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Who's Worse For Society-- The Hate Talk Radio Hosts Spreading Lies Or The Morons Who Listen To Them?

It may sound heartless and cruel, but I have no doubt that if everyone who regularly listens to Hate Talk Radio were all raptured at once, they would actually make America great again. Maybe not quite zombie-frei, but close. As John Pavlovitz noted ruefully yesterday, "People actually still support that unhinged madman. They admire him. They look up to him. They feel affinity with him. They are fighting for him... I see people regurgitating fictional Fox News talking points and hear them parroting back conspiratorial nonsense and I watch them pass by with his name affixed to their heads and attached to their bumpers in cultic adoration— and it grieves me to know how far gone so many around me seem to be. I no longer recognize the place I’ve always called home... It’s simply demoralizing sharing a country with people who think Donald Trump is someone worth emulating: to be surrounded by that kind of moral inversion every single day, to be continually encountering such cruelty... It isn’t just the reality of the despicable human being who allowed to ascend to the Presidency that beings that sadness, though that would be reason enough for despair. It’s the ugliness we’ve seen in our neighbors as he’s made his way there, and perhaps even worse now following his departure: the doubling down despite all we know about his reckless and incompetence. It’s the sickness that the America we love has shown itself afflicted with: the weight of every horrible reality about our nation; all our bigotry and discord and hatred set upon our chests, hampering our breath."

Think for a moment who you know who listens to Steve Bannon, Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, Todd Starnes, Steve Gill, Mark Levin, Dennis Prager, Alison Furno, Larry Elder, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Andy Hooser, Jonathan Saenz, Michael Medved, John Batchelor, Steve Gruber, Brian Kilmeade and Brian Craig… World better off without them? And let’s not forget last week’s billion dollar headline boy and all around bigot Alex Jones. Imagine if you could snap your fingers and the whole Info Wars audience was raptured! No one would have ever heard of Pizzagate! And could QAnon even exist without Jones and the rest of the Hate Talk universe?

Columbia University professor and author Zeynep Tufekci, a NY Times opinion columnist, honed in on just one of the miscreants who has profited by helping to tear the country apart with lies— both in her Times column yesterday and, in more detail, on her blog. Like many people, she wonders how we, as a society, can grapple with the current historic transformation of the public sphere and prevent more Alex Joneses in the future? She suggested “that we take a closer look at money as an incentive… Jones’ net worth was estimated during the trial to be anywhere between $135 to $270 million, and much of this comes from peddling dubious supplements, survivalist gear, flouride-free toothpaste, what-have-you. The trial revealed that his company makes many tens of millions of dollars each year from selling such merchandise, and that the Sandy Hook families reached out to him in anguish many times only to be rebuffed, according to the families, because the topic was so lucrative for his sales. This type of money is a huge part of the incentive structure that shapes so much of our societal woes, and is often overlooked to the key role it plays.”

Are people that stupid? If they’re listening to Alex Jones or any of the others, the chances of them being a critical thinker is pretty remote. Are they morons. My guess is yes. I only know one person who obsessively listens to Hate Talk Radio and he’s a low-functioning moron. I have a feeling he’s more representative than unique. Analytical thinking, abstract thinking, deep thought, creative thought… none of that is part of MAGA world, where, she noted, Jones has “achieved the epitome of despicability and now has been ordered to pay for it… [B]efore the 2016 election, he was the 13th most shared source on Twitter among then-candidate Trump’s supporters,” bringing in about $53 million a year in revenue.

Tufekci wrote that “It’s become so easy to lucratively lie to so many people, and we have few realistic and effective defenses against the harms of deceptions like these, not just to individuals but to our society. ‘Good speech’ isn’t going to push out lies when viewership is so fragmented, nor is the solution ‘fact checks’ of various levels of quality by institutions already not trusted by many. There have been campaigns to get major social media platforms to act more aggressively to get rid of liars, but why should we trust them to decide who should be banned? What if political winds shift? What’s the solution? No society can be constantly pulled at its seams like this and escape unscathed. The recent Jones verdict certainly did some damage to the industry of lucrative lying, and perhaps few are as deserving of this result than he is. But laws written for a different era cannot resolve the problems of our current media ecology.”

There are no easy, quick solutions, but perhaps a starting point would be to make it harder and less lucrative to lie to huge audiences. Rather than pursuing legally dubious and inadvisable efforts to ban speech or define and target misinformation, regulations should target the incentives for and the speed with which lies can be spread, amplified and monetized.
Plus, a lot of this lying is very cynical. Many have likely heard that Alex Jones has been ordered to pay about one billion to Sandy Hook families in two separate defamation lawsuits. But did you also know that his lawyers had pretty much said that he lies on purpose, that what he’s doing is “performance art”, of someone “playing a character”, comparing him to Jack Nicholson playing Joker on the move Batman.
Some Fox News hosts had taken to claiming that voting machine fraud had helped Joe Biden win the election. One voting machine company sent a legal letter in December of 2020, asking them to stop the “false and defamatory” statements, and clearly hinting at a lawsuit. Lo and behold, we witnessed a stunning Road to Damascus moment. The same Fox News host making these claims quickly created a lengthy fact-checking segment, debunking their own lies, and it was run on all the shows that had featured the lie and were named in the letter.
Interestingly, the companies are still going ahead with the lawsuit, rather than settling for some money as it is usually done, a clear sign that they likely think they can prove to the very high standards of US defamation law that the lying was knowingly done, and that they can show that in court—it other words, there is no ideological commitment here, just cynical lying. But, of course, the damage is done and can’t be easily reversed however the lawsuits may eventually conclude.
…[W]e should recognize that a constant barrage of lies and dehumanizing propaganda are often part and parcel of the road to mayhem and even large-scale violence, and each societal transition renews the challenge of finding better, updated ways to face this reality.
This is one big reason why every new communication milieu brought about by technological and political changes has to be grappled with, but without nostalgia— as the past is rarely perfect, but in any case it’s not coming back— or without sloganeering. Oft-repeated formulations like “let more speech counter bad speech” or “technology can be good or bad” don’t even begin to get at the current problems partly because they don’t even describe the current problems.

As far as politicians who lie— take Herschel Walker or J.R. Majewski— it’s up to the voters to hold them accountable. It may seem that that doesn’t always work out so well, but consider that though Americans don’t like dumping presidents after just one term-- recentish exceptions being George H.W. Bush (1992), Jimmy Carter (1976), Herbert Hoover (1928), William Taft (1912)-- theydumped the biggest liar in American history, Donald J. Trump. Grover Cleveland was elected in 1884, defeated in 1888 by Benjamin Harrison and then elected again in a rematch with Harrison in 1892. Trump, who hates nothing more than being recognized as a loser, would like to do what Cleveland did, but, remember, unlike Trump, Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888— 5,534,488 (48.6%) to Harrison’s 5,443,892 (47.8%). 2020 was a very different story:

  • Joe Biden- 81,268,924 (51.3%)

  • Donald Trump- 74,216,154 (46.9%)


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