©2019 by Connor Rothschild

What I'm Reading: Satire in an Era of Fake News

August 1, 2018

What I'm reading/watching this week:
- "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning" by Sam Wineburg, Sarah McGrew, Joel Breakstone and Teresa Ortega

- "No More Fake News!" by Luke O'Neil

- "Miley, CNN, and The Onion" by Dan Berkowitz and David Asa Schwartz

- "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez" by Margaret Hoover


I recently came across an interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year old bartender who ousted 10-time incumbent and Democratic party leader Joe Crowley in New York's 14th Congressional District's primary.


The interview, posted by Conservative Review TV, showcases a series of typical questions that a Republican may pose to a Democrat--"What do you think about what's going on in Venezuela?" and "How do you respond to the people that say that socialism has never worked?" The responses provided by Ocasio-Cortez, however, are hardly typical, because the video was the result of splicing and editing a recent Ocasio-Cortez interview on PBS's "Firing Line."



The actual interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn't even that great of a performance--she gives lackluster, unclear, and sometimes confusing answers (like her reference to capitalism as an "economy" rather than an economic system, or her painfully awkward pontification on the Israel-Palestine conflict). At other times, she is either intentionally misleading or she fundamentally misunderstands the American economy, as when she falsely posits the unemployment rate is only low because everyone is working two jobs.


But CRTV instead took these answers and made them responses to questions Ocasio-Cortez was never asked. On Twitter, the video was presented with the caption "Enlightening & hard-hitting interview with Socialist “it girl” and fellow millennial, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez." Nowhere did the Tweet mention that the interview was satirical. 


To most of us, the interview is clearly satire. The responses Ocasio-Cortez provides are so absurd that it seems impossible this interview is anything other than fictitious. 


For others, however, the satirical nature of the interview isn't so obvious. Here are some comments I came across:



And my personal favorite: 



In a post-2016 era, its important to remember what we know about misinformation in the media:

We know fake news effectively deceived millions of Americans in the 2016 election. 

We know fake news engaged more Americans in 2016 than did real news.

We know that most Americans who see fake news will perceive it as fact.

And we know that even some of the smartest, most tech-savvy Americans are unable to distinguish real, factual information from fake news.


We tend to be less discerning than we think we are. Perhaps some of that is our cognitive tendency to believe information which confirms our biases (INSERT STUDY). Whatever the case, intentional or not, many people see the evidence


Is it a stretch to argue that the prevalence and treachery of fake news is comparable to the humor-ridden commentary found in satire? Maybe. But this principle applies to both: people susceptible to misinformation don't seek out the truth--they absorb misinformation as it comes and allow it to influence their thinking or strengthen their ideologies (just look at the comments above!). If satire is not appropriately labelled as such, consumers unfamiliar with the context will take that information at face value, and allow it to influence their votes in elections, or their opinions on candidates.


And this isn't the first time that satire has confused its unwitting audience.


The Washington Post once ran a story about Sarah Palin's decision to become a contributor at Al Jazeera, before realizing that was a bit of satire from the Daily Currant.


The ever-reputable Breitbart led its audience to believe Nobel Prize winning (and liberal) economist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy. That bit of information was also satire


The Drudge Report led their homepage with an article regarding a New York City pizza shop owner's decision to refuse Mayor Michael Bloomberg a second slice of pizza (see: why is this news?) The piece cited the false information found in the Daily Currant's satire.


In 2012, Congressman John Fleming shared an Onion article with the headline “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex” and commented “More on Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale.”


Finally, a widely circulated article published by the lesser known satire publication the Free Wood Post, with the headline "NRA President Jim Porter: ‘It’s Only A Matter Of Time Before We Can Own Colored People Again,’” was shared or liked over 100,000 times, creating circulation outside of the Free Wood Post and warranting its own Snopes article.


Imagine you're an older individual with little knowledge of the internet--you were just introduced to the revolutionary "Facebook Newsfeed." You're used to consuming the news via your daily paper, so you have little desire to, or reason to think you would need to, discern between media sources. All of the sudden, you see your grandson, whom you trust immensely, post the following article on Facebook before the 2016 election:


The Burrard Street Journal: President Obama Confirms He Will Refuse To Leave Office If Trump Is Elected


Could that be misleading? That story got 380,000 Facebook engagements. We can debate the specifics, but I doubt all near-400,000 of those interactions are appreciations of satire (especially considering the headline and article aren't even that funny).


Perhaps you would eventually realize it was obviously false (despite it not being clear from the article nor the site that the post is satire). Even so, our long-term perceptions are shaped by micro-level interactions and reactions like the outrage we feel when we think a president we dislike is actively ignoring the law. 


As it relates to CRTV's arguably misleading interview, there are better ways to do this. Take, for example, this explicitly doctored interview between President Trump and Stephen Colbert:



Satire doesn't lose its comedic effect if its accompanied by the words "fake interview" in all bold caps. It does lose its universal appeal when it borders on deception. If satire is weaponized to potentially mislead, and isolates an entire half of its audience, is its goal to provide clever social commentary via the vehicle of humor? Or is its purpose to contribute to our already toxic political discourse?


Perhaps this is the only solution.

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