The Shape-Shifting Hydra of Fake News

7 mins read
Gustave Moreau, Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra

Today, a valued friend of mine, whose opinions I respect, posted a “humor” article to his Facebook feed, from the Babylon Bee. I don’t want to direct any traffic to that site, so here is a screen grab:

Annotation 2019-10-10 204531

Now, the thought that immediately sprung to mind was that there was an obvious answer to this –  Section 30121 of the Federal code regarding elections clearly states:

It shall be unlawful for-

(1) a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make-

(A) a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election;

(B) a contribution or donation to a committee of a political party; or

(C) an expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement for an electioneering communication (within the meaning of section 30104(f)(3) of this title); or

(2) a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1) from a foreign national.

But the mere refutation of a poorly researched statement online does not get to the whole ghastly truth of the matter. Here is the ghastly truth: “Fake news” per se does not exist simply on Fox News or Breitbart, or in the deranged tweets of our mentally imbalanced president. It has taken on many, many other forms, forms that seem less threatening at first blush, but may be just as if not more insidious.

Look at the assumptions embedded in this “joke.” Firstly, there is the bald-faced assumption that Trump has committed no crime, and that no one can reasonably point to one. Ha ha, funny, right? Oh, those crazy liberals. Further down in the piece is a “joke” about how “Democrats [say] that impeaching a president who insists on being Trump is a constitutional duty. Many Americans are just kind of confused by the whole thing and are waiting for something more interesting to come on TV.” But of course, as demonstrated above, he has committed a clear and unambiguous crime, in violation of directly applicable statute.

The next implicit assumption is that the commission of a crime is a necessary qualification for impeachment and removal from office of a president. This is simply, flatly untrue. The process of impeachment does not involve indictment for crimes committed and removal does not result in jail time. Neither does it require the standards of evidence that a criminal trial does. It is an exercise in judgment, specifically the judgment of (heaven help us) the membership of the United States Senate. Putting forward the commission of a crime as the standard for an impeachment’s “reasonableness” is an attempt to raise the bar and make it more difficult to engage in.

A third buried premise in this piece is that “most people” agree with the thesis of this piece: that no one can point to illegal activity. On what basis is this claim advanced? A poll just released by Fox News of all groups indicates that support for impeachment and removal of Trump has now reached 51% of polled respondents.

The “people are saying” or “many people agree” variety of specious argumentation is designed specifically to muddy the waters and to soften the listener or reader to the opposing proposition. “Huh,” the reader might think. “If lots of other people don’t think there is anything here, maybe I should doubt it, too.” It is a form of argument employed to great effect by Trump himself, and it’s just as invalid here.

The Babylon Bee, which puts itself forward as a Christian version of the satirical Onion website, is rife with these sorts of buried false theses and assumptions. One needs only look back to October 3rd, to the article titled “All Democrats Drop Out Of Presidential Race Since The World Is Ending From Climate Change And There’s No Point,” which puts forward this “humorous” quote from Elizabeth Warren:

“Why am I fighting for abortion on demand at 39 weeks when we’re all going to die anyway?!” screamed Elizabeth Warren. “It’s all pointless! All my plans are pointless!”

Warren, of course, has never come forward supporting “abortion on demand at 39 weeks.” But a reader of this humor piece would very likely come away thinking she has. This is not to mention the way concerns over climate change are being treated as ridiculous alarmism, a subject of humor as opposed to genuine concern.

Fake news is damaging, whether it exists as a “news article” that omits major facts and context, or as a conspiracy theory that slanders a political enemy, or, in this case, as “humor” that distorts the truth. Rigorous studies have shown that exposure to fake news “incubates” false beliefs in the viewer or reader, even among an audience that is skeptical of it, making subsequent exposure to the same or similar ideas more effective. The lessons of 2016 are still being learned today. We must treat fake news as the danger that it is, and we must strive to recognize it even when it hides in forms other than an online “news” article or an Alex Jones screed. When friends share this kind of content, thinking that it is merely a harmless amusement, we have to point it out for what it is – a danger to all of us, that can incubate false beliefs even among people not predisposed towards them.

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