From people setting fire to 5G network towers, to those who believe bleach is the ultimate antidote to COVID-19, to those who thought a dinosaur was seen in Indonesia (only to find out it was a robot to promote a theme park), 2020 was a year marred with misinformation. Even the United Nations classified the “infodemic” as an enemy akin to the pandemic that has overturned our lives.
But on the other side of the page is a different kind of “fake” news—one that is attempting to defuse the darkness of our times with humour, satire and exaggeration.
The notion that stupidity can be combated with satire is hardly new, but in in 1996, The Onion brought that fight to the internet. Since then, hundreds of websites and social media pages have similarly employed satire to express dissatisfaction, poke fun at powerful political figures, challenge the status quo, or simply elicit a laugh amidst all the doomscrolling. Some of the pages even mimic IRL media pages (obviously VICE has been ripe for parody), many writing in ways that imitate the very media they parody.
“I started a satire news website in 2012 because I felt like the straighter opinion or analysis writing that I was doing wasn’t doing justice to the bat-shit craziness of what politics and the world in general was becoming,” James Schloeffel, the founder of Australian parody website The Shovel told VICE.
For Schloeffel, satire was an effective way to point out hypocrisies using humour, all in the concise space of a headline. His piece titled “Mark Zuckerberg – Dead At 36 – Says Social Media Sites Should Not Be Fact Checked” went viral on Facebook last May, after Zuckerberg claimed that social media pages shouldn’t play “arbiters of truth.” In fact, this viral moment exemplifies exactly how “misinformation” in the form of parody news can be used to address the larger issue of disinformation — which refers to misleading information that deliberately seeks to deceive.
While the content on these pages seeks to be deliberately outlandish, these parody news pages mimic the web design, fonts and formats of authentic news sources, and even use stock imagery similar to a news website’s representational images. This aesthetic, satirical news creators argue, is usually accompanied by a finely stamped disclaimer to establish the intent of a parody news page.
These pages attract hundreds of thousands of followers, but many are careful about not monetising their model, and just sticking to merchandise as their main source of profit.
While some creators are lucky to get away with their absurdist jokes, the lack of understanding around satirical news on the internet has also led to some pages and posts being reported for spreading false information.
“While we haven’t been reported for fake news, Instagram has taken down one of our posts for ‘violating community guidelines’,” the founder of Indian satire news page Dhakkan Chronicle told VICE, requesting anonymity. The post in question was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hindu extremists in India targeting members of the religious community they believed were being anti-Hindu by indulging in practices like going to church. “A lot of our political content, especially the kind that challenges the right-wing, does get reported or the post’s reach is noticeably reduced,” the admin admitted.
Meanwhile, Salva Mubarak, the founder of New Delhi-based Bollywood parody magazine Rayon, admitted that after she made a post referring to a Bollywood celebrity, the celebrity’s team reached out to her asking her to take it down.
But even as social media platforms try to crack down on fake news with fact-checking algorithms and shadow bans, the impacts of misinformation have already penetrated our society so deeply, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell what is fake and what is satire. Sometimes even for the creators themselves.
“2020 was a year consisting of objectively absurd events, and a year in which reality seemed to be churning out funnier satirical news pieces than we could ever hope to,” Mehershad, the founder of parody page The Kanda, an Indian interpretation of The Onion, told VICE. Mehershad, who only revealed his first name, explained that while an increasing amount of real news stories now resemble the absurdity of satirical or comedic headlines, the overwhelming volume of information, misinformation and disinformation bombarded onto us could push consumers into accepting most news stories as true.
Pratik Sinha, a journalist and co-founder of fact checking website AltNews pointed out that in the age of misinformation, satire can also be misused as a way to justify an individual’s attempt to deliberately misinform the public. “There’s a big fat line between a good joke and being irresponsible,” he told VICE. “Satire can be funny and important, but I believe everybody has to mould to the present societal cultural situation. The internet is now accessible to a wide range of people, who have spent years regarding the printed word as sacrosanct, and so may not have the digital literacy to understand when something is satirical.” Sinha gave an example of a case where a satirical morphed tweet attributed to an Indian journalist named Rana Ayyub led to her being trolled at a personal level. “Some pages use satire as an attempt to be safe from a legal point of view to spread propaganda by adding a tiny disclaimer.”
In 2019, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was accused of using satire as a front for fake news through websites like The Fauxy that challenged “liberal” views and the “wrong narratives they propagate”. In other instances, satirical news websites have been known to cross the line, with The Onion having to apologise for a controversial post in 2013 that offensively categorised a nine-year-old actor.
While fact checkers like Sinha feel satire pages must take on the responsibility of ensuring their content does not have a negative impact, creators argue that this is especially hard to do in today’s polarised atmosphere.
“The media literacy problem is huge [throughout the world], and there are always going to be people who misunderstand our content, because they also misunderstand 90 percent of the rest of the content they consume in a day,” argued Sarah Pappalardo, the founder and editor of the American women-centric satire website Reductress, which has built a following of more than 500,000 people. “We do our best not to add to that noise, but sometimes it cannot be helped.” Pappalardo cited an example of a piece they wrote four years ago titled "If Trump Wins, I'm Moving to Alaska", after which several people jumped to explain to them that Alaska was part of the U.S. itself. “This tends to be the case whenever conservative readers read our site,” they said, adding that the polarised structure of the internet means viewers who disagree with Reductress tend to interpret satire as disinformation and use it to put themselves on a pedestal.
While they agree that distinguishing between fake news and satire has emerged as an issue, Pappalardo also maintains that to put out good satire, it’s important to evaluate the most absurd scenario by asking what the most heightened version of the truth could be. For others, adding a simple hashtag or statement in their bios that purposefully declares their satirical nature has become an important caveat.
“Drawing the boundary between satire and reality has become difficult over the last year, but it’s also made us more responsible as content creators,” Mubarak told VICE. While Mubarak started her magazine in 2018 with the intention of humourising a culture that puts celebrities on a pedestal, the crackdown against satirical creators like her in India has pushed her to not only be mindful about her content, but also put out stories that address political issues. “Especially as a Muslim woman in India, I feel the need to be extra careful and vigilant, but in doing so, it has also made me more empathetic with the opinions I put out,” she told VICE.
For many parody news admins, what started as a way to express themselves creatively in a humorous way has evolved into addressing deeper systemic issues through sarcastic quips and absurdist headlines.
“I believe that news satire should clearly come with the greater purpose of constructive criticism, or to draw attention to wider issues plaguing our society,” said the founder of Dhakkan Chronicle. For this founder, starting a parody news page was a way to vent out their frustrations about the sociopolitical scenario in 2020 rather than an urge for creative expression. The Dhakkan Chronicle’s most viral moment was when they posted a picture of Indian actor Rhea Chakraborty, who became the subject of an invasive witch hunt after her boyfriend and actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide, being hounded by the media. They captioned it: “Brave Indian journalists risk coronavirus to ask Nirmal Sitaraman [India’s finance minister] about the failing economy.” This single post addressed the issue of how Chakraborty was used by the media as a scapegoat to divert from issues like the economic crisis.
“Good satire ridicules fundamental truths or vices for comedic and ironic purposes,” agreed Mehershad. “Which is why, good satire cannot possibly be misconstrued as fake news, and in particular, as the kind of fake news that aims to maliciously misinform.”
For many such creators, navigating the murky waters of the age of misinformation hasn’t been easy. But ultimately, as they all point out, the main differentiating factor between fake news and parody news is always intent. “Fake news tries to trick people into believing something that isn’t real, whereas satire tries to give people a different understanding or perspective of something that is real,” said Schloeffel. “It might use exaggeration or made-up elements in order to achieve that, but it doesn’t set out to trick people.”