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.

Conservative columnist David French criticized Snopes for debunking what was, in his view, “obvious satire. Obvious.” A few days later, Fox News ran a segment featuring The Bee’s incredulous CEO.

But does everyone recognize satire as readily as French seems to?

Our team of communication researchers has spent years studying misinformationsatireand 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.

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.

—Snopes/The Conversation, “Study: Too Many People Think Satirical News Is Real”

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.

But now more than ever, Americans are worried about their ability to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t and think made-up news is a significant problem facing the country.

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.

MG: Why?

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.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Democracy, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Teve says:

    This is probably not as bad as sites like YouTube which deliberately push people onto conspiracy videos.

  2. Andy says:

    It appears the researchers focused primarily on political satire, but of course, there are many other flavors.

    One of my favorites is “The Duffle Blog” which bills itself as “The American Military’s Most Trusted News Source.”

    Back when I was still active on social media, I would share the funniest DB articles on Facebook for my military friends. But I quickly discovered my non-military friends often could not see the joke and thought it was serious.

    Task and Purpose (a serious news and opinion site), ran an article in 2014 on the best Duffel Blog headlines that people actually believed. And of course, Snopes has had occasion to clarify a DB article.

  3. Andy says:


    I spend a lot of time on Youtube and that’s never happened to me.

    But I do think social media algorithms tend to try to feed individuals content that it thinks people will like based on what they search for and what they like. So those who have a penchant for and are looking for conspiracies (or like that kind of content), are going to get served more of it.

    I do think it’s a problem, but not just for conspiracies – it’s also a way to generate an ideological bubble around your social media presence without really realizing it. If Youtube thinks you only want content about “owning the libs” then that’s what you’re going to get.

    In my case with youtube, however, I get fed primarily home improvement related videos.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Nonetheless, almost 1 in 8 Democrats was certain that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway had questioned the value of the rule of law.

    Considering her repeated violations of the Hatch act, and the apparent emasculation of the DOJ when it comes to people in the chump admin, I would say that that satire wasn’t very.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Andy: I get a lot of bluegrass and folk music.

  6. Teve says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: the only time I see Kellyanne Conway on TV, she’s telling bald-faced lies.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    Everyone claims to have a sense of humor, and it’s a mortal insult telling someone they don’t. But I’d guess 40% of people have no sense of humor, and another 30% barely do.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Teve: She is just one more reason not to watch TV.

  9. Kari Q says:

    Everyone has been “Onioned” at some point – read satire and not realized that it was satire. It can be hard to distinguish. After all, one of the examples James mentioned was Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin. In some of those sketches, Fey was simply repeating Palin’s actual words. And getting laughs for it.

    I’ve also seen the opposite happen, something is shared and we all say “this can’t be true. It must be satire.” Only to find out that, nope, that thing that couldn’t possibly be real is actually real.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kari Q: When satire can no longer keep up with reality, we’re all in trouble. And boy, are we all in trouble.

  11. Moosebreath says:

    @Kari Q: Tom Lehrer supposedly explained his semi-retirement by stating that political satire became impossible after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

  12. de stijl says:

    @Teve: @Andy:

    I listen to music and watch streamers playing grand strategy games.

    Routinely in the right side recommendations “for me” is a video from Louder With Crowder or a snippet from yesterday’s Limbaugh show.

    It probably depends on your Google settings and whether your search history is shared with other Google apps.

    It can’t discern whether you’re appalled by something and want to know more vs. I really like this POV and want to see more.

  13. Kylopod says:

    @Kari Q:

    After all, one of the examples James mentioned was Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin. In some of those sketches, Fey was simply repeating Palin’s actual words. And getting laughs for it.

    But a lot of people are unaware she never said “I can see Russia from my house.” That was the SNL version of Palin. (What she actually said that the skit was satirizing was “You can see Russia from land here in Alaska” in response to a question about her foreign policy credentials.) There are also many people who don’t realize Bush never coined the word “strategery.” But he did have similar sorts of coinages (e.g. misunderestimate).

  14. Kylopod says:

    It surprises me in this entire discussion nobody has brought up Poe’s Law.

    The term was coined sometime in the mid-2000s, originally in reference to the difficulty in telling parodies of creationism apart from the real thing.

  15. de stijl says:

    Confirmation bias.

    So many, many words and I nailed it with two.

    I do like the Malcolm Gladwell stuff, though. He’s fascinating. He can veer towards Friedman level facile at times, but generally he is open. Gladwell is always a good read.

