Grumpy old man moment: There is satire, and there is really dumb satire

It’s funny because it’s like Superman, but his logo looks weird! DON’T YOU GET THE JOKE?

This isn’t about atheism, but it is about skepticism in general, and some of the annoyances of the internet.

I loves me some fake news. Been reading The Onion for well over a decade now. The Daily Show is my favorite thing on TV, and most weeks I never miss an episode. But even with all that in mind, I really want to say that there are just way too many websites devoted to publishing “satirical news”, and most of them are not that funny.

The thing that bugs me the most about these sites is that, much like those terrible Seltzer and Friedberg movies, they don’t really do satire. Those movies just imitate better, more successful movies, and expect you to laugh. These sites post stories that could be true, but aren’t.


Let me pull a recent example of reasonably competent satire from The Onion:
“Elite Congressman Trained To Kill Legislation In 24 Different Ways”

The headline is a joke. The article is a joke. It is vaguely within the realm of possibility that a very unobservant person wouldn’t notice it was a joke, but it is very, very unlikely. It is topical to something happening right now, but it can’t be mistaken for actual news. By contrast, here are some articles from the also fake site “The Daily Currant.”

Those aren’t funny. They are, at best, mildly implausible. Imitating things that could actually be in the news isn’t comedy, it’s lazy.

Yes, it is kind of funny from time to time when a confused fundamentalist credulously reposts an Onion article in which JK Rowling confesses that she wrote Harry Potter to promote Satanism. But that is funny only because it’s rare, and because the satire is written in such a ridiculous, over the top way, that you’re not supposed to believe the story. Then the joke is on the person who fell for it, because it’s not something most people would fall for, so now the victim is funny.

Put it another way: “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift has long stood as an example of effective satire, because the proposal to eat the babies of the poor is recognizably making fun of economic conservatism. But it is also crazy. If there were many prominent politicians in Swift’s day who genuinely advocated the consumption, or at least execution, of babies, then it would not have been satire, it would have been a relatively unfunny riff on something that was really happening in the world.

Want to know why I hate this trend? Because I don’t want to be constantly reading “news stories” while having to consider the likelihood that the author of the article is trying to trick me on purpose. As it is, online media sites are already filled with slanted articles that distort the facts of what actually happened in the world lately. We need less of that, not more. It simply does not help the situation in the slightest to have a bunch of people out there who make it their business to lie to me on purpose. Debunking sites like — blessings be upon them — exist in order to decrease the frequency at which people are fooled by scams and hoaxes. Sites that create scams and hoaxes for a laugh are doing the opposite of Snopes’ mission, trying to fool more people more often. No thanks.


  1. xscd says

    I think you’re taking this _way_ too seriously. A sense of humor is a good thing, which means that God and Jesus must have an incredible sense of humor. You should emulate them. 🙂

  2. says

    Yeah, it’s dismaying how many self-described skeptics fall for these sites, indicating a general laziness over the whole “I saw something on the internet that flipped my outrage switch, so I will immediately decide it’s true without checking facts first” thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll see something on my Facebook wall from Daily Currant or Newslo or one of these others, where the poster has added “OMG really!?!? This shit has to stop!” And then after 10 people post “Satire site!” in the comments, he’ll say, “Oh, okay, but hey, it could be true, amirite?” utterly failing to address that he’s been lied to and, indeed, even seeming to give tacit approval to having been so trolled.

    I just want to crawl into a hole, pull the ground up over me and never come out.

  3. Monocle Smile says

    It’s basically Poe’s Law in news form. It’s frustrating as shit.

    Public trolling and blatant clickbait reveals the worst side of the media.

  4. Kevin Kehres says

    I agree. I’m also 100% fed-up with the “list” thing.

    TEN Things You Must Never Do…which can only be read by clicking through 10 screens, each one with its own separate ad palette.

    Bah. Humbug. Any headline with a number — I avoid. Which basically knocks out all of Buzzfeed.

  5. Russell Glasser says

    I do place much of the blame on people who don’t exercise the necessary skepticism to stop them from believing those stories at face value. But the fact that these “joke” sites are believed so often seems to be a critical failure of their competence as writers. If the stories were genuinely funny, as they are supposed to be, then they wouldn’t just look indistinguishable from headlines ripped from real events. So I’m putting a lot of the blame on the sites themselves, not just the people who fall for them.

  6. kft says

    Ugh, the Daily Currant. Out of the 12 stories on their front page, 8 of them just look like . . . boring new stories. USA bans Russian vodka? Erdogan’s son launches a Twitter competitor? Those aren’t even trying to be satire! They’re just fake news.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    For an early example of satire fail, see Daniel Defoe’s “The Shortest Way with Dissenters.” (of Robinson Crusoe fame) He was trying to make fun of the Tories who were persecuting dissenters, by trying to imitate the persecutor’s voices and calling for their outright extermination. But a lot of people thought he was serious, and he got arrested, pilloried, and fined to the extent that he was bankrupted:

  8. Endorkened says

    Not just the worst side of the media, Monocle–the worst side of humanity. And sometimes it seems like us lefties are extra-vulnerable to it. Maybe it’s just that the right relies more on old media, and the left relies more on the internet, but when I see people going nuts over Atlantean pyramids or proof that Martin Luther King was offed by the government, it’s usually someone with several levels in a social justice NPC class, if you get my drift.

  9. says

    Yeah, in the same way that a good site (The Onion) inspired an onslaught of half-assed imitators, so too did Cracked (a good site) spawn the scourge of “X things” articles that pop up everywhere, and even an annoying new internet neologism (“listicles,” which sounds like something between the legs of a flamingo) to refer to them.

