Monday, April 14, 2014

What the Internet's "Satire" Says About Us. by Mike Fatum

Yeah, no. That's not real.

When I was in college, there used to be a tiny little newspaper holder - one of those glass ones where you put in a couple of quarters, and it lets you take out a paper - sitting up next to the steps to campus. It was bright green, and free, and it carried a little paper called The Onion. I loved when a new edition of the Onion came through - I would grab a copy and laugh myself through the entire thing.

The Onion, for those of you who haven't ever read, is a satire newspaper. It used to be a print paper, and now is mostly online. It's known for biting, sharp headlines that are hilarious for either their ridiculousness ("Last Known California Raisin Dies of Prostate Cancer") or their utter mundanity ("Determined Restaurant Patrons Tough it Out on Chilly Patio"). Years after I went to college, the Onion became ubiquitous with the online news story that "tricks" someone into thinking it's real. They would post something utterly insane, and poor, unsuspecting grandmas on the internet would share it, along with their outrage.

This has lead to a lot of fun over the years, but the fact is, most of these articles wouldn't hold up to much real scrutiny. The articles are true satire - they get across the real idea of the article by use of comedy interspersed throughout. One of my favorites, years ago, was an article about how a gay man saved a kitten from a burning house. It was a fairly standard article about the man saving the kitten - except that every time they mentioned his name, they mentioned he was gay. It was different every time - Gary, who prefers men to women; Gary, who is a homosexual - but it was fantastic commentary on how important the media makes sexuality in places where it really isn't that important.

Another great one.

Unfortunately, as the Onion grew in popularity, many other sites noticed the amount of page hits and advertising numbers the Onion was drawing in. And so, the copycat websites began appearing. The National Report, The Daily Currant, etc - a glut of fake news websites has appeared in recent years. There's nothing wrong with that in particular - more comedy is always better. The problem is, these new websites don't really understand how satire works.

The Onion never really tries to trick people, no matter how well it might succeed at doing it anyway. It uses its articles as a vehicle to make a greater point, while still making us laugh. These newer sites, well, they just seem to want to trick people. An article, shown up top, from The National Report about how Kansas was blocking all TV stations from showing Cosmos exploded all over Facebook last week. It didn't matter that it took less than a minute to navigate around the site and realize everything they posted was completely fake, people saw the headline, read the first paragraph, and believed it was real. That's not really satire, that's clickbait.

Still, there's a deeper thought to this new industry of tricking people that's got to be looked at - as long as a piece of news looks like it's on a reputable website, we'll believe it completely. We might even share it without reading it - as witnessed by NPR's epic April Fool's experiment a few weeks back. We're even more eager to share it if it tells us something we want to hear - occasionally this is something good, like Idris Elba playing Batman, but in the case of the Kansas and Cosmos article, it was shared by so many because we wanted to believe our political enemies were that stupid.

We've lived in a very divided climate, politically, for the last few decades. And it's become so bad that we're completely willing to demonize people on "the other side" at the first possible opportunity. We want to jump up and down and point and yell "See? See?!" when they've done something we don't agree with. And that's what these so-called "satire" clickbait sites play on. They're just as much a part of the problem as the news networks putting out sensationalist stories every night.

Meanwhile, if we all took things with a grain of salt - if we took the time to really look at what we were reading and say, "Hang on, I should do more research or even just read this entire article before I jump to a conclusion," well, maybe the world would be a nicer place.

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