  16. Kylopod says:

    One of the problems I’ve always had with SNL’s approach to political satire is that they usually do little more than copy what the politicians say and then give it just a slight twist. They only occasionally come up with true inspiration. To me, the ultimate example of what the Trump era has done to satire was how they dealt with Trump’s statement “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” They just had Baldwin speak the line verbatim, then they cut to shots of the entire planet laughing. The problem with satirizing Trump is that the man is a walking, breathing cartoon character, so there’s literally nothing they can come up with that’s more ludicrous than things he’s actually said or done.

  17. Sleeping Dog says:

    Good satire will dupe many of us and has for a long time, i.e. Jonathan Swift’s, A Modest Proposal. In satire there is nearly always a tell, that should indicate that your leg is being pulled. Sometimes it is the implausible name of the “spokesperson” or the name of the “agency” issuing the statement. Personally, I do enjoy being taken in for a few moments and laugh at myself when I figure it out.

  18. CSK says:

    @Kari Q: @Kylopod:

    Palin made Trump possible.

  19. de stijl says:


    I know Bush never said “strategery”, but I’d bet Gore said “lock box” sometime in 1999.

    Satire works when it is believable.

    One of the cool things about Futurama was Gore’s goofing on himself and his tight-ass wonkish image.

  20. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl: The thing is, who remembers the “lock box” part of the skit? (I happen to remember watching the skit when it first aired. But not everyone does.) It actually comes after Bush says “strategery,” suggesting the writers thought it was more the punchline. But “strategery” is what stuck in people’s memories.

  21. de stijl says:

    Tina Fey as Palin was amazing.

    I mean she got the voice and the mannerisms nailed. But that’s half of it.

    Alec Baldwin as Trump does a solid impression.

    Tina Fey as Palin did a great impression *and* also conveyed the essence of Palin brilliantly.

    Makes sense, she wrote Mean Girls. Fey is a genius at what she does.

    For what it is, Mean Girls is a great movie. It’s shot like TV, the main character is an obvious audience stand in at the start, but it knocks it out of the yard.

    I feel bad for Lindsay Lohan. She got caught up in that aught’s celebrity weirdness, and apparently she had super crappy parents, she was a kid actor that really bloomed (that always turns out well). And now unless she rights herself soon will likely never work again.

  22. Sleeping Dog says:

    @de stijl:

    I feel bad for Lindsay Lohan. She got caught up in that aught’s celebrity weirdness, and apparently she had super crappy parents, she was a kid actor that really bloomed (that always turns out well). And now unless she rights herself soon will likely never work again.

    Read something a few months ago that Lohan has retreated to the Greek Isles and is presently running a boutique hotel. She may never work again and may not care.

  23. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl: I agree that Tina Fey was brilliant as Palin, but the main reason she was chosen was the physical resemblance; she’d left SNL years earlier. Palin has stated in interviews that friends had noted the resemblance before. Now I don’t believe a word Palin says about anything, but in this case I think she’s probably telling the truth. The first time I ever saw a picture of her, shortly after she was announced as McCain’s running mate, the thought passed through my mind, “That lady is pretty. She looks kind of like Tina Fey.”

    Normally, impersonations aren’t based on whether the comedian looks much like the person. Dana Carvey doesn’t look like George H.W. Bush per se. (On the other hand, Timothy Bottoms, who played Dubya in Comedy Central’s short-lived That’s My Bush as well as a TV movie, does have a certain resemblance to Dubya–a fate I would not wish on anyone.) In Baldwin’s case, they seem to have done an elaborate makeup job that it’s hard to believe they continue doing on a regular basis. I’m sure Baldwin didn’t take the job thinking he’d have to do it for the next several years. (The same was true of Fey when she played Palin; I think she was relieved for more than one reason when McCain lost.) If I’m not mistaken, he’s their first presidential impersonator who’s never been part of SNL’s regular cast.

  24. de stijl says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Good for her if that’s what she wants. I hope she invested well.

  25. Joe says:

    The problem with satirizing Trump (and similarly, Conway), is that if your listed 10 outrageous statements and asked someone to pick which 5 he actually uttered, they would have no clue unless they had actually heard some of them. Of course, the joke would be that he said all 10.

  26. Liberal Capitalist says:


    The problem with satirizing Trump is that the man is a walking, breathing cartoon character, so there’s literally nothing they can come up with that’s more ludicrous than things he’s actually said or done.

    Our Cartoon President would disagree.

  27. DrDaveT says:

    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.

