Upping the ante: Glenn Beck and the limits of satire
October 16, 2009
I’ve heard Glenn Beck described as the super Andrew Bolt. He’s an ultra conservative in the US, who has a show on the Fox Network devoted – it seems – almost entirely to attacking the Democrats and Obama.
His particular tactic is to make controversial (racist, offensive, etc) statements in the form of a question and then demand that his liberal interviewees prove them not to be true.
Now however, an anonymous group of internet pranksters are turning Beck’s tactics against him (satirically of course). The whole thing would have gone largely unnoticed, except that Glen Beck got his lawyers to try to shut the whole thing down, and now it is blowing up.
What did they do?
Create a website that asked the question “Did Glenn Beck Rape and Murder a Young Girl in 1990?”
The creators of the website claim that the site, and the content are protected by the First Amendment Right to Free Speech – that is, there is a disclaimer on the site stating that it is satire.
This fiasco seems to raise two issues.
Firstly, the limits of satire are stretched by this. Rape and murder are not generally topics for political humour or satire. In this case, it’s a fine line. The line, although potentially offensive, is within the bounds of Glenn Beck’s own rhetoric, which often reach (or cross) the borders of good taste or offense.
Secondly, it is an excellent case study for how not to do crisis management. While Beck has so far resisted explicitly denying the site’s questions, he has effectively poured petrol on the flames by trying to get the site shut down. This has made it a story – especially since he is appealing to the International internet governing body to turn off the domain name. Techdirt summarises the problem for Beck neatly:
As for why it’s not particularly smart — whether he wins or loses — is because he just called a whole bunch of attention to some silly internet meme that clearly wants attention. Beck would have been better off just ignoring it. Instead, in legitimizing it by trying to take it down, many more people become aware of the meme — and may start calling attention to situations where Beck (and others) make use of such tactics.
I’m sure this “meme” has a long way to play out, and we are likely to see (as Techdirt notes) more examples – hopefully less extreme – of conservatives called out.
Postscript: The Conservative backlash is enormous, with cyber-sleuths uncovering the anonymous blogger behind the site and is spawning satires of right-wing outrage. Ironically (and unconsciously) they use exactly the same tactics against the blogger as he uses against Beck. (Updated thanks to Name Withheld’s comment – apparently Christwire is also a satire site. That’s what happens when you’re an Australian looking at US politics – the nuances are lost.)
Postscript 2: A few days after the Glenn Beck 1990 meme exploded, and a Google search for “Glenn Beck r-pe murder 1990” reveals over 239,000,000 results. Pretty amazing.