Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Downside of Banning Fake News

by F.T. Rea

Since election day most of the concern about fake news has been focused on the role such off-brand political stories may have played in tilting the presidential race. However, the bizarre Comet Pizza story about a pitifully gullible, assault-rifle-toting vigilante -- claiming he was aiming to rescue captive children -- bodes of more crazy-sounding real news stories to come. 

Happy new year. 

Speaking of craziness, most folks know it's quite likely there are more wannabe vigilantes waiting for just the right provocation. So, dear sane reader, I'm wondering if we may be about to see a snowballing of paranoia over what troubles fake news could animate. Given all the propaganda and misleading advertising we have absorbed the irony of such a national panic would be noteworthy. 

All of which could be seen as an opportunity for some players inside the beltway. Goosed on by a muscular Trump administration, Republicans in Congress might just imagine it's their duty to shield the citizenry from counterfeit stories masquerading as curated news, crafted and published by sources you can find and hold accountable. Accordingly, those emboldened legislators could opt to outlaw forms of fake news deemed to be dangerous.

What fresh hell would facilitate such an Orwellian development? 

More breaking news stories, a la Comet Pizza, but with corpses strewn about the crime scene. In 2017, if planted bogus news is viewed as having played a significant role in a couple of spectacular bloodbaths, one can almost hear a cacophonous chorus of cries for action.

Twelve months from now, picture a Saturday Night Live skit being busted, in progress. In this scenario, it would be for presenting a satirical news item about the White House being painted gold, President Trump quibbling over the deal, cheating the contractors, etc. If this were to happen, SNL cast members would go down in history as the first comedians arrested for violating the new ban on disseminating fake news stories about certain government officials. 

It wouldn't be a matter of putting the kibosh on a comedic performance testing obscenity laws, such as in Lenny Bruce's dirty-talking days. This would be branding satire as illegal when it constitutes a threat to order by transmitting words, sounds and images depicting deliberately false information about specific protected officials. 

In this case, the fake news cops would be protecting a sitting president who may be more thin-skinned than any of his predecessors. What limits on his power Trump will accept are yet to be known. He's already blustered aplenty about how he will curb the "lying press," once he's in power. Furthermore, it's hardly a reach to suggest that President-elect Trump now appears to believe he's got a blank-check mandate to do what he pleases about vexations from the mainstream media. 

After inauguration day on Jan. 20, no one should be surprised if protest marches denouncing the Trump administration's policies are confronted with a more robust response than did those in the days after election day's surprise. No doubt, Trump's "strongman" style is going to be appreciated and emulated by some in the law enforcement/security business. 

Hey, don't say it can't happen here. I'm old enough to remember Selma in 1965 and Kent State in 1970. Our American history is replete with displays of black-boot tactics to quell dissent

Sure the feds ought to pursue criminal hackers and spies, but it would be a mistake for us to ask the government to solve our current fake news problem. The last thing this country needs is a new police force dedicated to imposing a solution. 

If the battered fourth estate and we the befuddled people don't soon find a practical way to solve this problem, one of our favorite forms of push-back humor -- satire -- may be in for a rough ride with Trump in the Gold House. As satire has often been used more effectively by the left than the right, there are surely some Trump advisers already licking their chops at the prospect of scaring lefty satirists out of their wits. 

Meanwhile, the legit news people in the mainstream media have to recognize that their routine mashing up of news and entertainment, a dumbing-down trend that's become more prevalent over the last decade, helped to pave the way for this dilemma. It's on the industry itself to establish and adhere to some rules -- new reliable standards that draw a bright line between a calm reality and attention-getting exaggeration, even hokum

Then the rest of us need to think about the inherent peril of living in an echo chamber that reinforces preconceived notions and makes us more gullible. On Facebook, maybe we should take more care not to share those unverified click bait stories and trashy memes. 

Furthermore, the trending notion that there's no such thing as truth, today, should be rejected. Our media culture -- both mainstream and social -- needs to evolve to where the whole scamming mindset of misleading headlines, doling out fake news and trolling for hire, or just sicko amusement, etc., becomes as uncool as it gets. 


Promoting that simple concept is a worthwhile cause for 2017. Happy new year, again. What could be cooler than saving satire? 

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