  10. Monocle Smile says

    I don’t think it’s quite so right/left clear-cut. Those most vulnerable are “internet libertarians,” IMO. It’s like the people who not only do CrossFit, but buy into all the cultish mythology surrounding it. Or the chemtrails people.

    These are people who like to feel superior, or “in the know” or “enlightened,” but without putting any significant effort into acquiring and deciphering knowledge or applying critical thinking.

  11. Trebuchet says

    I think a significant number of those “satire” “news” sites exist for the sole purpose of starting right wing rumors to be repeated in chain e-mails. You can lie all you want about Obama if you label it “satire”. Typically about 1/3 of Snopes “Hot 25” fall into that category.

  12. Narf says

    I think the problem is that the writers of these sites so often to not have a good sense of humor. Russel could make the same point by blasting the shitty writing in the entertainment media, which is particularly dangerous in this pseudo-sarcastic sub-genre.

  13. says

    I’m not sure any political group is more or less susceptible to bad information. We’re all human and being conscious of our own confirmation bias, emotions, desires, etc., and remaining objective in spite of this, is really hard. There are also plenty of folks on the right who are using the Intern to push conspiracy memes (would the birther movement even have existed w/o it?). But I agree that my fellow lefties, god bless them, have their own set of woo.

    On the original post, I wonder what the future of journalism will be if the “news story” crap is valued more in the Internet age than the “just the facts” news of the past. It seems the OpEds and facts have merged on the Internet with no editorial oversight or accountability.

  14. houndentenor says

    There were several months when almost every day someone I knew would post something from the daily currant on Facebook thinking it was a real story. If it were meant as satire it was terrible satire. Yes, there’s Poe’s law. It’s hard to make up something more batshit crazy to attribute to Michelle Bachmann that’s any more nuts than the things she really says. But that’s no excuse for such unfunny material. Are people automatically supposed to be able to know that something is satire when it’s so ineptly written? The Swift piece mentioned in the blog post is so well-regarded that it is often included in literary anthologies. It’s not just a historical document but a work of literature. I’m afraid we’ve set the bar too low for our media and they fail to meet even those low expectations. I have at least a dozen relatives who forward the most idiotic and obviously untrue email chains. No amount of fact-checking or links to multiple sites (not just snopes) seems to do any good. most have stopped emailing them to ME, but they still send them to everyone else they know. Some even re-send things they’ve already been told aren’t true. Part of that is that for many people truth is irrelevant so long as the words they are reading reinforce their own beliefs.

    I emailed a few people in the media (who I’m sure are deluged with email and who don’t know me) to ask why someone doesn’t track down one of these chain emails filled with obviously made up information and try to find out where they are coming from. I suspect that quite a few are deliberately created in political think-tanks for the purpose of spreading misinformation. This isn’t exactly a new practice. Whisper campaigns have existed for about as long as elections. But technology makes it possible to track an email back to its original sender. Now wouldn’t that be interesting.

  15. AhmNee says

    Agreed. The internet allows the comedy chaff to give voice to their lackluster abilities. It’s like if every reject from American Idol that thinks they can sing and really, really can’t still could still find airtime on the radio.
    Please don’t think less of me because I’ve watched American Idol.

  16. AhmNee says

    The people deserve a little blame, though. I’d hate to admit how much time I spend debunking bullshit stories my friends and family post to Facebook. Most of which could be avoided if they took 5 seconds to do a google search.

  17. AhmNee says

    I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say Cracked is a “good” site. It’s okay, I suppose.

  18. jacobfromlost says

    The problem with satire and jokes generally is that they depend on the education and intelligence of the audience simultaneously. If you can’t recognize satire, then you not only don’t get the joke, you think some serious stance is being pushed forward BECAUSE you don’t get the joke (as Rumsfeld might say, you don’t even know what you don’t know).

    How many people still think Colbert is a real rightwinger? Far more than makes me comfortable.

    (I once taught a lesson in my high school English class on a Dave Barry piece…and upon getting zero reaction to the jokes, had to explain them…which made them pointless as jokes…which pretty much made the whole lesson pointless, at least in terms of getting an emotional reaction to humor. And fyi, it wasn’t that they just thought the jokes weren’t funny. They just didn’t understand the text well enough to know there was a joke there at all.)

  19. bigwhale says

    I’ll often hear Poe invoked as a defense. “Calm down, I’m just a Poe” I don’t see Poe’s law as a goal, but as a warning. You have to be extra careful with such satire, or satire is basically impossible.

    It’s just so annoying when such failed satirists admit they know Poe’s Law is a thing. It’s like I just explained to someone that it would be very easy and pointless to shoot the broad side of a barn, then they proceed to shoot the barn and brag about it.

  20. scourge99 says

    I disagree. I think the Internet should be filled to the brim with as much garbage, satire, baloney, and nonsense as possible. That way people will be overloaded. Then maybe, just maybe, they’ll have to develop basic skills in critical thinking and skepticism so they can sift through it and recognize legitimate information from crap. Like understanding the difference between a peer reviewed article in a respected scientific journal and one published by Answers in Genesis.

  21. kev says

    “Imitating things that could actually be in the news isn’t comedy, it’s lazy.” BS. Laziness isn’t the opposite of comedy, for one. Satire doesn’t really exist in a spectrum, either a work has satirical elements or it is unsuccessful in attempting to be satire. Calling something lazy just because it’s not hyperbolic for you is a very lazy argument. WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE POOR CHILDREN WHO AREN’T INCREDULOUS ENOUGH TO THRIVE FROM READING COMEDIC NEWS??

    Seriously though, satire is kind of a weapon in this realpolitik world, and thus should be used responsibly.

    It’s hard, because “the best memes survive and replicate” and so just joking about “how horrible a set of opinions are” might actually make them stronger? IDK,