Conspiracy theories masquerading as news may be the biggest threat to our democratic world
As a Carleton University journalism school dropout (who decided on a career in law instead), I remain fascinated by the interplay between law, fact, opinion, and politics within the journalistic profession, and indeed, in public discourse. A recent American case concerning Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson illustrates how stark raving mad this interplay has become.
Mr. Carlson has the most-watched cable news show in the United States. Geographically challenged by his inability to pronounce the name of Canada’s capital city, he is also the pundit who called Tammy Duckworth, a U.S. senator and combat veteran who had her legs blown off while serving in Iraq, a “silly and unimpressive person” and a “coward” who “hates America.” His outbursts (and there are many) have cost him sponsors including Disney, Papa John’s Pizza, IHOP pancake house chain, Red Lobster, and T-Mobile. And his head writer, Blake Neff, resigned from Fox for posting racist, homophobic and sexist commentary on social media under a pseudonym.
Carlson has complained that immigrants would make America poorer and dirtier. He has argued that white supremacy “is not a real problem in America,” but rather a conspiracy theory used to divide Americans “just like the Russian hoax.” He has been a vehement critic of the Black Lives Matter movement. He called one guest – a writer for Teen Vogue — “vapid” and dismissed her critical commentary about U.S. President Donald Trump by telling her to “stick to the thigh-high boots.” More recently, he claimed that emails extracted from Hunter Biden’s laptop showed shady business deals in the Ukraine, a story that The Wall Street Journal didn’t run because it couldn’t be substantiated. More than 50 former senior intelligence officials have agreed that the Hunter Biden laptop story had all the earmarks of a pre-election Russian disinformation operation, yet the story never seemed to leave the right-wing news cycle.
Carlson has been called a right-wing conspiracy theorist, a bigot, a racist and a misogynist, and he doesn’t seem particularly phased by the criticism. Like his colleagues on Fox News, he’s a vocal and vehement Trump supporter.
So where does the law come in? Well, Carlson was the subject of an interesting legal decision in 2020 (McDougal v. Fox News Network, LLC), in which the plaintiff, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, claimed to have been defamed by a segment on Carlson’s show. Carlson accused her of extorting President Trump out of $150,000 in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair between her and Trump.
It was Fox’s position that Carlson’s statements were opinions and not statements of fact. Moreover, Fox argued, Carlson engaged in “exaggeration and non-literal commentary,” and his words were “loose, figurative or hyperbolic.” The judge agreed, writing that “any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of scepticism’ about the statements [Carlson] makes.”
As in the 1976 movie Network, Carlson produces entertainment rather than journalism.
Before the pandemic I travelled a lot, and it wasn’t difficult to watch CNN, BBC, Sky News or Fox News in hotel rooms in Istanbul, Cairo, Phnom Penh or Cape Town. Although one could say that news has become globalized, the popularity of Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham in the U.S. suggests to me that news hasn’t become globalized. It’s become “Goebbelized.”
Although there are numerous quotes that have been misattributed to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, he is believed to have said that “Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will.”
And that seems to be what’s happening in what used to be called the free world. People are believing propaganda and conspiracy theories that pretend to be news, whether it’s Big Pharma wanting to inject autism-causing vaccines that will track one’s whereabouts using 5G networks, or that the masks we wear to prevent COVID-19 transmission reduce oxygen intake and breach constitutional rights to shop, or that U.S. financier George Soros is at the heart of a global conspiracy and funding a one-world government. Canada has sprouted its own conspiracy theories, too, like Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam being an agent of China, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being the illegitimate son of Fidel Castro.
Gone seem to be the days when people got their news from reliable, experienced and accredited journalists who checked facts, rather than from Karen on Facebook. Where 50 years ago we were concerned about Soviet propaganda, the propagandists are now more often right-wing conspiracy theorists on Facebook and Twitter, looking for any evidence that reflects their worldview and spreading their disinformation through the echo chamber of social media. And many people swallow it.
The aftermath of the recent U.S. election illustrates the point. The U.S. electoral system authorizes individual states to administer and supervise their own elections, with different rules respecting mail-in ballots and when they are counted. A conspiracy theory is being circulated by the U.S. president, his inner circle and right-wing social media pundits that there must have been fraud in those states where Trump lost the Electoral College battle, despite the fact that independent observers from other countries as well as Democrat and Republican invigilators who oversaw the vote count have neither complained of nor provided any evidence of electoral fraud. Not surprisingly, the fraud allegation is confined to those states in which Trump lost the Electoral College vote.
And the same people who were calling Mr. Biden “Sleepy Joe,” mentally unfit and senile before the election are now arguing that he orchestrated a massive electoral fraud involving thousands of operatives in states that didn’t go Trump’s way during a pandemic — and all from his basement!
And some people are believing it.
Like I said, news isn’t globalized today so much as it is “Goebbelized.” And that may be the biggest threat to our democratic world.
Editor’s Note: This column originally contained a sentence that associated Ontario Proud and BC Proud with the Proud Boys. In fact there is no connection between these groups. Ontario Proud and BC Proud are political advocacy and third-party advertiser groups that have no association with the Proud Boys or any similar organizations. Canadian Lawyer sincerely apologizes for the error.