When I heard that President Donald Trump had condemned a violent video parody that depicted a fake Trump shooting mainstream media and his political critics, I wondered whether he actually was upset that he hadn’t tweeted the grisly video first.
After all, the president was nowhere to be seen as he announced his criticism through a White House spokeswoman. But while his fingerprints might not be on the video, its creator is part of a loose network of right-wing provocateurs who have a direct line to the White House, including Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino, according to The New York Times and NBC News.
The controversial video made news after it was screened in a side room at a three-day event last week by a pro-Trump organization called American Priority at the Trump National Doral Miami, according to The New York Times, which obtained footage from the event.
It shows a fake President Trump superimposed over actor Colin Firth as he shoots up a crowd in a church in the 2014 action-comedy “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” Labels or faces superimposed on the mowed-down identify them as major news media and political celebrities, including Kathy Griffin and Rosie O’Donnell, as well as political rivals former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Maxine Waters and the late Sen. John McCain.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the sickos who came up with this video — or applauded it — were among the multitudes who demanded Griffin’s firing and worse in May 2017 when she posted a video of herself holding a bloody Donald Trump mask like a severed head.
After ferocious blowback in which she lost her annual job as co-host on CNN’s New Year’s Eve special and was interviewed by the Secret Service, Griffin tearfully apologized in an online video in which she admitted she “went way too far.”
Now it’s Griffin’s turn to be offended. On Oct. 13, she spoke out, along with Meghan McCain, daughter of the late senator, and others, in expressing outrage over the new video from Trump’s online supporters.
But an early version of the video actually appeared online about 18 months before it made national news, NBC reported. A video creator who goes by TheGeekzTeam uploaded it on Reddit, where it went viral and attracted donations. This led to 20 more videos, almost all of them variations on the same theme of Trump as superhero battling media and political rivals like Superman battling Lex Luthor.
By late summer, TheGeekzTeam joined MemeWorld, a community of pro-Trump digital creators, which was invited to a White House conference of what turned out to be mostly conservative internet content creators.
Welcome to the meme wars, the use of internet memes — humorous images, clips and statements intended to go viral on the web — to spread propaganda against one’s political rivals. Past presidential candidates would openly condemn such vile viral messages for degrading our electoral process. Trump’s strategy has encouraged them.
In his new and well-timed book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz argues that the “edge lords,” slang for the nihilists, conspiracy theorists, right-wing nationalists and white supremacists who pollute internet message boards, have worked to undermine the reasonable online discourse that the web at its best can provide.
Marantz is so distressed by such “gate crashers” that he recently has called for some second thoughts on the value of free speech and free press. In interviews and a recent New York Times op-ed, “Free Speech is Killing Us,” he observes after years of internet-inspired violence, “I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood.”
In an interview on public radio’s “On the Media,” Marantz clarified that he’s not questioning the value of free speech, just “free speech absolutism.” Just as the Supreme Court has said it’s criminal to shout “fire” in a crowded theater — unless there really is a fire — he says we should take other virtues such as public safety into account when defending free speech. Perhaps, but how?
Marantz raises important points, but I still lean toward the absolutists. While internet companies, like any other media giants, have a civic obligation to do no harm, efforts to have government take on that role tend to sweep with too broad of a broom. We, the public, have an obligation to root out dangerous or offensive speech and counter it with more speech in pursuit of the truth. It’s hard work in an increasingly complex media age, but it’s worth the effort.