Fake news and polarisation in the 1828 US presidential election

Thought fake news and polarisation in the 2016 US Presidential election was bad? 1828 was worse… much, much worse.

The 1828 US Presidential election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams is notable for its mudslinging – much of which was completely made up.

Jackson, particularly, became the butt of several scandals. Perhaps most prominent was the apparent immorality’ of his marriage to a divorcee, who was not officially divorced at the time of their wedding. He also came under attack for trading in slaves and putting militiamen to death during his time in the military.

But Adams did not survive unscathed – a rumour was spread that during his time as a Minister to Russia, he arranged an American servant girl to satisfy the sexual desires of the Tsar. Also that he was using public money to fund a gambling habit, even though he merely purchased a pool table and a chess set.

In the event of Jackson’s eventual victory, a drunken mob invaded the incumbent Adams’ White House and trashed it.

Saying that, millions of people did take to the streets to protest Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Maybe it was even more polarised – just slightly more civil.

How claims of bias and sensationalism show the contradictions within alternative media

A common narrative of the new alternative media is that ‘the mainstream media’ (MSM) is not telling anywhere near the whole truth as a consequence of ulterior motives, stimulating a righteous belief that ‘the truth must be told’. The editor of left-wing website Skwawkbox, only sharing his name as ‘Steve’, told BuzzFeed on his approach to Jeremy Corbyn, “It’s about being positive rather than being unbalanced. You’re trying to let people see that what they’re being told isn’t necessarily the whole truth.”

After Barnsley East Labour MP Michael Dugher derided both Jeremy Corbyn and the new left websites in an interview with the New Statesman in April 2017, a post on Skwawkbox announced his criticism was ‘a badge of honour’. That the website was mentioned elsewhere also cued a need to state why the site existed, ‘The information is the key thing – making sure it’s good and then getting it out there to balance what’s in public circulation against the filtered and skewed version often pushed by the BBC and others.’

Claiming BBC News is biased is a regular claim throughout the media, according to whatever side you’re on. The Daily Mail long criticised the BBC for bias towards Labour during the Blair years. It also complained when Huw Edwards didn’t wear a black tie when the Queen mother died. After the EU referendum, The Telegraph sided with Eurosceptic MPs in pointing out that the BBC was biased about Brexit, writing a leader on the issue. The alt-left British media, meanwhile, passionately believe that the BBC is biased against Labour, and particularly Jeremy Corbyn. Laura Kuenssberg, the political editor, is singled out for this.

The Canary’s most shared posts in 2017 that mention Laura Kuenssberg make it clear. At over 16,000 Facebook shares, there is ‘Laura Kuenssberg’s response to the Labour manifesto shows the BBC is moving from bias to naked self-interest’.

This article suggests that as a high earner, Kuenssberg is motivated to be negative about the 2017 Labour manifesto’s proposed £48.6 billion in tax rises. Given she ‘is said to be earning over £150,000 a year’ she would be affected by the pledge on income tax to be 50p on salaries on more than £123,000. The headline to Kuenssberg’s BBC video/article which The Canary is referring to could be construed as negative to a Labour supporter – it does put rather bluntly, ‘Labour manifesto vision: More spending, more tax, more borrowing’.

But while The Canary attempts to dissect the text of the article as if Kuenssberg has a thinly veiled agenda, all she is essentially saying is that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour are moving ‘away from the recent consensus that the UK should be moving to lower borrowing, and lower taxation.’ Writer Emily Apple was particularly furious that Kuenssberg failed to point out that 95% of people will be unnaffected and that the rises will come from corporation tax and the richest few.

But the anger is in what she didn’t say, rather than what she actually did. Still, there’s time to sign off with conspiratorial suspicion, ‘So when journalists don’t give the full facts about these issues, it’s important to remember that they too are sometimes part of the wealthy elite.’

Looking further down the list of Kuenssberg’s crimes against Labour include ‘The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg does the unthinkable trying to defend the Tories’ shambolic manifesto’ (4.8k Facebook shares) and ‘If this doesn’t get the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg fired, nothing will’ (11.9k Facebook shares).

Perhaps most desperate from The Canary in their dissection of Kuenssberg’s work was ‘We need to talk about Laura Kuenssberg. She’s listed as an ‘invited’ speaker at the Tory Party conference.’ I came across this article via BuzzFeed political editor Jim Waterson, who tweeted an intriguing, ‘It took me two mins to call the event organiser and find out this is bollocks. She’s not speaking at Tory conference. Already going viral regardless.’

The Canary’s embedded tweet gathered over 800 retweets and over 590 likes, while the article surged to nearly 16,000 total social shares. Indeed, Kuenssberg wasn’t speaking at the Tory Party conference at all; she was merely listed as an ‘invited’ speaker for a fringe event. The Canary did update the article after the BBC informed them Kuenssberg would not be speaking, but as Waterson said, it had already gone viral regardless. The article was condemned by political journalists, with Helen Lewis writing in The New Statesman, ‘The Canary is running a sexist hate campaign against Laura Kuenssberg for clicks.’ Give the people what they want, of course, and one search of Twitter for ‘kuenssberg’ will return strong doses of misogyny and conspiracy about her bias. Back in the real world, the threats to her safety were so apparent that she had to be accompanied by bodyguards to the Labour Party conference.

We are absolutely biased,’ said Kerry-Anne Mendoza, editor of The Canary, when talking to BuzzFeed. ‘We’re biased in favour of social justice, equal rights – those are non-negotiable things. We’re in this as an issue-driven organisation.’ The certainly sounds worthy, but the economic model does not. While writers are paid a flat sum, they also receive a portion of the ad revenue that their articles draw in. The Canary’s ‘Values’ page states:

‘Each writer and section editor is paid in two ways. Firstly, each and every article receives a flat-rate equal payment from our monthly income from supporters. So with each new supporter, the pay per article goes up for everyone every month. Secondly, each article receives a top-up payment based directly on the percentage of web traffic, and therefore advertising income, that articles generate during a given calendar month. It’s as simple as that.’

This blurs the standard church and state divide of editorial and advertising that exists in many media companies, and is largely successful at stopping journalism surrendering to advertisers. Given how well hyperbole travels on social media – especially Facebook – it also means that writers are incentivised to be all the more sensationalist and divisive in their quest for traffic, which ultimately equals payment. In short, to fund online only journalism these days, things are pretty desperate.

It’s the yellow press all over again. Sensationalism and support for the underdog abound, but then it’s moved on from the 1900s with social media and the pervading smell of victimhood. The far-left, particularly Jeremy Corbyn, play the role of victim, with his policies and views being unfairly reported by the MSM. The Tory supporting press, which apparently includes the BBC, are in league with the rich and powerful to further an oppressive agenda, which keeps the weak weak and the poor poor.

Who’s more biased? The BBC, or The Canary? The answer is obvious.