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.