Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Lesson In Poe's Law - An Open Letter To Wannabe Satirists

Today, I learned that the Smithsonian was planning an exhibit on atheism in America.  Unfortunately, I learned this from an article announcing its cancellation.  When some Christians learned about it, they launched a campaign to stop it.  A campaign that included death threats.  Except, not really.  The article was not real.  It was (an attempt at) satire.

This is an all too common thing I've been encountering.  Websites with fake news like are often mistaken as real.  Part of this is because people, including otherwise good skeptics, fail to vet these sites before sharing them.  But I think the bigger problem is these sites themselves.  The goal of these sites seems to be satire.  The result is them simply making shit up.

This Smithsonian story is believable because it's plausible.  It sounds a lot like something that could actually happen.  That's not good satire.  Good satire is readily recognizable as satire.  You don't succeed in lampooning anyone but yourself when you successfully trick your reader into thinking what you wrote was true.

Poe's Law states:
Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.
It's based on the premise that we're so used to extremists doing the unbelievable, that we're likely to believe they've done just about anything.  In other words, the point they want to make (that these people are extremists) is already understood by just about everyone.  Or as Jamie Kilstein put it at the Reason Rally, "Everyone already knows Pat Robertson is an asshole!"

If the goal of these sites is to bring to light the shitty things that extremists are doing, they're missing the mark.  By repeatedly misleading people for their own attention, all they accomplish is damage to the credibility of the real reports.  The more people learn they'd been tricked by reports that appeared real, the harder it becomes to get attention to incidents of actual extremism.

For both things you could be attempted, you're bad at it.  If you write for one of these sites, and it's not The Onion, please just stop.  You're not helping.  You're making a mess of things.  We have enough bullshit flowing around the Internet.  We don't need you adding to it.

Leave the satire and parody to The Onion and Stephen Colbert.  Leave the bullshit to people like Fox News.  And leave the outing of the assholes to places like Media Matters and Right Wing Watch.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, I was taken in by this very story for at least 10 minutes or so. These sites are everywhere and increasingly difficult to tell apart from legitimate news sources.