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When "Fake News" Is Fake News
Where's the line between satire and fake news and did #ToddlerGate cross that line? Also, Trump Single-handily Guarantees Bolton a NYT bestseller, and Censorship and Amplification.
Welcome to this issue of Self-Evident. Today, I discuss some more presidential antics on Twitter as well as the broader discussion on censorship in America.
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When “Fake News” Is Fake News
Good satire isn’t lost on me.
I’ve always loved a good joke, and I have endeavored never to take myself, or the world around me, too seriously. I like intelligent humor (and even unintelligent humor on occasion), and I often take special pleasure when a good joke flips a narrative or too. As you might imagine, this makes me a fan of both Babylon Bee, the Onion, and a lot of the skits on Saturday Night Live.
I only say all of this because far too many Trump supporters push back at Trump criticism by saying his opponents are “unable to take a joke” and are “just being too serious all the time.” Yes, the President does sometimes engage in satire and quite frequently trolls the media for a reaction, which the media happily obliges (and yes, they do often take things Trump says too seriously and/or literally). But there should probably still be a certain level of decorum expected from the President of the United States. Also, the line between satire and fake news shouldn’t really be that difficult to discern.
This leads me to a video President Trump posted on his Twitter account this last week. The video appears to be captured footage from CNN, showing an African American toddler running from a white toddler with a caption underneath that reads, “Terrified toddler runs from racist baby,” followed by the additional caption, “Racist baby probably a Trump supporter.” The view then cuts away to what purports to be non-CNN footage that shows “what actually happened” as the two toddlers share a hug.
Twitter first added a warning on Trump’s tweet stating the footage was doctored before removing the video altogether. It was eventually discovered that the video originated from the Twitter account @CarpeDonktum, whose description says (as of this newsletter’s publication), “Content that I post was ‘doctored’ by me.”
I was able to find the video from the original tweet in September 2019:
The defense of Trump’s retweet of the video is just like I mentioned earlier, that it was satire, it was a meme, it was a joke, etc. Some of the defenses of Trump’s retweet amount to a weird circular argument about fake news (the fake news calling the video fake news just demonstrates how much they’re fake news because they’re calling satire fake news to make the president look like he’s sharing fake news which is definitely fake news).
So, is the video satire, or is it fake news? Well, setting aside what should be obvious (it’s a doctored video made to look like a news broadcast with headlines that never existed, quite literally a fake news video), there are definitely elements of satire in the video.
What defines satire? Wikipedia calls it a “genre...in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement.” It goes on to say that “A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm” as well as “parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre.”
Based on this definition, the opening scene of the video is satire. The headlines are a clear exaggeration that no objective person should mistake for real headlines (babies aren’t racist, and neither can they vote).
The satirical intent of this portion of the video is pretty clear. It’s an exaggeration with heavy sarcasm meant to shine a light on the fact that left-biased media often assumes racist animus in situations where it doesn’t exist, and often grossly misrepresents the full picture after a cursory inspection of only a portion of a video or a few aspects of a story (The Nathan Phillips, Nick Sandman encounter is a good example).
But the video doesn’t end there. It transitions from the “news” to the full video where we learn “what actually happened.” We then watch the full video of two children, showing them happily interacting. This portion of the video has no headlines, no alteration, and no elements of satire. After the video of the children ends, we’re met with a concluding message: “America is not the problem, fake news is. If you see something say something. Only you can prevent fake news dumpster fires.”
The whole tone of the satirical elements of the video is muddied extensively by a message that purports truthfulness. The full video has elements of satire mingled with those of fact-checking and a “Public Safety Announcement.” Further, comments and retweets of the video are riddled with a lot of people who took the video as a fact-checking demonstration of fake news from CNN (It remains unclear whether the President understood he was retweeting “satire” though I’m leaning towards not-so-much).
And, though they may be there, I was unable to find any attempts by @CarpeDonktum to correct those who were sharing his video as a factual presentation of a CNN fake news story until the video was publicly debunked.
But I said earlier the line between satire and fake news shouldn’t really be that difficult to discern, right? That’s because, in the end, it isn’t really about the elements of satire. It’s about intent and perception.
Satire has a clear purpose. It’s a comic vehicle to draw attention to issues, abuses, and hypocrisy. If purportedly satirical material is instead used as a misrepresentation or introduces disinformation into the public sphere, it ceases to be satire. It becomes fake news, especially when the creator of the material presents it as factual and makes no effort to correct those who spread the material as genuine (this implies intent to deceive).
