The phrase seemed inescapable during Donald Trump’s presidency, as the two sides of the political aisle often pitched at each other — fake news. The phenomenon, however, has had real consequences, and longtime award-winning Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu tried to shed some light on its origins and how to combat it during a talk at Dejardin Hall on the Marshalltown Community College campus on Thursday morning.
Basu’s speech was the first in the Shear-Colbert Symposium’s annual lecture series, which revolves around a common theme each year — in 2022, it’s “If it’s wrong, it can’t be a news”. The symposium dates back to 1984 and was originally organized by the late MCC history professor, Tom Colbert, as a tribute to his predecessor, George A. Shear.
“I was thrilled that they had a lecture series like this at a community college. I hadn’t heard much of it, and I was really impressed and excited to come here,” Basu said in a later interview. “I do a lot of public speaking in the Des Moines area, but getting out and into other communities where I haven’t really been and interacting with people is great. I love it.”
After Colbert’s death in 2015, he went on temporary hiatus, but his widow, MCC English teacher PJ Colbert, revived the series three years later. As Colbert explained, the first three symposia were structured around Russia, railroads, and the CIA, and the organizers do their best to pick a topic relevant to the current moment.
“Every year we pick something that seems to be making headlines, and I’ve been thinking about fake news for three or four years,” Colbert said. “It’s a way of honoring Tom’s memory…It’s the best thing for me of the year, actually, and one of the things I’m not going to give up in retirement.”
Basu kicked off his remarks with a real-life anecdote about returning to his office after working remotely for much of the pandemic and opening a huge envelope with no return address. The content, she said, challenged her columns in favor of vaccine and mask mandates, instead claiming that the vaccine was actually a bioweapon meant to wipe out most of the population, the big pharma taking advantage of the situation (a point Basu conceded, but as she said it’s the system), the New World Order is trying to take over the population and Dr. Anthony Fauci should be jailed .
The source for much of the writer’s information was a podcast called “Right Side” with Doug Billings. As Basu began to research Billings, she discovered that the host had called COVID “the biggest burger of nothing in the history of hysteria” and the vaccine as “the most incredible source of harm that has ever been inflicted on us”.
Wow, I thought. Worse than slavery or the Holocaust? she asked.
From there, Basu provided some background on fake news and why it’s different from satire or parody, citing the infamous ‘Pizzagate’ incident – when a North Carolina man who claimed that he was investigating a child trafficking ring fired a gun at Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, DC in 2016 – as an example.
Social media, blogs and podcasts, Basu argued, made it more difficult to check and verify information before it was distributed to a mass audience, and thus unfounded conspiracy theories flourished and have become accepted facts by certain segments of the population. News consumption, of course, is radically different from what it was in the 1980s, when Basu was studying journalism at university.
“Granted, there were left or right wing tilts in perspective, but the holy grail at School J was accuracy. You had to report all sides of an issue, get your facts from credible sources, and keep your opinions out of the news. The only place for these was in editorials and commentary,” she said.
She went on to discuss the COVID-19 conspiracies and 2020 voter fraud allegations in more detail and provided a brief history of the Qanon conspiracy theory, which claims that a “Deep State” cabal of child molesters children conspired against Trump while in office. Basu urged those in the audience, both in person and on Zoom, to think for themselves and avoid accepting information that “seemed sketchy”.
“As demanding students, our job should be to study all sides of a problem before we form our own opinion,” she said.
Before wrapping up and answering questions, Basu showed several clips from a French news network that regularly checks viral facts, including a video of migrant workers in Florida that sparked protests and reactions from political figures on the false claim that they were in the country. illegally and a clip from “The Simpsons” that seemed to predict Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response to truckers’ protests against vaccination mandates – except that they were actually two separate and unrelated clips, edited together in only one.
The final question Basu posed to the audience asked what to do with family members and friends who fell down the so-called “rabbit hole” in conspiratorial thinking.
“We have a long way to go on this. We are such a divided country right now, and honestly I think the only thing that can set us free from that is the truth,” she said.
The 2022 Shear-Colbert Symposium will feature two other guest speakers: Professor Emeritus Michael Bugeja of Iowa State University on March 31 and Drake University Assistant Professor and STEM Librarian Dan Chibnall on April 14.
Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or [email protected]