Is satirical “news” making us stupid? (UPDATED)


I’m a big fan of The Onion. And satire in general. But I’ve noticed an increasing trend lately: People mistaking satire for legitimate news. It used to be easy to tell when The Onion was the only player in the satire game — but the last few years have seen the satirical news market become increasingly saturated.

It doesn’t help that often the disclaimers (if they have any) are hidden away somewhere — or are so tongue-in-cheek that if you don’t realize the article is satirical, you may not realize the disclaimer is satirical too.

I’ve also noticed that this new brand of satire is far more subtle, at least in the beginning. Things start off plausibly before building to a crescendo of implausibility near the end. This can cause some problems.

Not too long ago the place I work conducted a study on the reading habits of people. The biggest takeaway was that people tend to read the first two or three paragraphs of something — then either skim the rest, jump to the end, or just stop reading.

Since much of this newer satire buries the big giveaways deeper in the story, many people seem to miss them — but post or share anyway, believing it is legitimate. From there other friends share it, also thinking it is legitimate since their friend posted it.

And from there the satire takes on an air of truthfulness — with people using the “information” from such stories in conversations and debates. Once something is out of the box, it’s very hard to keep it from spreading — let alone put it back in. Snopes has quite a list of things that have needed debunking and have origins in satirical news articles.

So remember, search high and low for a disclaimer (they can usually be found at the bottom of the page or “about us” section) — or just Google before you post up that “shocking” “news” story. And make sure to point out such falsities to others when you see them posted. Help our collective consciousness stay sharp!

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson


EDIT: After posting this originally, I received some feedback from people concerning satire. The main theme being “(satire) promotes critical thinking — which is something we need.”

And honestly, I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of the reasons I love satire. It’s (usually) smart stuff. The problem, as pointed out by another reader, is “not so much that satirical news is making us stupid, as that as a society we have become so gullible and unwilling to ‘fact check’ (or even read the entire article in the first place, as you pointed out) that we don’t even start to think critically in the first place.”

So the question is: What’s the best way to keep people from being so gullible and to get them thinking critically?

Google before you post


I generally believe that someone’s Twitter or Facebook wall should be whatever they want it to be. But posts dealing in misinformation are problematic. They can lead people to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t make (sometimes dangerous ones), divert time and resources from government agencies, and unfairly malign people and organizations.

Often these posts have been re-shared hundreds of times. Often they’re political, but sometimes they deal with science, major companies, religion, or other issues. Generally they all carry the same underlying emotions — fear, anger, or worry.

Here are a few quick examples of such posts, along with examples of how to use Google to find the truth.

Facebook Privacy Notice

This one crops up every few months. A post claiming that if you share it on your wall, it keeps Facebook from owning/using the content you post. It often invokes uniform commercial code (UCC) 1-103 1-308.

Search: “Facebook Privacy Notice”+”snopes” OR “UCC 1-103 1-308″+”snopes”

Result: It’s a hoax. When you sign up for Facebook and agree to the terms and conditions, you give Facebook the authority to use any content you post, and once you agree to that, there’s nothing you can do.

Missing children

This is another one that gets a lot of play on Facebook and Twitter. It will reference a lost child, complete with their name, and often direct you to call a police station in the child’s home state if you spot the child. These hoaxes can be particularly time-consuming for the agencies listed in the hoax because they have to deal with constant calls about the “child” — diverting them from real cases that need their attention.

Search: “(child’s name)”+”missing” (add “snopes” if you want, usually it’s not necessary). If I can’t find any information about the child through that, I will also search for the agency listed in the post and see if the numbers match up. If they do, I will often give a quick call and ask if the case posted is legit.

Result: 9 times out of 10 the “missing child” either is completely fabricated or has been found. Every now and then though, the post proves to be legit (and if that’s the case I always share it).

Political posts

These are too numerous to count. But they usually defame a politician or purport that a piece of legislation will have disastrous effects.

Search: “(person)”+”(action committed)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” OR “(legislation)”+”(disastrous effect)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” — I particularly suggest Snopes or Politifact because they tend to be unbiased. When it comes to politics, I don’t trust other sites to have the commitment to pure fact that these sites have shown themselves to have.

Result: 9 times out of 10, these are either outright lies or half-truths. It’s good to get the whole story before passing judgement.

Evil companies

Much like the political posts, these tend to defame a company, corporation, or CEO.

Search: “(person/organization/company)”+”(action committed)” — sometimes I will add “Snopes” too, if I’m unsatisfied with the results my original search gets.

Results: This one is usually more of a mixed bag. Oftentimes there seems to be more half-truths or truths than outright lies, but still, it’s always good to get the full story.

Unwitting victims

The Internet is full of lies — some harmless, some not. Don’t risk it and be a victim, and don’t make your friends unwitting victims either. Always look into an issue or story before you share it.