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April 7, 2015 12:34 pm

Why Trevor Noah’s Twitter Troubles Matter

avatar by Eliana Rudee

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Daily Show host Trevor Noah received flak for Twitter posts that made fun of women, Jews and the LGBT community. Photo: Screenshot.

Making jokes about women, LGBT people and Jews is not new in comedy.

And most often, when a comedy routine features controversial jokes, it doesn’t make international news. But this week, Trevor Noah’s tweets were heard around the world, raising concern about The Daily Show‘s new host.

Some of Noah’s tweets included jokes about female athletes being gay, almost hitting a Jewish kid in his German car, Jewish “chicks” who “go down easy” and fat women who are only seen as sexy when the viewer is intoxicated.

Putting aside the fact that these jokes are simply not funny, they are also problematic; but probably not in the way you expect.

The Power Behind a Simple Joke

We all know that they come off as antisemitic, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, etc. Kelsey McKinney, a writer for Vox.com, rightly stated, “These jokes are offensive because they are reflections of cultures that are oppressive and privileged — and rather than being critical of those societal constructions, the jokes instead reinforce them.”

But even more importantly, they are problematic because they’re likely to come off as real news.

In the Political Behavior academic journal, Jonathan S. Morris published a study that illustrated how even “small levels of exposure to The Daily Show‘s’ coverage of politics and government in an experimental environment can influence political attitudes.” So McKinney also was correct when she stated, “A Daily Show host should be held to a higher standard than other comedians.”

Think viewers can separate their comedy and news? Think again. In fact, quite the opposite is true—the air of comedy actually increases the persuasiveness of the news.

Morris states, “Humor has been found to generate a positive mood among viewers, and individuals are less likely to disagree with a persuasive message when they are in a good mood. Thus, it is logical to expect that editorial commentary can also influence an audience when it is presented by a funny and likeable source.”

So when Noah makes statements like, “South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful,” the political implication would be voters believing that Israel is disingenuous in the peace process and then pushing Israel to make concessions that may undermine its already vulnerable security position.

Suddenly a “joke” can turn into a widespread perception that could threaten a nation’s existence.

Social Media Might

We learned in the Arab Spring about the political implications of twitter posts; imagine what could happen if Noah continues to make statements like this on a show that is watched by over 2.5 million viewers nightly.

Noah was even the subject of a documentary called You Laugh But It’s True, indicating the exact point that in each joke, there is a kernel of truth that makes a mark on people’s outlook. In this respect, while many may not view it as such, right or wrong, The Daily Show is a news source, amplifying Noah and Comedy Central’s responsibility to make us laugh with factual and objective news and information.

One might think that Noah would apologize for many of his tweets that have offended many, but instead, he defensively tweeted, “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.” But The Daily Show is a place where many come for their news, not just a laugh. Thus, we can no longer think of Noah just as a comedian, but a newscaster who will influence millions.

Scary, I know. But reality doesn’t care if the source is a punchline.

Eliana Rudee is a Fellow with the Salomon Center. She is a Core18 Fellow and a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. Follow her @ellierudee. This article was originally published by Hollywood in Toto.

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