BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Not being in on a joke sucks. But you know what sucks worse? Listening to someone try to explain that joke.
Recently, Facebook made the decision to test out a “Satire” tag, for links to fake news stories, namely from The Onion. Facebook started the test after hearing a number of users complain that they couldn’t tell the difference between real news stories and parody ones. The Onion isn’t the only culprit in this, but they are certainly the most notable.
With the launch of their offshoot Clickhole, designed not only to provide the Internet with satire, but to satirize the Internet itself, they hold a uniquely dominant place on the web. The Midwest-based publication, which started out in print, has become the gold standard for satirical journalism sites—and it’s probably fair to say that together with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, The Onion has changed the way we think about news media.
And now, Facebook wants to kill all of that. Or at least put a disclaimer on it.
It’s not clear when the battle for satire and sarcasm on the Internet began, but the existence of this conflict is undeniable. Obviously, there have always been those who failed to “get” certain jokes, long before the inception of the Internet. But the Internet does seem to have amplified this problem—at least for some. Facebook’s own community, "I hate when you use sarcasm on the internet and they take it seriously," entitled with an almost ironic earnestness, is demonstrative of just that. Another great example is the website, Literally Unbelievable, which is devoted entirely to pulling users’ mistaken interpretation of Onion articles off Facebook (and which could sadly end up being a casualty of the ensuing Satire tag).
That some people need to be told how this kind of humor works as a parent explains common information to a child seems innately ridiculous, however, shots had already been fired before Facebook got involved. In June, it was reported that the Secret Service had developed software that could detect Internet sarcasm; apparently, the Secret Service can’t trust their powers of observation where sarcasm is involved either and need technology to do it for them.
But the conversation around Internet satire specifically is a little more complicated. Facebook was criticized in May for their news algorithm, after a real story about Michelle Obama was linked to several less than reputable pieces about the First Lady in the “related articles” section.
The problem with blaming sites like The Onion for this is that the they have no stake in the matter. This whole issue is about the Facebook algorithm, and on top of that, the people who are misinformed enough to believe everything they read. The Onion isn’t there to confuse its readers. People do that all on their own.
Yet this only further illustrates how the confusion towards The Onion is more reflective of the society around it than of the website itself. The Onion runs their headlines with a straight face, which only heightens the lunacy therein. Once you get to the actual meat of the articles, this lunacy becomes even more heightened, to the point where any rational individual would automatically become skeptical of it, whether they knew what The Onion was or not.
That logic doesn’t necessarily apply to other countries, where humor sensibilities are often very different, but in those cases, a different kind of mirror is being held up. When an Onion story is taken as fact in China, it not only says volumes about what China thinks of America, but about the kind of media America is putting out into the world. In the end, the biggest accomplishment of The Onion may be its prowess in showing how all journalism is, to an extent, more about how we interpret events, rather than the events themselves.
All of this comes dangerously close to “explaining” the joke of The Onion, so it’s appropriate to note that the major loss here is about the purity of great satire. Reacting to the Satire tag news Luke O’Neil at Boston.com asks, “Maybe we just can’t be trusted with satire anymore?” He continues, “We’ve become too politically polarized, and too ready to share nonsense that conforms to our pre-established biases.”
For O'Neill, a “glut of sites hoping to capitalize specifically on readers’ gullibility” have increased that polarization, while devaluing the art of satire altogether. Basically, he asserts that The Onion isn’t the problem; The Onion wannabes are, because it’s those sites that do just want to confuse people.
The implementation of the Satire tag isn’t about weeding out good satire from bad satire though. It’s about appealing to the lowest common denominator. And the truth is, a few lesser sites are worth it if The Onion can maintain their place as a cultural institution. This is an organization who was hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army. The power to elicit that kind of a response is a rare thing in comedy, or in anything, for that matter. The idea behind Facebook’s Satire tag is to take that power away.
It’s unfortunate to see idiots interpret fake stories about Michelle Obama as real, but once again, this is a comment on the confusion of the user. And The Onion shouldn’t be forced to dumb down so these people can get onboard too, when they probably wouldn’t want to get onboard anyway. Once again, that The Onion presents its content with an asterisk next to it is key to the whole operation. Great satire isn’t about winking, it’s about eye contact. It’s about looking you straight in the face, and daring you not to recognize the craziness of the world around you.
The Onion is kind of like that person at the party who, when Harry Potter gets brought up, says, “I don’t know that guy, who is he?” without skipping a beat. This person assumes you will get the joke, because they respect your intelligence. If you don’t get the joke, that’s on you. Sometimes, such sharp wit makes this person kind of a jerk; after all, this person is keenly aware of how smart they are. But just because this person can occasionally act like a jerk doesn’t mean they’re not worth having around. This person points out the absurdity of everyday life, and in doing so, makes you all the more aware of how important it is to recognize the reality of this absurdity.
If The Onion’s brilliant response to the Facebook Satire tag is any indication, they’ve still got a long way to go before they lose their edge. But that doesn’t make Facebook’s decision to appeal to basic stupidity any less infuriating. The best way to think about this is to equate it to drug companies who put "May Cause Drowsiness" on sleeping pills. If this warning surprises you, you might want to consider whether you should be buying pills in the first place. Similarly, if the news that President Obama ran over Jimmy Carter with his car surprises you, you might want consider whether you should be on the Internet in the first place.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.