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For those who didn't realize the Onion is a satirical paper and might have wondered if it were serious about Jong-un, there were clues. The Onion noted that its previous sexiest men included Bashar al-Assad, Bernie Madoff, and Ted Kaczynski. But the People's Daily ignored the hints, and exposed Jong-un to ever more ridicule than he'd have sustained from the Onion piece alone. Satire on the Web had claimed another innocent victim.
The Daily Currant, an online satirical newspaper, disclosed in September Michele Bachmann's concerns that falafel was a gateway food to terrorism. "It starts with falafel, then the kids move on to shawarma," the Currant quoted the Minnesota congressperson. "After a while they say 'hey this tastes good, I wonder what else comes from Arabia?'. . . Before you know it our children are listening to Muslim music, reading the Koran, and plotting attacks against the homeland."
Come on—would Bachmann say something like that about falafel? Hummus, maybe. But many in the Twitterverse were soon excoriating her. "This kind of ignorant mentality is in our Nation's Congress?" one tweeter said.
Last month, the Currant reported that Sarah Palin had announced she was running for President in 2014. "She is a bigger moron than I thought," a trusting Currant reader commented.
I am personally familiar with this growing problem. In October, I wrote that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, "fed up with criticism of segregation in Chicago," had announced that he was sponsoring a "Race to Diversity" contest: the first Chicago neighborhood to desegregate itself would receive a $10,000 prize.
I assumed readers would realize that a desegregating contest was a spoof. But to be safe, I threw in a few other tells. I said the mayor had considered moving to Englewood to personally challenge segregation, and that he'd told his aides he was willing to live there "as long as it takes—a week, ten days." That idea was ultimately nixed, I said—and I "quoted" the mayor as saying, at a City Hall news conference, "I lifted myself up from affluence to greater affluence, so I think Englewood residents can lift themselves up." At the "news conference" I said he also named American Apartheid, Douglas Massey's study of U.S. segregation, as "next year's One Book, Two Chicagos selection." Two Chicagos—get it?
The piece went viral. From the tweets I saw, it was clear that some readers appreciated it as a parody. But others blasted Emanuel's bigotry, with many tweeting the "affluence to greater affluence" line. It seemed obvious that many tweeters had skimmed the post and that others hadn't read it at all—they'd just retweeted someone else's credulous tweet. I also suspected that several of those who denounced the mayor and tweeted the "affluence to greater affluence" line realized the post was satire but found it useful to quote it as if it weren't.
The mayor didn't deserve to be branded a bigot for comments he never made, and I felt guilty, and sorry for him. I'd have felt guiltier and sorrier if not for his own penchant for, um, satire. The day before my post was published, Emanuel was interviewed by Carol Marin on Chicago Tonight. Marin asked the mayor about rumors that Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was on his way out. Emanuel called that idea the "rumor du jour." As Marin wrote later in the Sun-Times, one jour later, Brizard was history. Emanuel already had Brizard's resignation, and had picked his successor, when he talked with Marin. "Rumor du jour" must have been a joke of Emanuel's that we all didn't get.
As long as there's been satire, there have been people mistakenly believing it. But with the Internet, this has become a pervasive and toxic problem. The demands of tweeting leave too little time to read beyond the headline and opening sentence of a piece begging to be tweeted, let alone read the whole thing closely. One result of this—the epidemic of misconstrued satire—is the wounding of blameless politicians, and something must be done.
In the wake of the Kim Jong-un affair, Richard Hornik, a journalism lecturer at Stony Brook University, told a CNN columnist that new social media "have made all of us publishers," and therefore "all responsible citizens should verify information before they publish, forward, 'like' or retweet it."
That's a nice concept, but unlikely to happen. Stronger measures are called for.
A law could be enacted requiring clearer labeling of satire. But this law would be broken often, since labeling tends to dilute a spoof: (PRANK COMING!) "Kim Jong-un has been named the Sexiest Man Alive for 2012." (WE'RE KIDDING! HAVE YOU SEEN THE DUDE?)
No, satire must be banned completely from the Internet. This might not be so great a loss, since satire is so Juvenal. Persons convicted of committing satire on the Web would be fined $25 for the first transgression. For subsequent offenses, they'd be stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and eaten in a fricassee or ragout. For though satire is often tasteless, I'm told that satirists themselves are a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food—almost as good as falafel, and less dangerous.