Did you hear the one about the racist NRA president? You probably did if you've been on Facebook or Twitter in the last forty-eight hours. A widely shared article from the website the Free Wood Post headlined, “NRA President Jim Porter: ‘It’s Only A Matter Of Time Before We Can Own Colored People Again,’” has been making the rounds (44,490 shares and 66,000 likes on Facebook), and rightfully so. It's an inflammatory, attention-grabbing hook that plays right into the stereotype liberals have about the people who join the NRA. The only problem here is it's obviously fake, which anyone who spent more than thirty seconds reading the article should have surmised. Even worse, the obvious fakery, so easily forgotten once you get the not-so-subtle gag, has gotten much more attention than the actually creepy things that Porter has really said about the Civil War.
“People on the Internet Are Gullible!” would probably be a much less successful headline, and this wouldn't even be worthy of mentioning if it didn't happen so often. The satire site The Daily Currant, has been pulling the same bait and switch over the past year to a similarly facepalming effect: Remember the bit about Todd Akin suggesting that breast milk could cure homosexuality? And then there's Literally Unbelievable, the Tumblr that pulls together incredibly credulous reactions to The Onion stories as if they were real. It's not just average people falling for those stories either; the list of actual news gathering organizations throughout the world being played for suckers is genuinely embarrassing. The Drudge Report galumphed its way into the media news last week, making its top link a Daily Currant story about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg being denied a second slice of pizza at a restaurant. Back in February, The Washington Post picked up another Currant yarn about Sarah Palin joining Al Jazeera America.
The frighteningly successful Andy Borowitz regularly finds his satire pieces among the most shared on The New Yorker's website as well, with many people passing them off as actual news, which would be an insult to the idea of news if it wasn't already such an insult to comedy—dude makes Dave Barry look like Lenny Bruce.
Setting aside the fact that most of these pieces are painfully unfunny, the equivalent of an April Fool's joke writ large—Hey guess what you guys I'm pregnant! You are, wow? No, just kidding! <"Price Is Right" losing horn>—their proliferation could do actual damage to political discourse and the media in general. Granted, those noble traditions are on life support as is; still, satire is supposed to shed light on important truths that are hard to swallow (which is what The Onion, unlike its knockoffs, typically manages to do). Juicing an already true-enough premise with more unbelievability simply adds to the informational noise pollution—without even the expected payoff of a laugh.
Daniel Barkeley, the founder of The Daily Currant, explained the thinking behind his site to Slate recently. “We write articles that seem more real than articles you might see in the The Onion,” he said, comparing his site to the mockumentary style of shows like "The Office." “It’s funnier that way, and we think it’s more intelligent that way. So I guess a byproduct of that is that you end up with parodies that people think are true."
That's an important point about why so many people fall for these sorts of jokes. It's not only because we think these things are true; it's also because we want to believe that they are true. It’s why conservatives go to Fox News, liberals to MSNBC, and libertarians spoon with a copy of Atlas Shrugged in bed at night. In the case of Jim Porter, the NRA president, it fits squarely into a pre-existing belief that the Evil Right from the South would actually be looking forward to a time when slavery was legal again. Satire is at its best when it takes a lie and makes it seem true, not when it takes a truth and twists it into a lie.
The Porter post seems to be offline at the moment, although a link on the Free Word Post front page remains, but take a look at what he supposedly said: “I’m very proud to be taking the lead here at the NRA. We need to really buckle down and strap on our best arguments to defend what is our God-given rights. No more northern folk tryin’ take away what is rightfully ours. I will not stand by and let some liberal-elitists try to ruin what has made this country great, especially a liberal of, you know, a different breed.”
The problem there is that the post is overcompensating for the very real, also very horrifying things he actually has said. Take this recent piece from The New Yorker, “The NRA's Challenge to America”, which digs into Porter's insane-enough-as-it-is paranoid view of the ever-impending government takeover. (It has a meager 363 Facebook shares.) Porter, who actually does refer to the Civil War as “the war of northern aggression”, does not need to be parodied: Some people are beyond parody. Turning him into a joke deflates the very real threat that people like him represent, and it seems likely to me that everyone who fell for this Free Wood Post bit—and there are a lot of them—is going to be less likely to take news about him, or someone like him, seriously next time it pops up in their news feed. It's the boy-who-cried-slave-owner syndrome.
We hear a lot lately about how social media is shifting the balance of power in journalism. But, as we saw in the Boston Marathon bombing fall out, the average citizen isn't ready to bear the burden of verification that comes with the job description—hell, the average journalist isn't. So how can we fix this? Here's a start: If everyone you know is sharing an article from a website you've never heard of before, it's probably a pretty safe bet that it's fake. Sharing an obviously satirical piece into your news feed does a very real disservice to the people reading it, and every tweet and like further muddies the waters of what's real or not to the point where the actual stories we should be paying attention to get buried under an avalanche of nothingness.
Luke O'Neil is a freelance journalist in Boston. His work appears in Esquire, the Boston Globe, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, Vice and others. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.