Satire or hoax? Let’s draw a line

Michele BachmannMy last post here took a first pass at what’s so wrong with so many of the online stories posing as news. In last week’s episode, I focused on the vanishing practice of calling people to verify or debunk the supposed meaning of the event described.

This week, I’d like to consider the intentional creation of falsehoods for dissemination online. Many assertions that readers share widely as fact turn out to be distorted or made up entirely.

Are the authors actually trying to deceive readers? Or do they intend to make points through satire, only to have their words taken at face value when the context is lost in transit?

The Oxford Dictionary defines satire as “The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”

On the Web, The Onion is a longstanding, recognized source of the stuff. Most people know that it’s a satirical site, and its pieces do what satire has been known for since Aristophanes: exaggerating or otherwise distorting one recognizable facet of a topical subject to point out its absurdity.

Nowadays, however, other sites don’t make their intentions nearly as clear, and they don’t deliver an intelligible message about their targets. Coupled with the aforementioned lack of rigor about checking sources, misinformation and repetition can quickly churn into into a dust storm of useless chatter.

Case in point: Michelle Bachmann’s call for “Americanization facilities.” This sort of item is “truthy,” Stephen Colbert’s adjective to describe the kind of misinformation that apologists sometimes dismiss with, “Yes, but it could be something s/he’d say!”

Its mutation into a de facto hoax is the product of a collision between writers who aren’t deft enough to be truly satirical and ideological Web sites that are in too much of a hurry to get the drop on the opposition to do the most basic fact-checking.

Back in July, Think ProgressCrooks and LiarsDaily Kos and other sites had to retract posts because they swallowed hook, line and sinker a bogus story about Rep. Bachmann calling for “Americanization facilities,” internment camps for children crossing the U.S. border from Central America. The story turned out to be a complete fabrication, and all the sites that ran with it had to eat their pixels.

Think Progress ascribed the misinformation to a (now defunct) satirical site called KCTV7 News. Howver, KCTV7 in turn appears to have plagiarized the phony Bachmann quotes from The National Report, another site that specializes in not-quite-outrageous-enough-to-be satire. Time and again, I trace bogus information about political figures to widespread misunderstanding that the National Report thinks it’s humorous.

The National Report is also mistaken if it believes it’s doing progressive causes any favors by putting out content so easily misinterpreted. Instead, it simply allows political adversaries like Breitbart.com to mock liberals’ credulity.

Now, it’s awfully, awfully rich for Breitbart to ridicule any other site for a mistake like this. After all, it famously fell for a story that economist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy. If anyone at Breitbart had spent five minutes Googling this item back to its source, s/he would have found it on the Daily Currant, another site that at least puts the word “satirical” in its title tag.

Sites have a First Amendment right to make up stories that aren’t quite outrageous or clever enough to be satire. Other sites have a right to fall for the ambiguity because they’re so hungry for mud to sling, they can’t be bothered to perform the simplest search before broadcasting their cut-and-paste jobs to a like-minded audience.

That means it’s up to us as consumers of information to take a couple minutes before adding to the problem via social media. If it sounds too outrageous to be true … It may be true, since some crazy things are being said and done these days. But even though the Web can be a big, brown stream of misinformation, search engines provide tools to filter the biggest chunks of solid waste.

If political sites (or your friends who read them) aren’t going to apply critical analysis before passing an item along, you’ve still got the power to stanch the flow.

4 thoughts on “Satire or hoax? Let’s draw a line

  1. Matthew Rothenberg Post author

    At risk of sounding too conspiratorial, it’s hard for me to determine the agenda of many creators of bogus information. It’s not pointed or outrageous enough truly to satirize, but it’s just credible enough to mislead. Do the authors want to disparage the subjects, or do they want to trick the subjects’ opponents into falling for a hoax?

    Reply

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