President Trump, presently at war with the social media giant Twitter over whether his tweets should have fact checks appended to them, is a reliable source for the promotion of controversial material. Browsing Facebook recently, I saw a post from an acquaintance who insisted that the president had approvingly shared video of a man advocating for the killing of Democrats. This seemed outrageous, even for Trump.
I followed the Facebook post to Trump’s tweet, actually a retweet of a video posted by a supportive group called Cowboys for Trump. The video is of a speech by a man named Couy Griffin, a county commissioner in Otero County, N.M., and founder of the nonprofit Cowboys for Trump. Griffin’s remarks were distasteful, to be sure, but they stop short of suggesting the actual killing of Democrats. In the offending section of the video, Griffin said, “I’ve come to a place where I’ve come to the conclusion that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat. I don’t say that in the physical sense and I can already see the videos getting edited where it says I wanna go murder Democrats. No, I say that in the political sense because the Democrat agenda and policy is anti-American right now.” (Emphasis mine.) Griffin (pictured above) goes on to call for voters to bring about Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
I was interested to see how the claim that Trump retweeted a video wishing death upon Democrats — clearly untrue, in the literal sense — would be handled by fact-checkers. So I visited Snopes, which I have praised in the past for the quality of its work. Snopes’ entry, “Did Trump Retweet a Video Saying ‘The Only Good Democrat Is a Dead Democrat?,’” rates the claim as “True.”
To Snopes’ credit, its fact-checkers provide a transcript of Griffin’s full remarks from the video. However, Bethania Palma concludes that “equivocation or not, those were the exact words of Griffin as recorded in the video posted in the tweet, which the president retweeted.” This black-and-white interpretation is curious, given that Snopes has a rating of “Mixture,” which it regularly employs. Yes, those words came out of Griffin’s mouth, but it seems pertinent that he immediately followed them with an explanation that he did not mean them in the literal sense.
To crack down on this sort of speech blackens whole categories of figurative language. Hyperbole and political rhetoric have never been strangers. Should we start booking people for cruelty to animals when someone claims to be “so hungry I could eat a horse”? Palma includes within the piece other, more provocative quotes by Griffin uttered in an interview with the Daily Beast about his original speech, but those comments were not included in the material retweeted by Trump.
It is instructive to contrast this with other treatments of inflammatory political rhetoric. A good example comes from the work of Palma herself. In “Did Pelosi Say ‘Civilization as We Know It Today Is at Stake’ About 2020 Election?,” Palma assesses a quote claimed to be from the speaker of the House. The piece carries the rating “Correct Attribution,” which is equivalent to the “True” rating in the Trump piece. In other words, Pelosi did argue that a vote for Trump could be the death knell for civilization.
However, the Pelosi piece carried a caveat in the form of a sub-headline noting that “Whether accurate or not, a quote shared online can quickly travel a long way away from its original context.” Expounding on this point, Palma notes that Pelosi originally made her remarks with regards to Trump’s alleged corruption in the run-up to his impeachment, although they are now being shared with regards to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. These facts matter, but no less so than the additional context of Griffin’s remarks, which Palma essentially waved away. Pelosi’s rhetoric is arguably just as incendiary — what cannot be justified to protect civilization? Trump, Griffin, and Pelosi were all engaging in the time-honored art of using fiery speech to influence voter behavior at the ballot box.
Of course, this interpretation itself is subjective. But so is Snopes’ decision regarding when to emphasize the context around political rhetoric. The fact-checking of political opinion — something that can’t fairly be undertaken — makes it at least somewhat understandable why Trump should balk at the notion of his social media posts being accompanied by fact checks.