‘Fake News’ Isn’t The Real Problem – The Lazy Way People Treat News Today Is
Confessions Of a Former ‘Fake News’ Satirist
When I first heard last week that Paul Horner had died, my first thought was of the “I [Heart] Paul Horner” T-shirt he had mailed me once. It was a symbol of our fierce competitiveness. We had fought many battles over the heart and soul of satirical “fake news.” And that T-shirt was a symbol of Paul winning one of those battles.
Back then, Paul and I were writers at National Report, a satirical website that published comical “fake news.” My articles were “Onion-style” stories, like the material Andy Borowitz wrote, except I didn’t clobber you over the head with my jokes (like this April Fool’s joke I ran earlier this year). They were funny if you were smart enough to get the joke, and a bit campy only when I felt I could get away with it. Most importantly, they served as a vessel through which I could deliver opinions on whatever subject I chose to write about that day.
I wanted my fake news articles to be poignant. I wanted readers to go on an adventure with me. The stories seemed like they could be real, but if you paid attention, and if you were smart enough to piece it all together, you knew it wasn’t. It was just a little too absurd to be true. And that’s when the joke hits you, like cheese hidden inside a pizza crust that you never ordered. The nuance and subtlety was critical to the comedy.
Meanwhile, Paul Horner believed fake news should be precisely what the name implies: it should be dishonest. It should dupe people. The humor was in the hoax, and the hoax was the point of the story. Paul wanted to cause a commotion. He wasn’t in it to entertain you, like I was. He was in it to entertain himself, and those of us who were in the know.
Paul Horner and I didn’t get along. We constantly tried to one-up each other, and we were quick to throw our victories in each other’s faces. But in the end, Paul won the war. His brand of satire became the new normal. Me, Andy Borowitz, the staff at The Onion? We were the old way. Paul Horner had the new form of satire. It made more money and got more clicks. And it ultimately killed the fake news industry off entirely, or so I thought.
Did Paul Horner Kill Fake News?
I spent the past few years blaming Paul Horner for the downfall of the news satire industry. Thanks to stories like his, satire was no longer profitable, and more importantly, to me at least, it could no longer find an audience. Or rather, the audience couldn’t find the satire, and only saw “fake news”.
So here’s how satirical “fake news” died: Paul Horner and his ilk would write stories that were hoax-based instead of comedy-based, and they’d label it satire. Readers would pick up the stories, get angry, and complain to Facebook. Facebook got enough of these complaints to declare a fatwa, and began censoring the satire industry until there was nothing left to censor.
And that was that. All of those years of perfecting my craft were for naught. Satire was a dead industry, and Paul Horner? He was public enemy #1, the writing world’s Floyd Mayweather. And it was a title he cherished and wore as a badge of honor.
But I’ve been thinking about this a lot this past week, and I came to realize something: Paul Horner didn’t kill satire. His hoaxes didn’t kill it, either. It was the people reading those fake news stories. Well, the stupid people who read them, anyway. And it was the same batch of the populace that we in both camps of fake news — the satirists and the hoaxers — had been poking fun at all along.
Remember “Don’t Believe Everything You Read”?
Satirical “fake news” had three types of readers. You had the people who got the joke and appreciated it, or were duped, found out it was satire, and got a good laugh out of it. Then you had the people who got the joke, but felt the need to warn everyone that what they were reading was satire, ruining a few bonus levels of humor for the rest of us (seriously, you people were the worst). And then you had the third type. And that type exists not just in the satire world, but literally everywhere.
That third type of reader? They’re the dimwits. The people who couldn’t work out that what they were reading was satire, and got angry about it when they found out they’d been had. The crowd that never seemed to figure out just what the old maxims “don’t believe everything you read” and “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” even meant.
The headline didn’t seem real. The article was published on a website they’d never heard of, loaded to the brim with other headlines that also didn’t seem believable. The story itself didn’t sound plausible and was loaded with clues. And yet still, somehow, this crowd couldn’t work it out. It was posted on Facebook, after all. It must be true, right?
Some of you are probably thinking this third group weren’t to blame. After all, National Report billed itself as “America’s most trusted independent news source.” The site was designed to look like a real news site. The headlines sounded real, and the articles read like real journalists had written them. We didn’t write THIS IS SATIRE! in big bold letters at the start of every article. Surely, you can’t fault some people for falling for it, right?
Satirical Fake News Has Come And Gone, But Dumb-Dumbs Linger On
But since shifting into the real news world in 2015, I’ve concluded that these “third types” exist outside of the satire world. Think I’m wrong? Scroll down to the comments when you’re finished reading this article. Try and count how many people comment on the headline of the story after having very obviously not read the actual story that you’re reading now. Bonus points for the people you think are probably visiting this website for the very first time.
See all of those people? That’s who we’re talking about here.
Those “third types” are everywhere. They’re the people who visit sites like InfoWars or Breitbart and treat their not-even-trying-to-be-funny-fake-news as the gospel. They allow rumors and gossip and “gut feelings” to replace facts and statistics and hard data.
They don’t read the article because in their mind, they don’t need to. They already know what it says. The meat and potatoes of the story? That doesn’t matter. They’ve transcended reading, because reading? That’s for mortal peasants. They have the headline, and that’s all they really need. All of that additional information would just clog them up.
If these “third types” are smart enough to know everything they need to know about a news story without reading anything more than the headline, then surely everyone would be enlightened by their commentary, right? Who wouldn’t want to hear their informed opinions? After all, they’re so informed they don’t even need to bother getting informed anymore!
The Problem Was Never ‘Fake News.’ It was (And Is) The People Reading It
We live in an era of instant gratification. A time when everyone is worried about the news, but they’re too busy and self-obsessed to actually read it. The headline is all that matters today, and the content — hell, even the source — no longer matters.
As a reader, it’s your job to vet your sources of information. It’s your job to make sure stories are coming from trustworthy, reputable sources. You have an obligation to read more than just the headline, and to take the time to process what you’re actually reading. You should buy more newspapers. Spend less time confirming your own biases and more time trying to understand the point of view of those you disagree with, even if you already know they’re not going to change your mind.
If you as a reader do your job, fake news is completely harmless, whether it’s meant to be satirical and funny, or meant to be a hoax, or it’s Russian propaganda meant to sway an election. Your patience and rational thinking disarms the hoax and opens the door to the humor. Or sees the propaganda for what it is. And disinformation sites like InfoWars and Breitbart? If every reader were responsible and did their job, those sorts of sites wouldn’t exist to begin with.
You’ve read this article nearly to its conclusion. You’re not the problem here. The problem is all of those people you’re going to see soon who will comment on the headline without reading the story.
I don’t know how to get through to those “third types.” I really wish I did. It’s no easy thing to tell someone they’re being irresponsible (or something worse), and you can’t really educated adults on much of anything these days, least of all how to be responsible news consumers.
Paul Horner and I never got along. He wasn’t a role model and he wasn’t a friend. But I respected that he was a brilliant writer with a great comedic mind, and our fierce competitiveness made me a better writer, something Paul would never have admitted in reverse.
But his death led me to realize that I’ve been misplacing blame for the fall of the satire industry for the past several years. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s fault. It was those “third types.” And it’s high time that we, as a society, spend a little less time bitching and moaning about “fake news,” and a little more time worrying about people consuming the news more intelligently.
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