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Learn to Take a Joke: When Satire Becomes Disinformation

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Today I was checking my Facebook page and saw a friend linking to an article* regarding statements made by the father of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, asserting that atheists should be kept in "camps." My friend was incredulous. Other friends of his posted outraged comments in response. I checked the link, read the article, and judging from the ludicrous content ("...if they step one foot outside the electrified fence we shoot them between the eyes. Two or three times, just to be sure"), I assumed it to be satire. The fact that I didn't recognize the site as a reputable news source, and could not verify the story on any sites that were more established, reinforced that belief. It was a cute piece. Not funny enough to be in The Onion (even though The Onion isn't what it used to be), but topical and humorous.

My friend is a very intelligent man, and I hope he did not feel like I was being condescending when I pointed out that the story was almost certainly a joke, and that in this media saturated age, we all need to be a bit more careful about checking sources and using critical thinking before believing and reposting articles. I'm not sure how he felt. He didn't respond to my last post.

Maybe he felt embarrassed. I know I would have, but admittedly I am more neurotic than most. Perhaps he didn't read the whole article. I find with most of these pieces that they begin plausibly and escalate into absurdity.

The thing is that all too often I see people posting links to articles that were clearly written as satire, but accepting them as fact, and passing them off as such. More often than not, they tend to be political in nature, like the outrageous statements attributed to Senator Cruz' father (Sarah Palin appears to be another favorite target, with the "Jesus celebrated Easter" story, famously re-tweeted by Piers Morgan, being a notable example), and I have observed that people tend to be suckered in by pieces that jibe with their political inclinations and provide ammunition for their own arguments. People are simply less apt to scrutinize and discredit things with which they agree.

What is more interesting is that I have noticed that people getting called out (usually by someone posting a link to snopes.com, that famous "debunking" site which has yet to be debunked, as far as I know) tend to shrug it off. On one more than one occasion I have seen the poster of the dubious piece defend doing so because it "sounded like" it could be true. This is not exactly a "eureka" moment," with a realization that we habitually inundate ourselves with unreliable information and view it with an uncritical eye. There is no understanding that we discredit our own positions when we habitually cite faulty sources.

I understand that there is so much information around us that it has become difficult to sift through all of it, but that does not make it less important to do so. One can argue that the news has become stranger than fiction, and I agree that many public figures seem to be becoming increasingly cartoonish. However, if we cannot discern satire from news, that is a huge problem. The purpose of satire is to get people to think more, or to think differently. Now, all too often satire is becoming disinformation by being passed on, skipping that whole "thinking" thing.

*For those who are interested the article in question can be found here: http://www.newslo.com/ted-cruzs-father-suggests-placing-atheists-in-camps/