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The line between satire and slander

When a spoof bangs into bias, the results can be ugly on either side of the aisle.

Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, during

Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 13, 2017. Photo Credit: Bloomberg/Andrew Harrer

Monday afternoon, Dan Lyons tweeted his way into internet history with this:

“GOP rallies around Trump 9/11 role. ‘While Obama and Biden were cowering in fear on Air Force One, Mr. Trump was on the ground with first responders searching for survivors and pulling people to safety,’ Jim Jordan says. ‘I remember seeing him on TV, running toward the danger.’  ”

Lyons is an author and former Forbes and Newsweek editor best known for having run the Twitter account @FakeSteveJobs. His current @realdanlyons handle has 32,000 followers.

Jim Jordan is a conservative Republican House member from Ohio and a supporter of President Donald Trump.

And the tweet is satire, meant to needle Trump over his self-obsessed and untrue brag at a White House ceremony for legislation extending the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

Trump said, “I was down there also, but I’m not considering myself a first responder, but I was down there.”

But many in the twittersphere thought Lyons’ snark a real quote from Jordan. They attacked the congressman for not knowing who was president in 2001, and for making Trump out to be a superhero.

“Obama and Biden” started trending on Twitter. People argued over which was crazier, Jordan believing Obama was president in 2001 or Jordan believing Trump capable of running or willing to help people.

Lyons’ tweet got thousands of likes, retweets and comments. And then, as Lyons and others began to point out the quote was satirical and fake, the tone turned, with conservatives jumping on liberals who bought the meme and a lot of Twitter folk jumping on Lyons for making it up.

I’ll admit I bought Lyons’ tweet and Jordan’s quote as real for just long enough to poke around and discover the truth.

It’s hard to tell what’s satire when the president claims the long-exonerated Central Park Five are guilty of murder, thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered as the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, and George Washington’s army secured the nation’s airports against the British.

Satire always has been a dangerous game. It’s subtly hilarious to those who get it, but it misinforms those who don’t. The line between satire and slander can be very fine. And once a misperception is created, purposely or by mistake, it can be impossible to clear up.

The myth that Barack Obama was born in Kenya began with Andy Martin, a perennial candidate for various offices who named his fundraising committee for a 1986 House run “The Anthony R. Martin-Trigona Congressional Campaign to Exterminate Jew Power in America.” Martin, running for Illinois State Senate in 2004, started the rumor that Obama was born in Kenya.

Many people believed it because they wanted to and because prominent conservatives went along, but eventually even the lie’s greatest promoter, Trump, was forced to admit it was not true in September 2016. Even so, a 2017 YouGov poll found 57 percent of Trump voters believe Obama was “probably or definitely born in Kenya.”

I’d be curious, a year from now, to see how many Trump supporters believe the president saved lives on 9/11 while Obama and Joe Biden cowered on Air Force One. I wonder how many Trump haters will believe Jordan lied and said that was so.

I’m pretty sure the percentage won’t be close to zero for either question. Because when satire bangs into bias, the results can be very ugly on either side of the political aisle. Ideally, we’d hold on to the satire and let go of the bias.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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