    So now all we need is the lawsuit that forces Fox News to label all of their content as ‘satire’ under truth-in-labeling law.

  28. For Fox News, the label would have to be “propaganda.”

  29. Teve says:

    So now all we need is the lawsuit that forces Fox News to label all of their content as ‘satire’ under truth-in-labeling law.


  30. de stijl says:

    @Teve: @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s funny because it’s true.

    But it’s also not funny when it’s real. My mom in her last years got super tribal political and watched FNC religiously.

    And brought crap up constantly when I talked to her. I never broached anything remotely political with her ever.

    And she would try to bait me into a fight about whatever Pelosi said yesterday.

    I had to set boundaries with her. My mom, for christsakes!

    FNC is pernicious and evil and, apparently, addictive enough to almost poison relations with your children.

  31. Kylopod says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Our Cartoon President would disagree.

    And I disagree with Our Cartoon President. Seriously. Let’s say it’s 15 years ago and you’re visited by a time traveler from now and he gives you the following quotes. Would you believe these quotes were for real and not the product of some demented parody?

    If I decide to run, you’ll have the great pleasure of voting for the man that will easily go down as the greatest president in the history of the United States.

    I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody’s ever been more successful than me.

    I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.

    I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.

    I have a great relationship with the blacks.

    I’ve said if [she] weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.

    With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.

    No puppet, you’re the puppet.

    Democrats can’t find a Smocking Gun… No Smocking Gun… No Collusion.

    I am a young, vibrant man.

    I hear he’s nice-looking. I think I’m better-looking than him.

    I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.

    Because we’re living through it and being exposed to it every day, we’ve become desensitized to Trump’s sheer bizarreness. No other human being on the planet talks the way he does. It isn’t narcissism. It’s the most absurd cartoon parody of narcissism. If he never existed, no one would ever believe a man like him ever could exist. And yet somehow we’ve gotten used to this reality and begun treating it like it’s normal, despite our better instincts. We’re in the Twilight Zone deluding ourselves into thinking we’re still in the real world.

  32. de stijl says:


    He’s not a cartoon. Cartoons are way more subtle.

    Trump is the WWE presidident. Crude caricature, broadly drawn, meant to incite.

  33. Jax says:

    @Kylopod: I beg to differ. I dated a guy who talks exactly like that about himself, ALL of the time. There is nobody smarter, better looking, or that has more money than him.

    The only moment of “realness” I ever got out of him that wasn’t bragging, was a moment when he straight up said that he wasn’t like normal people and never had been. He said he learned young that other people appreciate empathy, and so he learned to emulate that, in order to get what he wanted out of them. He did not actually give a crap about anything, it was all about the angle on how best to make people and situations benefit him the most. Fake it to make it.

    I suspect Trump did much the same thing, earlier in his life. Now, he don’t give a fuuuuck about faking it anymore unless it helps his poll numbers.

  34. Liberal Capitalist says:

    You know…

    Americans Can’t Distinguish Satire from Reality

    This just could be the reason there is a Trump presidency.

  35. Tyrell says:

    Maybe they stopped teaching the various literary forms in school some time ago.

  36. Jax says:

    @Tyrell: Actually, this generation seems to be able to distinguish satire from real news just fine. It’s the boomers that can’t. They were always used to the news being real news, and that was the end of it. Then the internet came, and they have no critical thinking skills to differentiate anymore. “I saw it on the internet” is just as real as “I saw it on Walter Cronkite” for them. It’s what they were taught.

  37. de stijl says:


    I really hope you didn’t date that guy long.

  38. Jax says:

    @de stijl: That was actually when I told him I was pregnant, and he told me he was leaving me for a stripper. I remember looking him in the eyeballs and listening to him tell me he never feels a damn thing, looking for the handle of the car door, opening it, getting in my car and never looking back.

    He’s never once tried to see her. She has “the Dad she chose for herself”, and they are best buds. I thank my lucky stars I walked away that night. Every time I see those Facebook memes about stepdad’s who stepped up, I share and give it a like, just because.

    Sorry, probably TMI for this forum. But every time I hear Trump talk I roll my eyes and think how glad I am to be away from that.

  39. de stijl says:

    No worries.

    You have your daughter and that sociopath is gone from your life. Probably sucked then, but that night worked out great for you now.

  40. Jax says:

    @de stijl: You know, they should just do a “late night OTB” here on this forum where we can all post our late night music. To happier days!

  41. Jax says:

    This is what Youtube showed me after I watched Rehab.

  42. Jax says: