Americans Can’t Distinguish Satire from Reality
Stories from sites like The Onion are routinely shared on social media and perceived as real news.
In the days of local newspapers and three broadcast news networks, it was easy to know what was “real news” and what was satire. Nobody mistook Mad magazine for Time magazine or Chevy Chase for Walter Cronkite. That’s no longer the case in our diffuse media environment.
A group of Ohio State researchers looked into the matter.
In July, the website Snopes published a piece fact-checking a story posted on The Babylon Bee, a popular satirical news site with a conservative bent.
But does everyone recognize satire as readily as French seems to?
Our team of communication researchers has spent years studying misinformation, satireand social media. Over the last several months, we’ve surveyed Americans’ beliefs about dozens of high-profile political issues. We identified news stories – both true and false – that were being shared widely on social media.—Snopes/The Conversation, “Study: Too Many People Think Satirical News Is Real”
We discovered that many of the false stories weren’t the kind that were trying to intentionally deceive their readers; they actually came from satirical sites, and many people seemed to believe them.
The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame it on President Trump. After all, he and his team say so many outlandish things they’re next to impossible to satirize. But, no, the phenomenon predates his political rise.
People have long mistaken satire for real news.
On his popular satirical news show “The Colbert Report,” comedian Stephen Colbert assumed the character of a conservative cable news pundit. However, researchers found that conservatives regularly misinterpreted Colbert’s performance to be a sincere expression of his political beliefs.
The Onion, a popular satirical news website, is misunderstood so often that there’s a large online community dedicated to ridiculing those who have been fooled.
Sometimes satire is easy to spot, like when The Babylon Bee reported that President Donald Trump had appointed Joe Biden to head up the Transportation Security Administration based on “Biden’s skill getting inappropriately close to people and making unwanted physical advances.” But other headlines are more difficult to assess.
For example, the claim that John Bolton described an attack on two Saudi oil tankers as “an attack on all Americans” might sound plausible until you’re told that the story appeared in The Onion.
The truth is, understanding online political satire isn’t easy. Many satirical websites mimic the tone and appearance of news sites. You have to be familiar with the political issue being satirized. You have to understand what normal political rhetoric looks like, and you have to recognize exaggeration. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to mistake a satirical message for a literal one.
I’m enough of a news junkie that I’m unlikely to be fooled by political satire. Still, while I would instantly recognize something in The Onion as satire, that’s not necessarily true of any number of other sites. I’m vaguely familiar with the Babylon Bee, for instance, but it’s at least plausibly the name of a local newspaper.
And it’s well known that people tend not to recognize when their own beliefs are being satirized.
Our study on misinformation and social media lasted six months. Every two weeks, we identified 10 of the most shared fake political stories on social media, which included satirical stories. Others were fake news reports meant to deliberately mislead readers.
We then asked a representative group of over 800 Americans to tell us if they believed claims based on those trending stories. By the end of the study, we had measured respondents’ beliefs about 120 widely shared falsehoods.
Satirical articles like those found on The Babylon Bee frequently showed up in our survey. In fact, stories published by The Bee were among the most shared factually inaccurate content in almost every survey we conducted. On one survey, The Babylon Bee had articles relating to five different falsehoods.
For each claim, we asked people to tell us whether it was true or false and how confident they were in their belief. Then we computed the proportion of Democrats and of Republicans who described these statements as “definitely true.”
If we zero in on The Babylon Bee, a few patterns stand out.
Members of both parties failed to recognize that The Babylon Bee is satire, but Republicans were considerably more likely to do so. Of the 23 falsehoods that came from The Bee, eight were confidently believed by at least 15% of Republican respondents. One of the most widely believed falsehoods was based on a series of made-up quotes attributed to Rep. Ilhan Omar. A satirical article that suggested that Sen. Bernie Sanders had criticized the billionaire who paid off Morehouse College graduates’ student debt was another falsehood that Republicans fell for.
Our surveys also featured nine falsehoods that emerged from The Onion. Here, Democrats were more often fooled, though they weren’t quite as credulous. Nonetheless, almost 1 in 8 Democrats was certain that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway had questioned the value of the rule of law.
It’s no surprise that, depending on the headline, satire might be more likely to deceive members of one political party over another. Individuals’ political worldviews consistently color their perceptions of facts. Still, Americans’ inability to agree on what is true and what is false is a problem for democracy.
I suspect the difference here isn’t so much that Republicans are more credulous than Democrats—although that’s certainly possible—but that The Onion is simply more famous than the Babylon Bee.
In fairness, though, some of the questions posed are easy to get wrong. It’s quite plausible, indeed, that Sanders would find grounds for a billionaire’s paying off student debt or that Conway would argue against the rule of law applying to the President even if one hadn’t read a satirical “news” story suggesting it. (Some of the wordings in the quiz, featured at the link, are more obviously outlandish and implausible.)
An episode from the first season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast, “The Satire Paradox,” explored this in some detail. The audio is available here and a written transcription is available here for those wishing to explore it in depth. But the upshot is that some of the most brilliant satire of recent decades—-Harry Enfeld’s send-up of Margaret Thatcher, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, Stephen Colbert’s “Stephen Colbert,” etc.—-are wildly misperceived by those on the other side.
