Founding dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication John Maxwell Hamilton is an author, journalist and a global scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Hamilton wrote and published “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda," in October 2020.
Hamilton sheds light on the Committee of Public Information, a committee no books have focused on before. Hamilton saw this opportunity as a worthwhile research project, and it gave birth to his latest book which became an instant hit.
“I didn't realize how worthwhile it would be until I really got into it,” Hamilton said. “But once I did, not only did I find out that the definitive book had been written, but it was a story with contemporary resonance as a result of the ongoing ability of presidents to use the power of their office to propaganda as Americans.”
Hamilton’s book highlights the American threat to democracy as a result of World War I and the establishment of the Committee of Public Information by Woodrow Wilson in April 1917, one week after the war. The CPI later went on to establish the first national newspaper, which had the sole purpose of helping spread President Wilson’s messages through articles, cartoons, books and advertisements in newspapers and magazines.
“I think the main takeaway I have for this book is that not enough attention is paid to the powers that the presidency has to manipulate what we think," Hamilton said. "And it's a very complicated problem because on the one hand a democracy depends on the government providing information. Basic information like statistics on trade, or health studies, things like that. Or how to deal with COVID, for instance."
"So in effect, you could argue that one of the crown jewels of our government is the quality of the information we put out. At the same time however, the government has the ability to use all kinds of communication levers to not help us think more clearly about issues, but to actually try to shape what we think about those facts. We don't have adequate laws and rules to fence back what presidents can do that might be untoward, and that's what we really need.”
Hamilton’s book puts the president’s power of control over public news into perspective and makes readers think critically on the issue, as well as informing them on the origin of the CPI, which has never been done before. The book is praised by many and went on to win the Goldsmith Book Prize by the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
"A fascinating study into the origins of targeted misinformation and fake news, and the creators who unleashed them on our world out of misguided patriotism,” said David Callaway, Former Editor-in-Chief of USA Today.
Up until Hamilton's book, the story of the CPI and their influence on the United States had never been told. In preparation for writing the book, Hamilton consulted over 150 archives in the United States and Europe to build his story. Hamilton’s book is ideal to read in order to further understand the rise of propaganda within democracy.