It’s my personal opinion that @CarpeDonktum is a peddler of fake news and disinformation who hides under the umbrella of satire when his content gets fact-checked. I also think Donald Trump shared the video believing it contained real CNN footage, demonstrating once more that “fake news” to him isn’t about truth or fact, but about what looks good for him and what looks bad for him.
Trump Single-handily Guarantees Bolton a NYT bestseller
Speaking of fact and fiction, the pending release of John Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened has created a firestorm on both sides of the aisle.
The President’s supporters allege Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Adviser, blatantly misrepresents the President while also revealing classified information. Democrats, meanwhile, are outraged Bolton didn’t step forward and voluntarily disclose the information contained in the book months ago when it could have impacted the impeachment proceedings.
For my part, I’ve found it somewhat humorous that the President has become so preoccupied with shouting down Bolton’s book. His voracious tweeting about the book has provided it considerable amounts of free advertising. If it isn’t a New York Times bestseller yet, it soon will be.
If the President hoped to keep Bolton’s assertions away from the eyes of Americans, he’s failed miserably. Everyone now wants to see what has the President so flustered, proving once again that he is often his own worst enemy.
Censorship and Amplification
Both Twitter’s fact-checking of the President, as well as the drama over John Bolton’s book, bring up interesting questions on the topic of censorship.
There has been a running narrative for several years now that the Left has embarked on a mission to censor conservative viewpoints anywhere and everywhere possible. From movies to books, college campuses to city parks, and from news agencies to social media, many conservatives have a growing sense that progressives and liberals in America will not tolerate their opinion and worldview.
This viewpoint is not without a basis. Many colleges have faced a flurry of lawsuits in the last decade, and have faced rulings against them, for censoring certain viewpoints from both students and professors. Professionals in the business world face the threat of being “canceled” if they communicate unacceptable views in public or on social media. News agencies purport fair-and-balanced reporting despite explicit ideological biases directing the way a story is covered. Social Media companies often enforce their policies inconsistently (Twitter censored Donald Trump’s tweet about looting and for glorifying violence, but they have not censored many videos of riots and actual violence resulting from weeks of unrest).
And yet, a great deal of this “censorship” has taken place within private institutions and platforms (True censorship, like on the college campuses, has mostly fallen in the face of withering legal action). While, yes, there are many arguments that social media platforms should become public utilities or that “fairness” should be instituted through legislation, the fact nevertheless remains that, currently, the platforms and institutions that are “censoring” opinion are private and can do as they please.
Now, I put censoring and censorship in quotation marks when discussing private platforms and institutions because they are not actually censoring individuals. What they’re really doing is simply managing the content of their own platforms. The individuals are free to say and do whatever they want elsewhere. They are not having their freedom of speech denied; they are being denied a platform to amplify their speech.
Think of it this way. Let’s say you go to a rally or a protest. One of your friends brings a megaphone. This megaphone amplifies his voice over the crowd, enabling him to get his message out more effectively. He might choose to share that megaphone with you and with your other friends, but if he takes the megaphone back from someone who was saying something he disagreed with, he’s not canceling that’s person’s freedom of speech, he’s just taking back the tool of amplification that belongs to him.
Let’s say Alex Jones is at the protest and gets hold of the megaphone. After your friend takes the megaphone away from him because your friend, like most people with common sense, knows BS when he hears it, Mr. Jones starts telling the crowd everyone should have access to the megaphone and its unfair for your friend to arbitrarily decide who gets to have their voices amplified and who doesn’t.
Even though it was your friend who bought the megaphone, who kept it in working order, who brought the megaphone to the rally, and who willingly allowed others to use it, ol’ Alex Jones is now using the empowerment everyone felt when their own voices were amplified to convince them they’re entitled to his megaphone and that he’s “censoring” them by refusing to share it with those he disagrees it.
But I digress, and I better reel things in before I go on another long diatribe about how this is socialism. The point I’m getting at is, private institutions and platforms can’t engage in true censorship because they have no control beyond the scope of their own organizations.
Freedom of speech does not translate into a right to amplification. America’s Funniest Videos didn’t silence you because it already had enough videos of goats passing out. American Idol didn’t violate your freedom of speech because your off-key rendition of Celine Dion didn’t make the final cut. Your travails are not equivalent to a Russian Gulag because Twitter made you reset your password.
So, what would constitute actual censorship? Might it be the use of government agencies and public institutions to silence thought or speech altogether? Like say, a presidential administration trying to halt the printing of a book that contains details damaging to a re-election bid.
To use Charlie Kirk’s favorite emoji, 🤔.
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