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Saturday 20 July 2013

Satire and the Internet

Ed Snowden is one of the great heroes of our time. Or maybe he’s one of the great villains. But despite the range of views on the subject, few people doubt that the government secrets he’s released are indeed true. That’s if, like me, you get your facts from old-fashioned “reputable sources” like the BBC and the Guardian. But there’s a whole generation now who get their news from Facebook shares and similar social media. And for them, Ed Snowden is one of the great clowns of our time.

On 5 July, Snowden revealed the truth about UFOs: “There is a species more intelligent than homo sapiens living in the mantle of the Earth. It makes sense, if you think about it, because that is the only place where conditions have been more or less stable for billions of years... The president receives daily briefings about their activities. Analysts believe their technology to be so far advanced that we stand little chance of survival in any potential war. The general sentiment is that we are but ants from their perspective.”

On 10 July, Snowden “released documents... proving that the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP, is definitively engaged in a program of assassination and mind control.” The following day, 11 July, Snowden uncovered “the shocking truth behind Chemtrails” (HAARP and Chemtrails have been mainstays of hardcore conspiracy theory for the last two decades, although they’re not particularly well known to the public at large).

On 16 July Snowden revealed the existence of “a fleet of undercover prototype cars equipped with long-range neuroimaging sensors” that “carve carefully planned routes through urban and suburban centers, collecting detailed brain scans of sleeping citizens” in order to “determine whether your dreams indicate a subversive mindset”. This may sound like something out of a novel by Philip K. Dick, but it’s pretty mild compared with “Snowden’s greatest leak” that came a few days earlier (12 July): “God, according to documents released by Snowden, is a mechanic living in Cuthbert Georgia who goes by the name of Wilbur Mercer... Snowden quickly determined that our universe exists inside of a video game system which is owned and used by Mr. Mercer.”

Wilbur Mercer, of course, is the name of a character in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and the image of “Wilbur Mercer” accompanying the article is in fact a photograph of Dick himself. Although many people will have encountered these Ed Snowden stories via second or third order Facebook shares, they are all ultimately derived (as you can see from my links) from the Internet Chronicle – which is one of a number of popular websites devoted to satire.

Satire has been around since ancient times, and for most of its history people never had much trouble recognizing it for what it is. Partly this is a self-selection effect. The only people who would have been exposed to satire—which after all is essentially a branch of literature—would have been relatively sophisticated, educated individuals who knew what they were letting themselves in for. But the rise of the internet and social media has seen a sudden democratization of the written word. I suspect that many Facebook users don’t even have the word “satire” in their vocabulary, any more than other literary terms like “semicolon” or “metaphor”. Everyone understands what humour and fiction are, so there’s no problem with works of satire that obviously fall in one or both these categories. The trouble starts when you get on to the kind of deadpan satire in which the humorous content is subtle and the fiction is presented as fact.

The phenomenon actually goes back to before the days of the internet. Last year I did a post about Ronald Knox’s First Radio Hoax, way back in 1926. It seems clear to me that Knox never thought of his broadcast as a hoax at all, but as a piece of outrageous satire. He simply overestimated the intellectual sophistication of certain segments of the listening public (not to mention the media).

One of the newsfeeds I follow avidly is “New Urban Legends” from As they repeatedly emphasize, “no satire can be so obvious that someone won’t take it literally”. Scarcely a week goes by without some pretty far-fetched story being debunked with the information that (a) it originated on a website that specializes in satirical content, and (b) it was subsequently “circulated via social media, with many of those who encountered the item mistaking it for a genuine news article”.

The great majority of the satirical pieces that go viral on social media revolve around the perennially dull subject (for us non-Americans) of U.S. politics. That’s even true of the Ed Snowden stories mentioned above, despite their superficial veneer of coolness (e.g. UFOs). But I came across one notable exception a few days ago: “Bow Valley flooding exposes rotting carcass of a Sasquatch. Legendary Cryptid believed to be a surviving Gigantopithecus”. The article comes complete with a photograph and some quotes by credible-sounding experts. One of these is named as “Coren Lowman” – a play on “Loren Coleman” that will sound warning bells for cryptozoological insiders, but probably won’t register with the casual reader.

Sadly, the whole thing is spoiled by the disclaimer at the bottom of the piece: “The above article is SATIRE. This article is provided as humour and any article, image or photograph held out as news is satirical and faux in nature and does not reflect the actions, statements or event of real persons.” Even so, I saw the item linked as “real news” a couple of times on Facebook. Perhaps the most worrying thing about the article is that it actually sounds more credible—with a better understanding of zoology and natural history—than most of the Bigfoot-related news items I’ve seen on the web this year!

1 comment:

Ross said...

The satirical pieces on Snowden aim to imply that anyone who raises alarms about government intrusion into privacy must be a "paranoid" lunatic. Let's all have a hearty laugh...and continue to surrender our rights to the psychopaths in power.