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Steve Inskeep: Instant information can widen gaps between us

By Steve Inskeep

What can we do about technology that brings the world together while also driving it apart? It’s a burning question today, but ours is not the first generation to face it.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Americans first discovered that accelerating communications could widen the fractures in a divided nation, sealing citizens in their own bubbles with unprecedented speed.

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse tapped out a message on his small contraption of wood and metal inside the U.S. Capitol and showed how his new invention, the telegraph, worked. Within days, wires linked to his telegraph key were delivering news from the Democratic National Convention that had just begun in Baltimore. As an operator clicked constant updates to Washington, Morse read them aloud to a crowd at the Capitol, effectively becoming the first news anchor. Journalists watching Morse translate his code realized that they were witnessing a profound change in the human condition, which some labeled “the annihilation of space.”

The New York Herald said the telegraph “has originated in the mind. . . a new species of consciousness. Never before was any one conscious that he knew with certainty what events were at that moment passing in a distant city.”

A darker aspect of Morse’s invention became clear 12 years later, by which time telegraph wires connected many cities and provided material for local newspapers. On May 18, 1856, Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a speech on the Senate floor about the divisive issue of slavery — northern states had gradually abolished it while southern states embraced it. Sumner mocked a South Carolina senator named Andrew Butler for his “incoherent phrases” and “the loose expectoration of his speech,” adding that there was no “possible deviation from truth which he did not make.” Butler was not present, but his nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, learned of Sumner’s tirade and took action to defend his family’s honor. When Brooks found Sumner writing at his desk in the Senate chamber, he beat him with a heavy cane until he was unconscious.

Brooks kept thrashing him even after the cane broke into pieces over Sumner’s head.

Thanks to the telegraph and daily newspapers, people across vast distances read about the caning almost simultaneously. But people were not all reading the same news, which was filtered through northern and southern editors. A witness quoted in a Chicago newspaper said Sumner was ambushed, “hemmed in” at his desk and beaten mercilessly until he “had by a great effort torn [his] desk from its fastenings, and then he pitched forward insensible on the floor.”

A correspondent for South Carolina’s Charleston Courier, however, all but rolled his eyes.

“The telegraph has already spread a thousand and one stories about this transaction,” he wrote, many of them “incorrect.” Sumner “was beaten, it is true, but not so badly. . . he is not seriously hurt. His whole speech was of a character very irritating to Southern men.”

A claim of fake news followed a two-step pattern that politicians still use today: Brooks wasn’t really guilty of anything, and if he was, he was justified. The partisan reporting of the event had immediate ramifications for both political parties. Democrats, seen as pro-slavery, immediately reported declines in support for their candidates in the North. This meant gains for the brand-new Republican Party, which had been founded to oppose the expansion of slavery. Even northern voters who did not care about slavery cared about the freedom of speech, and Sumner’s caning in response to his words was seen as the latest evidence that the South would never tolerate that freedom.

Weeks later, Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, with the slogan “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Men and Frémont.”

Though he lost that November, Frémont made a strong showing in northern states, pioneering an electoral strategy for the Republicans’ next nominee, Abraham Lincoln, who won in 1860.

What can we learn from this episode? The spread of instant information fueled by emotions is not automatically bad. But the telegraph wires and daily papers also intensified the effectiveness of partisan propaganda. Called upon to make instant judgments about distant events that they had not witnessed themselves, Americans fell back on what they already knew: their group identities.

Today, of course, communication is infinitely faster and more widespread. But human nature has not changed, and the disturbing news updates and propaganda that bombard us are inconsistent with a slow, thoughtful search for truth.

Inskeep is co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition and Up First. Reporting for this column is drawn from his book “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.”

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