One of the astronomy Facebook groups I read recently shared this link:
Whoever shared that story knew the headline described something impossible. He assumed, however, that the writers at National Report thought it was true and accurate reportage. You can see the same assumption in the comments below the article itself. The story gulled enough people that the I Fucking Love Science website found it necessary to publish this response.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Poe’s Law, but just in case, it’s an Internet truism coined in 2005 by Nathan Poe on Christian Forums, and it originally had this formulation:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is uttrerly [sic] impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.
Poe’s observation, in context and as since generalized, was that satire and parody are very difficult to perform in this day and age, because any sentiment or idea you try to present as being absurdly beyond what anyone could believe will nonetheless be sincerely believed by someone. Parody is thus beside the point.
The ur-text of Internet parody is certainly The Onion. I’ve previously mentioned the website Literally Unbelievable, which has its fun by posting screencaps of people who read headlines from The Onion and think they’re real. The writers of The Onion are masters of their craft; their stories (or really, just the headlines; after the headline, an Onion story has already done its job) are written with such a perfect blend of deadpan and farce that one really does have to be either monumentally obtuse or possess a tone-deaf sense of humor to miss the point.
This post is about The Onion’s intellectual offspring: satire and/or parody websites have proliferated like mad in the past few years. Most of them aren’t as good as The Onion at threading the needle between satire and credibility. Some of them are funny, but the problem with many of them is in the other direction: their stories aren’t funny at all, and seem so real that there’s no good reason to doubt them. Take, for example, this story from The Daily Currant, which bills itself as “The Global Satirical Newspaper of Record:”
See what I mean? It’s beyond the realm of the reasonable, but right at the edge of the believable. It names real politicians and links to stories at real news organs. I often see The Daily Currant stories shared credulously on Facebook. Is that the goal? To what end? What does it benefit such sites when people believe their fake stories? Is that the only effective way to boost their hit counts? Or do people love feeling superior so much that they love sharing stories that appear to reveal the intellectual, moral, or political failings of others?
It’s not only “news” sites that do this. This sign has been shared all over social media for months or years by now:
Of course, it’s fake. It’s a cartoon of intolerance. People must be reassured, somehow, to believe there are fundamentalists so intolerant and deranged that they’d condemn the likes of surfers and vegetarians to damnation. There is at least one church sign generator on the Web that lets people name a church, compose a message, and then ‘shop them onto an existing (but blank) photo of a church sign. It looks just like the real thing, and accordingly, people believe it.
But if it’s not true, it’s not funny; the humor (and horror) comes from understanding that people really are ignorant enough to really believe these things. The church signs wouldn’t get shared the way they do if they weren’t believed.
I’ve begun compiling a database of all these sites. For good measure, I’ll also throw in The Colbert Report, NPR’s annual April Fools’ Day story, and any other television shows or YouTube channels I learn about that similarly skirt the line. If they’re fake but can be or have been easily mistaken for truth, I’ll add them. The database will be a little like Snopes.com; the idea is that if you come across a questionable story, one whose veracity you doubt, you can go to my list and see if I’ve written it up yet. And if I haven’t, you can message me and get me to add it (or determine that it’s not fake after all).
Here’s a sampling of ones I’ve found so far, organized by category. As I flesh out this directory, I’ll include details such as how long the site has been around, its mission statement (if any), and if it’s a parody of any one real news organ in particular, as Colbert is a parody of Bill O’Reilly.
More to come!