A picture circulated among Democratic and Liberal posters on the Internet allegedly showing Republicans praying at a gold-colored statue of former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) in 2021. The statue has been derided by critics as “the golden calf”. Personalities like Joel Stein, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times, proclaimed that “the fall of Rome was so embarrassing”. Former Democratic Congress candidate Adam Christensen distributed the photo, as did others with similar mocking notations. Another poster, Mo Bella, was titled, “This photo was taken today by CPAC evangelical leaders. Yes, they pray to a golden statue of their holy insurgent. “The problem is that the photo was fake. The question is whether those portrayed in such a representation could complain of a false light.
The original photo was taken with the Evangelicals for Trump group on January 3, 2021 and contained evangelical figures such as Pastor Paula White-Cain. The posts were later flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation in its newsfeed.
Stein confirmed his republication of a fake picture and promised to remove it, but stressed that the statue itself was real – and escaped the obvious point that he ridiculed these (even real) people of literally worshiping Trump. Instead, he simply remarked, “The statue is real. It is difficult, but important, to stick to facts in the midst of the madness of American politics. “
Even that level of recognition seemed beyond the ability of characters like Christensen, who would later admit the photo was forged but insist that the “intent” in the photo was “clear”. Then he attacked Trump supporters again: “The support of the White Evangelicals is almost an all-time high in the CPAC and after the event where this idol was accepted into the conference it is clear that their” support “is close to the next level stands.” That sounds a lot like “sure it was fake, but it’s really true, isn’t it?” For religious people in particular, there is a huge difference between praying with Trump and praying to his golden idol.
Many of those who repost this image are the same as those who urge people to be banned from social media in order to spread “false news” or “disinformation”. Christensen showed how easily such hypocrisy can be addressed. He insisted that the photo be a “visual representation of what I see in conservative media circles as well as those I grew up with.”
The problem, however, is that while the image was fake, the people in the picture were not. The photo suggests that these individual religious leaders prayed to a golden image of Trump – a clear reference to the golden calf in the Old Testament. As discussed in Exodus, the Israelites had a change of heart after Moses went to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. In direct defiance of God, they built a “molten calf” and declared: “This is your God, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32: 1–4). They offered burnt offerings and other gifts. Moses asked God to spare her for such sins.
It is a defining passage for many religious people – the line between belief and sin; between worship and idolatry. Showing not only religious people but also religious leaders praying to a golden calf is the ultimate insult and defamation.
In many states, any lawsuit would be viewed as defamation. They are not named in the photo, but all are widely recognized public figures. As such, they would fall under Gertz v Robert Welch, Inc., 418 US 323, 352 (1974) and his descendants of cases. The Supreme Court has ruled that public figure status applies when someone “bumps”[s] get into the vortex of [the] public edition [and] engage[s] public attention to influence the outcome. “A publicly available status for individuals with a limited purpose is when someone” pulls “voluntarily[s] Paying attention to yourself “or allowing yourself to be part of a controversy” as the linchpin to create a public discussion. “Wolston v Reader’s Digest Association, 443, US 157, 168 (1979).
The Supreme Court has mandated a higher standard to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The standard for defamation of public figures and officials in the United States is the result of a decision made against Sullivan decades ago in the New York Times. The Supreme Court ruled that tort law cannot be used to override the protection of freedom of speech or the free press provided by the First Amendment. The Court sought to give the media “breathing space” by formulating this standard, which now applies to both civil servants and public figures. To prevail, they just need to show either actual knowledge of their falsehood or a reckless disregard for the truth.
However, a more direct assertion (if recognized in a certain state) would shed the wrong light. This illicit act requires publication that puts a person in a false light before the public that is highly offensive to a sane person. It also requires proof that the poster or publisher knew or recklessly disregarded the falseness of the matter published.
Obviously, the person who created this picture knew it was wrong. This person may have meant the image as satire and clarified the meaning (note: there may still be an appropriation of the image or a person’s likeness for commercial purposes). It is not clear where this picture came from.
Using such an image is a common hazard in the age of social media. Many people knowingly post false stories or pictures knowing that they will be replicated and republished. The more people post a picture, the more real it appears. There is little desire for others to confirm whether it is true or not when it fits a narrative. There is an old saying in the media that there are certain “facts too good to be verified”.
I have written about such mythologies in law that have been repeated for years without question.
A lawsuit against these posters is unlikely to arise, but the controversy shows how selective and biased the campaign is to exclude people for disinformation. That was the subject of my recent testimony to the House about efforts to restrict cable access and use other forms of media censorship.