A few months ago, a New York Times investigation uncovered the secret economies of social media bots. C-list celebrities such as Paul Hollywood, John Leguizamo, and Michael Symon, purveyors of “fake news,” and several businesses have boosted their Twitter profiles by purchasing fake follower “bots” and retweets from these accounts. The Times estimated that perhaps as many as 48 million Twitter accounts are bots, with around 60 million similar accounts on Facebook.
This underground economy feeds on a manipulation of algorithms. More “likes” or “favorites” push a post up to the top of a feed. More links to a news article or a product boosts its ranking in search engine results. Bots raise the profile of particular topics and thus drive public conversation. As thousands of bots tweet about a particular issue, it begins to “trend,” alerting other users. Research has indicated that social media bots financed by the Russian government sought to manipulate the 2016 election by driving interest in particular hashtags, news stories, and topics.
This is surely cause for concern. But is it new? The bot economy and the seemingly-sophisticated algorithms of Silicon Valley, after all, are based on a powerful psychological vulnerability that has existed for centuries: attention begets more attention. People care about what’s engaging others. We are interested in what’s atop the best seller lists, the winners and losers at the weekend box office, and apparently even things like inauguration crowd sizes. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s FOMO-ridden Aaron Burr, we all want to be “in the room where it happens.”
This principle was as true in the era of the American Revolution as it is today. In one of my favorite academic articles, scholar Trish Loughran shows that the illusion of a ubiquitous readership was essential to the impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense. Because they imagined that everyone had read it, Anglo-American colonists treated it not as a pamphlet but as a phenomenon.
While they argue about the exact proportions, varying by time and place, historians now generally agree that less than half of the people living in Anglo-America during the revolution would have called themselves Patriots. Many of the remainder were Loyalists, but even more were among the “disaffected,” without much interest in either camp. Yet the legitimacy of the Patriots’ revolt appeared to hinge on their claims to represent, as George Washington asserted, the “unanimous voice” of their countrymen. They worked hard to appear more numerous than they really were.
Just as Paine and his followers exaggerated the number of Common Sense readers, newspaper printers—both Patriot and Loyalist—regularly exaggerated the circulation of their prints. This probably didn’t hurt their hunt for advertisers, but it also allowed them to claim to speak to, and for, a broad public. Essayists abetted this fiction by addressing themselves “To the Public,” while printers did the same in their prospectuses. When bragging wasn’t enough, Patriots resorted to coercion and intimidation. When some Philadelphians refused to place candles in their windows to celebrate American independence, roving Patriots smashed them. Other Patriots forced the disaffected to sign loyalty oaths. By creating consequences for dissent, they made it more difficult for others to disrupt their vision of unanimity.
Through these inflationary tactics, Patriots imagined a fictive, unitary public into existence. But their intentions can be invisible to subsequent historians. In his history of the American Revolution published in 1789, David Ramsay emphasized that “In establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” He claimed that John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer,” had been “universally read by the colonists” and had “universally enlightened” them about the danger of being taxed by Britain. For Ramsay, works such as Dickinson’s prepared the “great body of the people” to join in opposition to Britain.
But if the historiography of the American Revolution begins with Ramsay, it does not end with him. What we now call the “attention economy” is not a new phenomenon. Attention has long been a scarce commodity. But the term, and the conversations surrounding it, are a useful reminder to historians today that those in the past who claimed to exercise an entire population’s attention were likely grasping for, rather than controlling, it. As a historian who frequently deals with print culture, I sometimes find myself tempted to mentally merge a newspaper’s readership with the broader public surrounding it. But in those moments, I must remember to treat Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s claim in 1775 that they had 2,000 subscribers with the same skepticism that I extend to the idea that 721,000 people really want to read John Leguizamo’s tweets.
Trish Loughran, “Disseminating Common Sense: Thomas Paine and the Problem of the Early National Bestseller,” American Literature 79 (March 2006).
“From George Washington to John Parke Custis, 19 June 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0007.
James Cowan, To the Public. It is of Infinite Importance. . . (Annapolis, 1789); Green Mountain Patriot, Feb. 23, 1798.
Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 150.
Aaron Sullivan, “In But Not Of The Revolution: Loyalty, Liberty, and the British Occupation of Philadelphia” (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 2014), 29–34.
David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, ed. Lester H. Cohen, vol. 2 (2 vols., Indianapolis, 1990; ), 633–34.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776 (Boston: 1980; original, 1957), 303.
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