Anton Savage: 'Make the bastard deny it', and other attacks on democracy

30th Mar 2024
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Originally published in the Business Post.

We may find it funny when crackpot rumours cross over from social media to the mainstream, but we may not be laughing for long.

Hunter S Thompson regularly quoted an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, about the former US president Lyndon Johnson. The story goes thus.

Johnson is struggling in his 1948 Senate campaign. His campaign manager comes to him, downcast, and starts a discussion about how they can outdo their main opponent, a pig farmer. Johnson suggests they tell people the man has carnal relations with his herd (he puts it in much, much more florid terms).

The campaign manager is aghast: “We can’t say that! You know that’s not true!” Johnson replies, “Of course it’s not true. But let’s make the bastard deny it.”

That approach worked in Johnson’s day. It works even more floridly now, thanks to a dance of death between social media and traditional media. Back when Johnson was first running for the US Senate, there was at least a chance that the press might starve a rumour of attention if they could find no evidence for the underlying claim.

Now that rumour will get legs on social media and the traditional media will be forced to cover that. The end result is the same – lies are spread, even if that be vicariously through reporting on a social media trend, rather than directly by reporting on the allegation itself.

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