Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Warns Americans About Fake News and Taking Democracy for Granted

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts warned that Americans are taking democracy for granted and said they must learn how the government works amid the proliferation of disinformation on the internet.

Roberts made the remarks in his annual report for 2019 as he prepares to preside over a Senate trial of President Donald Trump, who was impeached by the House shortly before Christmas.

The most senior judge in the federal judiciary used a story about a rumor from the late 18th century to illustrate his point about the pernicious effect of gossip and disinformation.

Reports that medical students in New York were robbing graves sparked outrage and sparked a riot when one specific rumor claimed they had taken the corpse of a schoolboy's mother to use for dissection. The rioters stormed the hospital and the students sought shelter in a nearby jail.

One of the people that sought to break up the rioters was the founding father John Jay, who lived close to the scene, but he was hit by a rock and injured.

"It is sadly ironic that John Jay's efforts to educate his fellow citizens about the Framers' plan of government fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor," Roberts wrote in his report.

"Happily, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution. Those principles leave no place for mob violence.

"But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.

"In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public's need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital."

The American intelligence community is expecting Russia to step up its efforts to sow disinformation and exacerbate divisions in U.S. society during the 2020 election, a repeat of its cyberwarfare activity in 2016.

A study on fake news published in a 2018 edition of the journal Science found that it "took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people."

"False political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information," the study said.

"False political news also diffused deeper more quickly and reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people."

Supreme Court chief justice fake news
Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts waits to administer the oath of office for the new Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson at the U.S. Treasury Building, July 10, 2006 in Washington DC. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images