Does Hilary Clinton wear the bullet that killed Osama bin Laden on a chain around her neck? Did marijuana overdoses kill 37 people in Colorado on the first day of legalization? Was a Black Lives Matter group sued for being racist, not allowing white members? Did a vacationing President Obama really dedicate an 18th hole birdie to Louisiana flood victims? Did Trump really put Ben Carson and Sarah Palin on his foreign policy advisory team? Or is Michele Bachmann going to be his foreign policy adviser?
In this election more, even more than in previous campaign seasons, it can be hard to tell truth from satire. The Oxford Dictionary defines satire as “The use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”
The Michele Bachmann claim might be true: it seems to come from Bachmann herself. All of the other other stories come from satirical websites. No matter how many times they have been reposted on the internet, these stories are not true.
I spend lots of time reading news, and I care passionately about sorting truth from lies. So I’m going to write a series of blog posts to share what I’ve learned over a lifetime of working at this Sisyphean task. First: phony news sites. Today: Satire beyond The Onion. Next up: Outright lies and hoaxes. Finally: Not really science and not really health.
Sometimes people just don’t get the whole concept of satire. Sometimes they get hooked by a story that coincides with their political beliefs and just want to believe it’s true. When they refer to it, or repost it on Facebook and Twitter, the story hooks even more people.
How can you tell the difference between a “real” news article and satire? Sometimes it’s easy: Andy Borowitz, writing in the New Yorker, subtitles The Borowitz Report as “the news, reshuffled.” Is that a clue? If not, look at the URL at the top of the web page: http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report. Humor. That’s a definite clue. And at the bottom of the page, you can click to “GET NEWS SATIRE FROM THE BOROWITZ REPORT DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX.” That’s another pretty big clue. Or you could click on Andy Borowitz’s name, and go to his New Yorker page, which identifies The Borowitz Report as “a satirical news column.”
Empire News is far less transparent. Two relatively recent Empire News headlines announce Pope Francis Says Pokemon Go Is ‘Devil’s Tool’ To Bring Children To Satan and Olympic Swimmer Contracts Deadly Malaria Virus While Practicing For Events In Rio. Retweeting or sharing these headlines is tempting: they seem to tell the whole story, and they seem plausible. Both stories are fake — but it takes a little investigation to figure that out. The first step, as always, is to READ THE WHOLE STORY before passing it on to your unsuspecting friends.
The Olympic/malaria story was written by “Bob the Empire News Potato.” That’s a pretty strong clue, but only for people who (1) click on the link and read the story before reposting it, and (2) look to see who wrote it.
Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors includes Empire News as a hoax site. Maybe – but if readers really want to find out whether its stories are real, they could scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the about/disclaimer section, which reveals:
“Empire News is intended for entertainment purposes only. Our website and social media content uses only fictional names, except in cases of public figure and celebrity parody or satirization. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental.”
Is checking on the self-description of a news source something you – or most people – regularly do? Nope. That’s probably why Snopes calls Empire News a hoax site.
“… the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national, international, and local news events. Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1765, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.”
Real satirists — like The Onion or The Borowitz Report — clearly claim their status and do not try to deceive anyone into believing they are reporting real news. Other sites, including Empire News, The Stately Harold, and The Daily Currant, bury their self-descriptions and make it harder for readers to recognize that the headlines represent satire, not news. Instead of sharply skewering political foolishness, they sling enough mud to create an information swamp, with no firm footing for anyone.
As I wrote in the first post of this series, four steps toward evaluating news articles and news sites are:
- Read the entire article before you retweet or share or quote it.
- Look at the publisher — evaluate who they are and whether they are trustworthy.
- Consider the reporting, including the identity of the writer.
- Compare other news reports of the story and evaluate its reliability in the light of multiple sources and reports.
You and I can help to reverse growing public cynicism and mistrust and stop our slide into the (mis)information swamp.