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The First Red Scare: Misinformation and Current Applications

By Sania Patel

Edited by Emma Davis

~ Op-Ed ~

“One of the effects of fear is to disturb the senses and cause things to appear other than the way they are.” This quote by Miguel de Cervantes depicts the consequence of fear. Cervantes likens fear to a mental state, rather than something physical. This quote explains how an idea only encapsulates fear when its overall interpretation is twisted to appeal to a certain reaction. This concept relates to the First Red Scare, an example of how an idea can be transformed into a system of targeted hatred, fear, and misinformation.

The First Red Scare in the United States occurred between 1917 and 1920, following World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The First Red Scare is the rounding up and deportation of several hundred immigrants accused of radical political views by the US federal government. This “scare” was caused by fears of subversion by Communists in the United States after the Bolshevik Revolution - the Russian Revolution that lead to a rise in Marxist socialism. .The First Red Scare caused many to fear immigrants and dissidents, as well as people who embraced Communist, Socialist, or anarchist ideology. The First Red Scare was perpetuated through an overwhelming spread of fear fueled by rampant misinformation aided by the media. The First Red Scare had many causes, but at the heart, it was caused by the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Bolshevik Revolution began in 1917 and ended in 1923. During the Revolution, the Bolshevik Party - led by Vladimir Lenin - collapsed the empire under Czar Nicholas II and gave way to the rise of Marxian socialism. After the war and and prompted by the revolution, many Americans embraced nationalistic and anti-immigrant sympathies, as it became common belief that immigrants from Russia, southern Europe, and eastern Europe intended to overthrow the United States government. In the U.S, production needs declined after the war, which caused unemployment to rise. As unemployment rose, many workers tended to join labor unions. Repeating labor strikes contributed to fears that radicals intended to spark a revolution. There were also several mailed-in bombs sent to the U.S. by anarchists, which further embedded the idea of a revolution in the United States. As these problems arose, the nation began to dwindle into a state of uneasiness - it was when the U.S. felt most vulnerable that the First Red Scare was underway. The United States government quickly became involved in the First Red Scare. Enraged by the mailed-in bombs, the government responded by raiding the headquarters of radical organizations and arresting suspected radicals. Thousands of immigrants were deported, as they were thought to be plotting against the U.S. government. Americans began to fear each other and assume any immigrant or member of a labor union was a Communist.

As the First Red Scare wore on, the Alien and Sedition Act were signed into law. The Alien Act raised the residency requirements for citizenship from five to fourteen years, and authorized the President to deport aliens and permit their arrest, imprisonment, and deportation during wartime. The Sedition Act imposed restrictions on the free speech rights of U.S. citizens during time of war. The law permitted the deportation, fine, or imprisonment of anyone deemed a threat or publishing “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government of the United States. Overall, the First Red Scare increased fear greatly and caused laws to be set in place to limit the U.S. citizens ability to potentially overthrow the government.

There were several ideas, factors, and fears that contributed to the growth of the First Red Scare. These ideas branched from the conception of Communism versus Democracy. The First Red Scare was ignited by the rise of the Communist Party. This factor inspired international fears of Bolshevik’s anarchists. In the U.S., labor strikes were on the rise, and the press labeled them as being immigrants wanting to bring down the government. One of the main driving factors of the First Red Scare was the laws passed by the government to inhibit radicals and labor union leaders, and - overall - eradicate any threats to the U.S. government system. All of these ideas, factors, and fears, caused the citizens of the U.S. to feel threatened, vulnerable, and weary. As the U.S. began to prod into the citizens' basic rights, there was greater aggression and increased political turmoil. All in all, these systems and acts of violence made the U.S. citizens feel isolated from their government, and their concerns grew to the strength of communism overcoming the weakened democracy.

The factors and ideas that stemmed from the First Red Scare were not always legitimate, due to the rapid spread of misinformation and the biased coverage by the press. Political scientist and former member of the Communist Party Murray B. Levin wrote that the Red Scare was, "a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of Life''. The press often compounded these political fears into anti-foreign sentiment. Claims of radical anarchism were commonly used as scapegoats and blamed for poverty. Newspaper outlets often took biased stances on controversial events, such as the labor strikes. The press portrayed labor strike organizations as “radical threats to American society” inspired by “left-wing, foreign agents and provocateurs' '. However, those on the side of the labor strike organizations claimed the press “misrepresented legitimate labor strikes” as “crimes against society, conspiracies against the government, and plots to establish communism”. Overall, the legitimacy of the fears derived from the First Red Scare should be questioned, as the media and government formed heavily biased opinions and took unreasonable actions regarding highly controversial topics. These topics were falsified in many accounts, to make one stance more appealing than the other. These actions by the media caused increased distrust among the citizens for the U.S. and contributed to an even greater amount of misinformation.

The press portrayed labor strike organizations as “radical threats to American society” inspired by “left-wing, foreign agents and provocateurs' '.

Although the First Red Scare occurred over a century ago, there are still common themes underlying today's issues. Spread of misinformation through the media is an issue more common than ever. From 1917 to 1920, misinformation spread mainly through word of mouth and popular newspaper outlets. However, today misinformation spreads much faster through social media. The First Red Scare holds evidence that the spread of misinformation, biased opinions, and discrimination can happen subconsciously and be hard to monitor. In today’s world, access to false news is increasingly easier, and - as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic - misinformation can cause economies to fall, democracy to suffer, and the citizens of a nation to be divided. During the First Red Scare, the press used the citizens' fear and uncertainty to create a divided nation and an overbearing government. As the press continued to spread misinformation, the government impeded upon the U.S. citizens basic rights, and people began to question each other, suspecting anyone and everyone to be against democracy in some way. Today, the media was used to create false information about the vaccine and force people to feel isolated from their government. The media encouraged biased opinions and information to create divisions among the citizens. In the end, although the ideologies behind the First Red Scare may no longer be prevalent, the consequences of misinformation are still consistent with the consequences 101 years ago.

The First Red Scare was a period of time in which the U.S. citizens felt isolated, weary, and afraid of each other and their government due to the threat of communism. In this time, the motives behind and systematic spreading of misinformation were seen through public figures and prominent newspaper outlets. Today, within a pandemic, the rapid transmission of misinformation is displayed through the division of U.S. citizens fears and beliefs. The First Red Scare divided people by discrimination and beliefs as well. Anarchist sympathizers and immigrants became political scapegoats, and were seen as threats to the U.S. government. The Covid-19 pandemic used voting patterns to manipulate and divide the population by Republicans and Democrats. In each situation, the spread of misinformation caused greater distrust and aggression between the U.S. citizens and the government. It also affected the economy, government systems, and development of the nation. Ultimately, as seen in the First Red Scare and today, the spread of misinformation and false news is inherent and rapid. To decentralize the power given to the distributors of information, it is essential to fact-check information through educational sources and to recognize bias. By taking small steps to understand the source of the information given, misinformation can be suppressed and the nation can stand united.

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