Political satire is quite literally as old as democracy itself. No sooner had the citizens of ancient Athens started scratching their votes on shards of pottery than the playwrights of ancient Athens were mocking their chosen leaders and policies. With a potent mix of metaphor and hyperbole these writers, most famously Aristophanes, created the gold standard for satire for the next two millennia. From Dante to Swift to Stewart, history’s great and powerful have been put in their place by wit and humor. When a thing is so old, like the Grand Canyon or the Catholic Church, it changes slowly, almost imperceptibly. But thanks to the computer age and specifically social media, we are experiencing a new kind of satire, a satire of deception. For the first time on a large scale satire is being dissociated from the context of parody and presented as fact. It is a dangerous phenomenon and one that is poisonous to discourse.
Throughout the last Presidential election, with disturbing regularity I would wake up, pour a coffee, light a cigarette and check out Facebook only to find that Mitt Romney was defending slavery. Or Ann Romney thought women should earn less than men. Or that the whole Romney family liked to wear t shirts that spell out “money”. Generally these stories were from parody news sites and were being shared by friends who thought they were real. A string of comments would cascade below the post, a mixture of shock and “I knew it!” until eventually somebody (often me) would link to the fact checking site snopes.com and point out the fabrication. At that point, far from being embarrassed about being duped by the keen minds at FreeWoodPost.com the person who posted the lies and the commenters reacting to it would usually say something along the lines of, “well that’s what they really think anyway.” So not only had the fake story been widely disseminated and reacted to as real, it had also become real, almost more real than the truth.
The emotional power of proof
Typically the pieces that fool social media users are not satire in the style of Aristophanes, they do not employ metaphor or even deal with positions or policies. More often they are just fake quotes. It’s possible that the New Yorker has quoted Andy Borowitz as Justice Scalia more often than Justice Scalia himself. As with the above fake Romney quotes the joke is usually “we know what they really think, they are really a racist, sexist or homophobe.” Or in the case of the President, “he’s really a Muslim, a communist or a black nationalist. We knew it!” When the Facebook user is confronted with what appears to be a real news story confirming their suspicions there is a visceral, almost physical reaction of vindication. Nobody experiences that reading a spoof in the print edition of the Onion, no matter how biting it is. The initial impact of the “real” is a bell that cannot be un-rung. The emotional power of proof that we were right all along shapes our opinions and views even after the facts are exposed.
To fully understand the impact of deceptive satire within social media we have to consider what makes outlets like Facebook and Twitter so different from the traditional media. The peer to peer nature of these sites creates a level of trust between reader and source that even polished brands like The News Hour can’t match. But at the same time these outlets operate without gatekeepers, nobody is fact checking your cousin’s status update. We are simultaneously less guarded about what we see and more vulnerable to misinformation. Over time that misinformation forms a patina of narrative. It explains our world and gives us expectations for what we will find in it.
So by the time Mitt Romney used the innocuous phrase “binders full of women” in a debate last year, the pump had been primed. Never mind that he was asking for women’s resumes, or that he hired a bunch of those women, this was a window on the sexism we already knew was there. Memes sprang up within minutes, he had finally been caught. This one was real! In retrospect it was the most absurd moment of the election. It made absolutely no sense. None. The only way that Romney’s turn of phrase could be offensive was if we substituted our own knowledge of his secret sexist nature for the words he actually said. The barrage of messaging about Mitt, some true, some false, some somewhere in between had prepared us for that moment, and made something out of nothing.
The war between two worlds
This is exactly what happened this summer in Texas when a Left wing activist posed as a Pro George Zimmerman protester holding a sign that said “We’re Racist & Proud.” The next morning the Dailies Mail and News from their respective sides of the Atlantic both posted the picture of the woman, describing her as pro Zimmerman. The election was long over, but once again I found myself staring at a story posted by friends and saying to myself, this can’t be real, in part because he whole thing about racists is they don’t think they’re racists. Sure enough it wasn’t true. How could this have happened? I contacted the reporter in Dallas who defended her story and blamed the AP photographer for the caption. But surely this photo went through many hands before being posted. Why didn’t anybody say “this is a little too good to be true, are we sure about this?” Instead, because it confirmed their narrative, they fell for the activist’s deceptive satire hook, line and sinker. Exactly the way my friends react to deceptive satire on Facebook.
Of late we have seen Left wing outlets mocking Right wing outlets for being tricked by satire, and Right wing outlets mocking Left wing outlets for the very same thing. Without the dissociative effect of social media it is very unlikely that any news person of any political stripe would be fooled by mock news. In 1992 there was no mechanism by which political satire could appear divorced from its context. Nobody was mailing their friends clippings from the Onion. When Mark Russell sang “Button Up Your Overcoat” to George HW Bush to mock the potential of a Dan Quayle presidency, nobody reported that the administration had doubts about their Vice President. The closest analogy we have to this phenomena in media history is Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” which was not satire, but did fool people into believing it was real. Since then the FCC has banned hoaxes that incur emergency expenses for the government.
It would certainly be a bad idea for the government to act to mitigate the impact of deceptive satire. And even if it wanted to it probably couldn’t. Any regulation on hoaxes would require proof that there was an intent to deceive. Frankly, as far as this issue goes the intent to deceive is largely irrelevant. Are the creators of this satirical content trying to concoct false quotes that seem as plausible as possible? Sure. Are they aware that if their content is shared as fact it will vastly improve the number of hits it receives? Yes. But there is nothing illegal about any of that. There isn’t even anything wrong with it. Social media is a marketplace of ideas, and like all marketplaces it eventually corrects itself. This is a problem that is nobody’s fault. It is a confluence of creativity and technology that blurs reality whether we want it to or not. The medium has become more than the message. It has become the map and the terrain, and we are somewhat powerless to distinguish between the two.
For better or worse this new satire of deception is here to stay. The easy and inexpensive means by which professional looking content can be created now ensures that people will be falling prey to this for a long time. Probably forever. And of course there is an upside to all of this, for every piece of satire that slips past the goalie and enters reality, there are important ideas and revelations shared on social media which would never have been carried by the more rigorous traditional media. More than at any point in human history we need to appoint ourselves as the arbiters of reality. We must default to doubt and assume the worst. As bad as the impact of deceptive satire has been in social media, and it has been bad, it is still an opportunity. It is a development that will ultimately make all of us more responsible for our own positions and beliefs. The first step in that process is to understand that satire, fact and reality have become commingled and that separating one from the other is a responsibility we all share.