, is that these efforts are no longer a secret. Recent opinion polls reveal that a record 45% of Americans have little or no trust in the news media; 57% report little or no trust in the executive branch.
The only way to restore trust is from the ground up. A good start would be to repeal the 2013 law that gives Uncle Sam the authority to propagandize the American public. Big tech and the media should refrain from placing ex-intelligence agents in public facing roles. And we hope that appellate courts will uphold the decision of a federal judge last month which prohibits Biden administration officials from contacting social media companies to request content moderation on posts protected by the First Amendment.
Every citizen can do their part as well. The news will always be full of partisan opinion and shaped by increasingly sophisticated tools of behavioral manipulation. Protect yourself by getting as close to first-hand accounts as you can, considering the source of the news you view, and being aware that others are trying to manipulate your beliefs.