Who’s responsible for faux quote’s spread?
Earlier this week, a think tank chief and journalist caused a stir when he tweeted out a made-up quote attributed to President Donald Trump.
“President Trump in Tokyo: ‘Kim Jong Un is smarter and would make a better President than Sleepy Joe Biden,'” tweeted Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group and a foreign affairs columnist for TIME Magazine.
Trump did not say those words.
What the president actually said was this, in response to a reporter’s question: “Well, Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-IQ individual. I think I agree with him on that.”
Bremmer’s tweet was shared scores of times, by all kinds of people — including politicians and journalists. To my knowledge, the tweet didn’t show up in any news stories until the Washington Examiner wrote a piece about its inaccuracy (see that full story here: https://tinyurl.com/y4mgkyse).
Bremmer initially defended the tweet, saying it was obviously ridiculous — but also “plausible.” Then he called it a commentary on our social media culture, in which people will believe anything they read. After enough blowback, however, Bremmer apologized.
Trump tweeted that the episode supported his call for relaxed definitions of libel.
Bremmer was definitely right about one thing: His 19 words offer a fascinating commentary on the complex world in which we live, and the whole episode raises all kinds of questions to which there are zero easy answers: Can journalists engage in satire? Is a journalist’s responsibility different when he or she is sharing information on social media, instead of the pages of a newspaper? Who’s more responsible, Bremmer for publishing the fake quote, or the people who shared it?
Everyone who writes a tweet has a responsibility to remember that, on social media, misunderstanding travels faster than light all around the globe, and to put a little thought into their posts before they send them.
When we were angry as children, our teachers used to tell us to write our thoughts out in a letter we would only send if we still felt angry when we were done writing. That’s good advice for avoiding rash statements, but a lot harder when each of us carry unlimited stationary and a post office in our pocket.
Conversely, everyone of us who sees a tweet like Bremmer’s has some responsibility to think before we share.
But the ultimate responsibility in the case at hand lies with Bremmer.
His Twitter bio identifies him as a TIME columnist and president of the Eurasia Group’s “journalistic” arm, GZero Media. When you carry that mantle publicly, you have to recognize it’s on your shoulders, no matter where you go. I am as much managing editor of The Alpena News when I’m on vacation with my family or having a drink with friends or swimming at Starlite Beach as I am in the newsroom, and I ought to act accordingly.
The same words Bremmer used would have been taken differently if they were tweeted out by Trevor Noah or Seth Meyers, but people expect certain things from those who identify themselves as foreign affairs columnists. A journalist is as much a journalist on Twitter as he or she is in the newsroom.
Many a time have I seen humor in the absurdity of the politicians I’ve covered and started a tweet, only to delete without posting when I tried to see the tweet through my readers’ eyes.
Not that journalists can’t engage in satire. Hunter S. Thompson (who always considered himself more of a writer than a journalist) was a master of it. But it’s a fine line to walk.
Bremmer might have been able to pull it off if he’d made up that quote as part of an 800-word column dressed up with enough other hyperbole to make the satire obvious, but 19 words just isn’t enough paint for that kind of picture.
That responsibility has always existed, but it’s an even heavier burden in this era of incessant attacks on the media. Trump’s wrong that libel laws need to be changed, but Bremmer was wrong to give the president a reason to repeat that argument.
There are enough guns pointed at reporters these days. Why give our attackers more bullets?
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.