Remember the reactions, including one from the Globe, to an infamous piece published last year on The Onion? Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’ was obviously a joke, yet many people around here swallowed it whole.
As anyone who has ever puzzled over the intent of an email devoid of a winking emoticon can tell you, it can be hard to detect sarcasm online. There’s a longstanding Internet maxim known as Poe’s Law that posits that in digital communication, without an overt signifier of intention, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between something meant to be satire and something that is a sincerely held belief.
There’s no surer way to deflate the intended impact of a piece of humor, however, than by introducing it as such. Comedy is largely based on the element of surprise, so opening a tweet or a comment with something akin to a [sarcasm] tag is a good way to drain all of the fun out of things.
Perhaps that’s why Facebook’s latest move comes as such a surprise to Internet observers. As Ars Technica noted, the social media behemoth has started affixing [Satire] tags on links to stories on satirical sites like The Onion.
I’ve done some tests on my own feed, and here’s how it seems to work: When a user is served a link to something from The Onion and clicks through, then returns to Facebook, a box pops up under the original posts with a series of related articles. (This is true of many links to traditional news stories as well). But in the case of sites it has internally deemed to be satirical, Facebook has attached disclaimers in front of the links that alert users as to what they’re about to read. [Satire] “DNA Evidence Frees Black Man Convicted of Bear Attack,” for example.
“We are running a small test which shows the text ‘[Satire]’ in front of links to satirical articles in the related articles unit in News Feed,” a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me. “This is because we received feedback that people wanted a clearer way to distinguish satirical articles from others in these units.”
Facebook declined to specify which sites other than The Onion it is performing the test on, but I was able to replicate the results on links to The Daily Currant, a noxious “satire” site. For Empire News, the only related article was a link to its About/Disclaimer page that betrays its satirical intentions, but without the tag. The overt satire designation does not seem to apply to the regularly awful The Borowitz Report on The New Yorker as of yet.
A representative from The Onion declined to comment when asked, perhaps because they had this perfect response in the works.
So are the decision-makers over at Facebook just being buzzkills?
My suspicion is that it’s a piece of Facebook’s push to serve what they call “high quality content” to users, and to suppress what they see as “low quality” content. Last year, Facebook explained the criteria: “Is this content from a source you would trust?” and “Is the content genuinely interesting to you or is it trying to game News Feed distribution?”
As much as we all love The Onion, or should anyway – “Boston Mayor Throws Out First Punch At St. Patrick’s Day Parade” was a recent favorite of mine – too many Facebook users are mistaking their stories for actual news.
As the endlessly baffling ‘Literally Unbelievable’ blog regularly points out, our collective gullibility seems to know no bounds. There have been numerous, well-covered instances of people in positions of power swallowing the premise of a The Onion post. US Rep. John Fleming shared a joke about an Abortionplex opening, and then there was the time a Beijing newspaper reprinted The Onion story about the US Congress planning on moving out of Washington D.C. As hard as satire can be to detect in the first place, it’s doubly so in translation. But what’s the excuse for the rest of us?
The glut of sites hoping to capitalize specifically on readers’ gullibility have devalued satire for the rest of us. The Daily Currant, Empire News, and others all regularly post articles designed not to illuminate, or provoke, or criticize, like many of the best The Onion pieces do, but rather to confuse.
The recipe is simple. Cook up a vaguely plausible premise—California Fining ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ Participants for Wasting Water – intended to get you to share it on Facebook, assume you won’t actually read it, and voila. There’s no satire. It’s just a lie. Facebook, to its credit, seems to recognize that this is a problem. Probably not out of the goodness of its hearts, or because it is the defenders of the sanctity of comedy, mind you, but because after being tricked enough times online, users will eventually stop trusting Facebook as a source of news. Having users disoriented and less trusting is bad business for Facebook.
But maybe we just can’t be trusted with satire anymore? We’ve become too politically polarized, and too ready to share nonsense that conforms to our pre-established biases. Satire, when done right, is supposed to take the air out of us at our blustering worst. Pointing it out might take some of the edge off, but if the tradeoff is fewer lies and hoaxes making it into our newsfeeds, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Although almost every site gets a significant percentage of its traffic through Facebook, The Onion is a strong enough brand that it can weather a slight decrease. These other sites rely 100% percent on social media sharing by people who’ve missed the joke. Tagging them as satire can, and should, if all goes well, effectively drive them out of business. That’s a good thing. At the rate our collective media literacy seems to be trending, there won’t be many left to understand satire in the first place anyway. Sometimes in order to save satire, you have to kill it.