Not long ago I wrote about how Snopes.com, the alleged “fact-checking” site, had become so politicized that its staff was rating posts on The Babylon Bee as false. Those posts were plainly written as satire. A related issue came to mind last weekend when I saw a meme on social media attributing the following statement to President Trump: “My crimes can’t be investigated while I’m president“. The meme used quote marks, but there was no link to a source.
It’s well known that Trump’s legal team contends that certain statements and actions he might take are protected by executive privilege and immunity. Given Trump’s frequent clumsy use of the language, I thought there was an outside chance that he DID say something like that! My uncertainty was ironic in the wake of my Snopes post! So I did a quick search and found an article in Vanity Fair headlined: Trump: My crimes can’t be investigated while I’m president, without quote marks. The opinion piece that followed was indeed a characterization of the Trump team’s legal strategy. The headline was obviously sarcasm and of course there was no attribution. Trump did not make any admission of criminal activity, contrary to the meme’s implication.
I knew the poster of the meme, whom I’ll call Dan, to be an individual who regards Trump with contempt, and certainly not the sort of guy who would bother to investigate the veracity of such a claim. Against my better judgement, I decided to tweak him a little. I asked if he could provide a source for the quote. He didn’t respond until late afternoon the next day, and not before one of his pals had attacked me for asking the question.
The crux of their defense was this: “It’s a meme! Don’t you know what a meme is?” There were other choice words from Dan’s pal… insults that is. The idea seems to be that memes can say anything and it’s okay if we say so. After all, they must think, people should know that such a misquote is fine because it illustrates the wrongheadedness of the Trump legal strategy… and Trump… via satire.
Do people know that it’s satire? No link. No source. Quote marks added. It was clearly intended to influence people, and I think it was intended to deceive as well. I’m not a Trump hater — more a critic of leftism having little choice other than Trump — but even I had to check on the quote! I’m pretty sure that lots of Trump haters and many non-haters would be duped. Not too many would bother to check, but at least a few did: I was surprised and delighted that Snopes rated the claim as false on Monday, and in a relatively straightforward way. Well, bully for Snopes!
Okay, the ridiculousness of it all! The idea that Trump would take ownership of alleged crimes, as in “my crimes”, an admission of guilt, is kind of funny, but mostly because it sounds like the kind of sloppy language he might have used. And of course people with a jaded view of Trump’s assertion of presidential powers might find the “quote” apropos. They should have their fun, but many of them know little about executive privilege, which is intended to protect the confidentiality necessary to carry out many presidential duties, or they give it short shrift, at least when a republican is in the White House. Less informed Trump detractors might be ready to accept the quote as fact without question.
What’s the difference between satire of the sort produced by The Babylon Bee and the fake quote? Again, posts from the Bee always link to its site, allowing immediate investigation for those who find the headline plausible. The story at the link always adds additional satire, usually so ridiculous that anyone should get the idea. But in case that’s not enough, the Bee clearly promotes itself as “Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire“. Yes, the Bee has an edge and it is often political. It is designed to get a laugh, provoke thought, poke fun, and influence people. Some of the humor might be too close to the truth to suit observers on the Left, but perhaps that’s why it annoys them so much. Nevertheless, it is satire and it says so.
Humor has long been used as a political tool, but does good faith require some form of demarcation between purported facts and… the joke? The problem is that many such distinctions must be understood from context, or at least from experience with the source. Cartoons are readily interpreted as humorous commentary. A comedian’s audience is generally under no misapprehension about the “facts” presented during the set. Parody and satire might or might not be billed as such. Much like a comedy club, the audience is probably uninterested in fact-checks. But what about internet memes? They often lack the context provided by a source. It’s still a relatively new form of commentary and an extremely effective means of spreading messages… and misinformation. People have an irrational tendency to believe things they see in print. Quote marks are meaningful, and they should lend legitimacy to a retelling of someone’s words.
Was the “quote” so outrageous that I should have known it was merely a sarcastic meme? Maybe not when the subject is Trump! Anyway, my real objective was to make sure before taking a little dig at Dan, the poster. I quickly concluded the intent of the meme’s creator involved deceit, and I still think so. It’s all too common, which is too bad, but let the social media user beware!