Conservatives loved Colbert, who they saw as beclowning liberals. Ditto Archie Bunker, who was seen as “telling it like it is.”
MG: Bunker was created to satirize conservative attitudes on race and sexuality. But in the end, the consensus among social scientists seemed to be that he didn’t do that at all. Here is the conclusion of the best known study on the show. “We found that many persons did not see the program as a satire on bigotry. All such findings seem to suggest that the program is more likely reinforcing prejudice and racism then combating it.” It didn’t change any minds. And the same thing happens with Loadsamoney. At one point, Enfield does a benefit for British nurses who are all on strike. Nurses in the UK are public sector employees and they want a modest raise and Thatcher, who’s intent on shrinking the size of the public sector, won’t give it to them. So what this benefit, Enfield comes out on stage as Loadsamoney in his white trainers and acid washed jeans and nylon shell and screams at them all, “Get back to work you scum!” Then he burns a 10 pound note on stage and the room of nurses goes wild, they love it. He’s perfectly captured what they’re up against. But the other side, the side they’re up against, they love it, too.
HE: And it got, sort of, taken on by The Sun, which was a very right wing paper, and the kind of left wing papers. Basically, everyone took it on. Everyone decided it was theirs, you know, they made him their property.
MG: So The Sun looked on Loadsamoney quite affectionately?
HE: Yeah, yeah. They thought it was great and it was a sign of Thatcher’s Britain, that all working class people were getting richer. That’s what they, that was their propaganda, that was how they interpreted it I guess, yeah. Which, obviously, wasn’t really the case, but it was quite funny.
MG: Were you taken by surprise, by the reception that Loadsamoney got?
HE: I was.
HE: Well, just because, you know, I’d done other characters and they’ve been all right but this seemed to go very big and it got, sort of, mentioned in parliament and then Mrs. Thatcher suddenly said, “We’ve got a Loadsamoney economy,” or something. And then, the leader of the opposition says, “You know, you’ve created this Loadsamoney.” They, and they were both using; one of them was using it with praise and the other one with, you know, contempt. It was, it was odd, very odd. I, I didn’t expect at all, Malcolm.
MG: It really is odd. There are cultural histories written of the Thatcher years and invariably they talk about Loadsamoney and how the character was this great symbol of the era. And it’s clear that enthusiasm for this grotesque mockery was even greater on the right then it was on the left. Finally, Enfield just kinda gives up.
The rationale offered:
MG: The Loadsamoney problem happens because satire is complicated. It’s not like straightforward speech that’s easy to decode; it requires interpretation. That’s what draws you in, that’s where the humor lies. But that active interpretation has a cost; Heather LaMarre calls this the paradox of satire.
HL: So the tradeoff with satire becomes all of the thinking, or a lot of the thinking, becomes devoted to what the comic means, who the target of the joke is. And as they interpret that, then they spend less time thinking about whether that warrants any kind of real consideration or counter arguing, sort of, the merits of that message.
MG: This doesn’t happen when you listen to a straightforward discussion of politics; you just think about the arguments. But with satire…
HL: Here, you’re spending all of your time thinking about the nature of the comedy, which leaves very little mental resources available to think about whether the comedy has truth.
MG: There’s a brilliant essay written on this very subject in the July 2013 London review of books. It’s called Sinking, Giggling into the Sea and it’s by the writer Jonathan Coe. You should read it. Coe takes the argument against satire one step further. He says the effectiveness of satire is not just undermined by its complicated nature, by its ambiguity, Coe says it’s undermined by something else — the laughter it creates.
Jonathan Coe: Laughter, in a way, is a kind of last resort. if, if you, if you’re up against a problem which is completely intractable, if you’re up against a situation for which there is no human solution and never will be, then okay, let’s, let’s laugh about it.
MG: In, say, the humor of Laurel and Hardy, Coe says that kind of laughing is perfectly appropriate.
JC: Because when you see them taking on some ridiculous, Sisyphean task like pushing a piano up an an endless flight of stairs, failing time and time again, then you know what, what they’re asking you to laugh at there is, is the human condition and the, and the, the intractability of, of, of the forces of nature and the forces of physics which we can do nothing about. So of course, we have to laugh. But political problems, it’s slightly different. I mean, some, some political problems are intractable, but some political problems can be solved and perhaps, instead of laughing about them, we should try to do something about them.
Unlike Gladwell and his guests, though, the Ohio State researchers aren’t concerned with the effectiveness of satire in changing minds but literally people’s ability to differentiate it from legitimate news. Here, they have a solution.
In other recent work, we compared the effectiveness of different ways of flagging inaccurate social media content.
We tested a couple of different methods. One involved including a warning that fact-checkers had determined the inaccuracy of a post. Another had a message indicating that the content was from a satirical site.
We found that labeling an article as “satire” was uniquely effective. Users were less likely to believe stories labeled as satire, were less likely to share them and saw the source as less credible. They also valued the warning.
Facebook tested this feature itself a few years ago, and Google News has started to label some satirical content.
The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report – a satirical column written by Andy Borowitz – is labeled ‘satire’ when it appears in Google News searches.
This suggests that clearly labeling satirical content as satire can help social media users navigate a complex and sometimes confusing news environment.
If you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. That would seem doubly true if you have to explain that it is a joke.