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On social media, context is key

On June 11, Fox News Insider (the official blog of Fox News Channel) posted a story with the headline, “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump.” The first line of the article, which is still available online, reads, “A New York City play appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities, ‘Fox & Friends’ reported.”

After reading just the headline and first sentence of the article, one might exclaim, “Wow! That’s terrible and disturbing!” 

The New York City play in question was a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” part of The Public Theater’s world-famous “Shakespeare in the Park” series, a respected tradition of free, open-air productions in Central Park, first established in the 1950s. “Julius Caesar” depicts the build-up to, and aftermath of, the assassination of Caesar by his fellow Roman senators, played in this production (though not exclusively) by “women and minorities.”

In this year’s production, the character of Caesar was clearly made to resemble Donald Trump. It’s important to understand that this is not in itself unusual. “Julius Caesar” was written over 400 years ago, and like many of the author’s plays, has been staged in contemporary dress and with updated political allusions many, many times, including a well-regarded production of “Julius Caesar” by the Guthrie Theatre in 2012 in which the Caesar character was inspired by then President Barack Obama.

Most of these productions come and go and nobody reacts to them except people in the audience.  What made this one different was the Fox News Insider article, which was instantly shared thousands of times on social media. People got upset. Many were so vocally upset that Delta Airlines, a longtime financial benefactor of The Public Theater, pulled its sponsorship from the production the very next day.  This was soon followed by similar actions from Bank of America and American Express. During the remainder of the performances (the production closed on June 18), protesters stood outside the theatre with signs and some even jumped on stage during the performance.

Obviously, many considered the production as an overt criticism of the president and even as an incitement of violence. However, as Jesse Green notes in his review of the show from the New York Times: “Even a cursory reading of the play, the kind that many American teenagers give it in high school, is enough to show that it does not advocate assassination. Shakespeare portrays the killing of Caesar by seven of his fellow senators as an unmitigated disaster for Rome, no matter how patriotic the intentions.”

This is the key–whether or not they agreed with the production’s decision to “Trumpify” Caesar, it’s clear that many protesters were basing their hostility on a headline shared via social media, not on a reasoned knowledge of the play or the production they were criticizing.

Was the Fox News Insider article “Fake News” or “Real Skew?”  Calling out Fox News Insider is not the point. The point is that we, the reader, must approach every dose of information–especially found through social media–with a healthy dose of skepticism. Read beyond the headline, and explore the context, even if that means looking at other sources on the same topic. At FM, helping students develop critical thinking skills is a cornerstone of all we do. Having the confidence to think for oneself makes one open to learning from others.

Jason Radalin is assistant professor of theater arts at FMCC.

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