The Onion, The Babylon Bee and the fittingly named SatireWire have become infamous for their satirical news stories. Few could mistake their respective posts on social media as legitimate news, but given the influx of satirical websites—with such names as National Report and World News Daily Report—it is increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction.
A 2020 study conducted by George Pearson, a senior lecturer and research associate in communication at Ohio State University and published in journal New Media & Society, found that users on social media tended to pay less attention to the source of the content they consumed. As a result, it was all too common to mistake satire or fiction for real news.
The problem has only gotten worse, especially on X—the social media platform formerly known as Twitter—as it has removed the verification process for news organizations and reporters, in favor of a subscription-based system.
“Before social media, the marketplace of ideas often looked more like a department store or mall. Specific magazines or media outlets focused on specific types of stories, and their differences in branding were obvious. For example, if you picked up a Time magazine or a National Lampoon at the checkout line, you knew what to expect between the pages of each,” explained Professor Laura Graham, faculty instructor of business communications at North Carolina Central University.
Graham added that while there is some segmentation in social media, today’s marketplace looks more like a swap meet–with stories or posts from The New York Times and The Babylon Bee next to one another
“There’s no difference in production values or format to tell the difference,” she warned. “Both satire and news have their place, and it’s not the platforms’ desire or responsibility to make sure readers know the difference. Today’s media market requires its audience to be a more careful consumer.”
The Need To Believe… Even The Ridiculous
It isn’t just the changing “media market” that is the issue, but also a sign of the times and our national divide. There is a great distrust from many of the traditional media, so when a satirical post contrasts the mainstream, some will automatically accept it as fact.
“A lot of times, people’s desire to believe something is true discourages them from investigating information sources. Confirmation Bias is a cognitive bias–how our brains are wired–that causes us to seek out and more readily believe sources and information that confirm what we already believe,” Graham continued.
It was just last week that the Duffel Blog—a military-themed satire site—reported that the password for U.S. Cyber Command was misplaced. It wasn’t real, of course, yet some people believed it to be true due to their opinion of the U.S. military.
“If someone wants to believe that the government isn’t careful with its cybersecurity or that the government is less competent, a story about a misplaced password is going to be more believable to that person,” said Graham. “They’ll be less likely to second-guess the source or information.”
More Than Lack Of Disclaimers
Though some of the headlines from satire sites are outrageous—others are increasingly believable. It could be argued that this is intentional as a way to drive traffic, as believable headlines can be a good form of clickbait.
But the lack of disclaimers does make it harder to tell fact from satirical fiction.
“In 1938, ‘The War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast created mass fear that alien creatures had come to earth simply because listeners tuned in after the disclaimer that the following information was a fictitious program for Halloween,” said Dr. Dustin York, an associate professor of communication at Maryville University.
“Social media has poured gasoline on this unintended misinformation due to continual headline scrolling but very little research,” York emphasized. “Now add that social media algorithms prioritize engaging content, which can also mean divisive content, and you have a potential firestorm that forces users to find the fact in between the purposeful misinformation and parody information.”
The Truth Should Matter
User of social media shouldn’t fall prey to this believing everything that is posted on social media. In fact, greater efforts should be made to fact check before sharing that “shocking” news revelation as fact.
“It’s our responsibility as information consumers to make sure the sources and information we see–on whatever platform–are reliable, relevant and accurate,” suggested Graham. “If we as the audience don’t do even the most basic work to make sure what we’re seeing and passing on is meant to be news rather than satire, then we will be just part of the manufactured outrage and content-less cacophony cluttering today’s marketplace of ideas.”
And perhaps too, a case could be made that while satire has its place, we really could use more news sources doing actual reporting and offering a bit less commentary. Until that happens, it is likely the divisions will remain and many will believe the stories that support their agenda, even if it seems completely made-up.
“Although unintended,” said York, “Parody news can add fuel to the Winston Churchill quote, ‘A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”