Falling for internet hoaxes

Some people who share satire don't realize they're missing the punchline

There is a certain language that accompanies sharing News of the Weird. Popping into my Facebook feed with some regularity are comments expressing delighted incredulity followed by links to stories reporting on developments that would have previously been considered scientifically improbable, like stories on aliens in Canada. 

The only problem? They aren’t remotely true. They aren’t even meant to be. 

The last two such stories posted by acquaintances both came from a site, WorldNewsDailyReport.com, that appears to be sort of like The Onion, minus the wit. One of the stories was “Indian Man Claims He’s 179 Years Old;” the other: “200 Million Years Old Dinosaur Egg Hatches in Berlin Museum.” One can easily understand how readers might not realize this is not meant to be taken seriously. The articles are not funny, and they are not mocking any social conventions or public figures. They even include dry sentences in the clunky style of an amateur mimicking a newspaper, such as, “The man’s birth certificate and identity cards all seem to confirm his version, but unfortunately no medical examination can confirm his saying for now.” The site contains no official tipoff that it isn’t a real news site. However, looking at the scrolling headlines along the top of the screen, some stories have a clearer satirical intent, such as, “India: Gandhi’s Loincloth Sold 85M$ at Auction” or “UN declares China to be 2014 Best Country in the World.” One can also suss out the site’s modus operandi by looking at the comments, which in this case tend to express skepticism punctuated by the occasional, exasperated interjection that, “You guys do realize this is a satirical news site, right?”

News literacy experts say that the way people consume information via social media increases the risk that readers will take a parody literally or buy into a hoax. 

“A considerable number of users share things they haven’t even clicked through to on their social media feeds,” notes Peter Adams, the News Literacy Project’s senior vice president for educational programs. According to a late 2012 report cited by MediaBistro, the average click-through rate for Twitter was 1.64 percent. “Even when people do click, they [typically] don’t spend much time on the page they’re taken to. In other words, people share things on Facebook or retweet things that they haven’t actually clicked on, let alone spent time reading. This presents more of a challenge for certain types of content—like tabloid articles and satire—whose credibility can appear dramatically different when isolated as a headline and teaser in a feed rather than placed in context on the actual site.”

Satire may not come across as such when taken totally out of context. Just ask Stephen Colbert. He recently did a hilarious skit ridiculing the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation by creating the imaginary Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. However, a tweet by Comedy Central that alluded to the joke out of context offended at least one Asian-American, a “hashtag activist” named Suey Park, who launched a widely-discussed campaign with the hashtag #cancelcolbert. On his show’s next episode, Colbert cracked, “I just pray that no one tweets about the time I said that Rosa Parks was overrated, Hitler had some good ideas, or ran a cartoon during Black History Month showing President Obama teaming up with the Ku Klux Klan because, man, that sounds pretty bad out of context.”

People seem especially prone to take satire seriously when it confirms their worldview. In January, conservatives on Twitter and Facebook passed around a story from the satirical website Daily Currant that said 37 Coloradans had died from overdosing on marijuana on the first day after the drug’s legalization in Colorado took effect. (It is impossible to overdose on marijuana). They posted comments wondering, “Where is Jesus when we need him most?” and warning that “Everyone you know is at risk.” Later that same month, when the Daily Currant ran an item “reporting” that conservative pundit Ann Coulter had refused to board an airplane with a black pilot. Tweeters called her a “disgrace” and a “moron.” Even though the Daily Currant does identify its stories as fake in a disclaimer, many of the people sharing them have not even bothered to do more than read the headline in their Facebook feed. “The context that is stripped out by social platforms is a huge credibility clue that gets completely left behind,” says Adams.

The Daily Currant is just one of many Onion knockoffs whose content makes the rounds on social media. A blogger at About.com created a handy guide that includes 16 of them. The sites have gotten so specialized and obscure that, for example, there is one dedicated solely to sports, Empire Sports. Last month a Facebook friend shared one of its stories, “Former NFL Star Aaron Hernandez Escapes Prison And Breaks In To Tom Brady’s Home,” with the comment “Totally nutty.” She had clicked on it from another friend’s Facebook feed and can hardly be blamed if she didn’t immediately know that the story, with its completely deadpan presentation and nearly plausible conceit, was supposed to be a joke. Neither did I, so I Googled Aaron Hernandez to find out more about this incredible turn of events. Seeing nothing else about his amazing escape, I figured it out. 

But news literacy educators say that, often, students don’t figure it out, as falling for hoaxes is a problem they frequently encounter. Rick Hornik, director of Overseas Partnership Programs for the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, said that there are several ways that he illustrates the phenomenon for students to help them avoid the mistake. His favorite illustrative anecdote is that China’s People’s Daily, an organ of the Communist Party, took seriously an Onion article naming North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “Sexiest man alive.” Hornik says it is helpful to show someone how these stories originate. For example, the website fakeawish.com will allow you enter a celebrity’s name and generate a fake story of misfortune that has befallen them. (For example, I can punish Ashton Kutcher for stealing my future wife Mila Kunis with an imaginary car accident.) NLP sometimes teaches students about this issue by showing them how a parody website’s 2013 article, “Samsung pays Apple $1 Billion sending 30 trucks full of 5 cent coins,” went viral with people literally believing it. 

Part of news literacy is understanding not just the framework of the media, but how to verify a story of unknown provenance. If you’re suspicious about a story, says Hornik, you can look it up on Snopes.com, which has debunked an impressive share of the parodies that have gone viral among people who didn’t get the joke. If an item isn’t on there, you can try searching for the story and “hoax,” and probably someone has taken note of it. 

Of course, much satire in our current media is so dependent on knowing not just the immediate context, but the whole vast ecosystem of news and entertainment that consumers may not fully appreciate it anyway. For example, Colbert’s defenders point out that if he deploys racial stereotypes he is doing so as part of the character he plays on his show—a brash, bullying conservative, modeled on the shouting heads from Fox News and rightwing talk radio. Just as Colbert actually means the opposite of what his character says when he calls for lower tax rates, his racial humor should be appreciated ironically. But what if viewers don’t understand the character? 

“Generally speaking, cable news programs and personalities are just not on the radars of most of my students,” says Jennifer Fleming, a journalism professor who teaches a news literacy course at Cal State Long Beach. “My sense is that many do not know who Bill O’Reilly is, so the ‘joke’ that Stephen Colbert is a parody of the conservative commentator is lost on them. Colbert’s fake political affiliation has little to do with their perception of him.” Social media, in other words, has exacerbated the problem that has always bedeviled satirists: Some people just won’t get the joke. 

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR. Tags: ,