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Media Studies Professor: 'Violent Video Games Don't Cause Violence'

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Investigations continue into the deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that happened over the weekend. Not much has been publicly revealed about the alleged Dayton shooter but the accused killer in El Paso published a manifesto online that focused on his hatred of people of Mexican descent that has led to increased discussion about new social media regulations. And President Trump even mentioned video games and how they may be a negative influence. Paul Levinson is a communication and media studies professor at Fordham University. He doesn't believe restricting video games or social media would make any difference and he's with me to talk about that. So Paul why are you opposed to those kinds of changes.

PAUL LEVINSON: Well for two reasons, and they're both very important. One is the best thing that can be done to reduce these horrible slaughters is reduce the number of guns that are in the hands of people here in the United States. People play video games all over the world, social media, obviously, is all over the world. It's only the United States, which is subject to these killings that are now happening literally almost every single day. But the other reason is that any government involvement in regulating social media is never a good idea, it violates our First Amendment. But it's an especially bad idea in this age of Trump, in which you have the president of the United States almost daily labeling the legitimate press, which we need in our democracy so we can know what's going on what our government officials are doing, but trump just about every day calls the New York Times, NBC, any kind of reporting that at all critical of what he's doing as fake news — enemies of the people. And if you look at history, this is exactly what the Nazis did in the 1930s when they were grabbing power in the Weimar Republic. They undermined the legitimate press that was then in Germany, and they call that press the lügenpresse, which means "the lying press" or the same thing as fake news.

GOLDSTEIN: So, you mentioned what President Trump has done in eroding at least some people's trust when it comes to the press and the media. Is there a role the media can play in somehow helping prevent, limit these mass shootings?

LEVINSON: Absolutely, and I'm not saying at all that the media and people should be quiet about this noxious caustic hate speech which is all over the Internet — far from it and precisely the opposite. I think the media should constantly shine a spotlight on that speech because I've always been a great believer in John Milton's point made hundreds of years ago, that the best way of rooting out falsity is to keep the marketplace of ideas open, let falsity be out there as long as there is also truth out there. And assuming most people are rational, which I think is pretty much true, people will sooner or later be able to judge that hate speech for what it is. So I think the media have been doing a pretty good job on this, but they could do even more. And I am totally in favor of the designation of "domestic white terrorism" as a kind of terrorism so both law enforcement can go after it and people can be paying more attention to what they are doing.

GOLDSTEIN: Paul, whether it's politicians or just the average person when someone cites video games or in the '80s or the '90s with song lyrics that were causing people to to do things, at least that was the theory by some, is that a distraction or does it open up an area of discussion or does it depend on who's bringing it up?

LEVINSON: I never mind anyone saying anything, even if it's wrong, as long as there is a way for other people to point out that it's wrong and say that it's wrong. So, again, to get back to Milton, what we need is more communication not less communication. And if somebody has an idea and if somebody thinks, "OK, we should ban video games and this will somehow stop the shootings." Let them say that and then people like me, if we come across it, can point out and explain to them know that you're not getting the research correct. In fact, violent video games don't cause violence in the real world.

GOLDSTEIN: Let me ask you one final question, and that is, in Phoenix, across the country, Facebook, for example, employs hundreds of people to remove material they think has crossed a line. What do you make about self-regulating of content where it doesn't involve government regulation?

LEVINSON: I'm all in favor of it. The reason why we have a First Amendment is our Founding Fathers recognize that the government had and, if anything, has far more power today than any other element in society, it's only the government that can command a police force to come in, and arrest someone, haul them off to prison, shoot and kill someone if the government deems it necessary. That's why the Founding Fathers didn't want the government to control our means of communication, but it is a completely different thing. If Facebook and Twitter and YouTube want to regulate their own systems, want to block people who say hateful things, people who lie, that's fine and that's part of the healthy process. It doesn't have any danger of leading to a Nazi kind of lügenpresse America. And at the same time it has the benefit of reducing some of this noxious material.

GOLDSTEIN: Paul Levinson is a writer and professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. Paul, thank you so much for the insights.

LEVINSON: My pleasure.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.