While many Internet readers consider satirical or spoof news articles a "novelty," the genre is hardly new. Over a hundred and forty years ago, a young newspaper reporter for the Virginia City (Nevada) Territorial Enterprise newspaper began earning a name for himself as a satirist by publishing occasional spoof articles.
The reporter, Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain), was eventually obliged to depart from his post in Nevada, and later from another newspaper in San Francisco, because his "hoaxes" were so successful. Then, as now, many readers failed to perceive the satire. It was because of these early experiences, no doubt, that he came to the conclusion that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes," and subsequently embarked on one of the most remarkable writing careers in American history.
Below is an essay Twain wrote in 1882 describing the circumstances surrounding his first satirical article, "The Petrified Man," which appeared in 1862. The issues are so remote as to be almost unrecognizable, but satire writers today can surely empathize with his lamentations about the carefully crafted subtleties, completely missed by most of his readers.
Now, to show how really hard it is to foist a moral or a truth upon an unsuspecting public through a burlesque without entirely and absurdly missing one's mark, I will here set down two experiences of my own in this thing. In the fall of 1862, in Nevada and California, the people got to running wild about extraordinary petrifactions and other natural marvels. One could scarcely pick up a paper without finding in it one or two glorified discoveries of this kind. The mania was becoming a little ridiculous. I was a brand-new local editor in Virginia City, and I felt called upon to destroy this growing evil; we all have our benignant, fatherly moods at one time or another, I suppose. I chose to kill the petrifaction mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire. But maybe it was altogether too delicate, for nobody ever perceived the satire part of it at all. I put my scheme in the shape of the discovery of a remarkably petrified man.
I had had a temporary falling out with Mr.----, the new coroner and justice of the peace of Humboldt, and thought I might as well touch him up a little at the same time and make him ridiculous, and thus combine pleasure with business. So I told, in patient, belief-compelling detail, all about the finding of a petrified-man at Gravelly Ford (exactly a hundred and twenty miles, over a breakneck mountain trail from where---- lived); how all the savants of the immediate neighborhood had been to examine it (it was notorious that there was not a living creature within fifty miles of there, except a few starving Indians; some crippled grasshoppers, and four or five buzzards out of meat and too feeble to get away); how those savants all pronounced the petrified man to have been in a state of complete petrifaction for over ten generations; and then, with a seriousness that I ought to have been ashamed to assume, I stated that as soon as Mr.---- heard the news he summoned a jury, mounted his mule, and posted off, with noble reverence for official imminent starvation, to hold an inquest on this man that had been dead and turned to everlasting stone for more than three hundred years! And then, my hand being "in," so to speak, I went on, with the same unflinching gravity, to state that the jury returned a verdict that deceased came to his death from protracted exposure. This only moved me to higher flights of imagination, and I said that the jury, with that charity so characteristic of pioneers, then dug a grave, and were about to give the petrified man Christian burial, when they found that for ages a limestone sediment had been trickling down the face of the stone against which he was sitting, and this stuff had run under him and cemented miners) canvassed the difficulty a moment, and then got out their powder and fuse, and proceeded to drill a hole under him, in order to blast him from his position, when Mr.----, "with that delicacy so characteristic of him, forbade them, observing that it would be little less than sacrilege to do such a thing."
"I really had no desire to deceive anybody, and no expectation of doing it."
From beginning to end the "Petrified Man" squib was a string of roaring absurdities, albeit they were told with an unfair pretense of truth that even imposed upon me to some extent, and I was in some danger of believing in my own fraud. But I really had no desire to deceive anybody, and no expectation of doing it. I depended on the way the petrified man was sitting to explain to the public that he was a swindle. Yet I purposely mixed that up with other things, hoping to make it obscure--and I did. I would describe the position of one foot, and then say his right thumb was against the side of his nose; then talk about his other foot, and presently come back and say the fingers of his right hand were spread apart; then talk about the back of his head a little, and return and say the left thumb was hooked into the right little finger; then ramble off about something else, and by and by drift back again and remark that the fingers of the left hand were spread like those of the right. But I was too ingenious. I mixed it up rather too much; and so all that description of the attitude, as a key to the humbuggery of the article, was entirely lost, for nobody but me ever discovered and comprehended the peculiar and suggestive position of the petrified man's hands.
As a satire on the petrifaction mania, or anything else, my petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith, and I was stunned to see the creature I had begotten to pull down the wonder-business with, and bring derision upon it, calmly exalted to the grand chief place in the list of the genuine marvels our Nevada had produced. I was so disappointed at the curious miscarriage of my scheme, that at first I was angry, and did not like to think about it; but by and by, when the exchanges began to come in with the Petrified Man copied and guilelessly glorified, I began to feel a soothing secret satisfaction; and as my gentleman's field of travels broadened, and by the exchanges I saw that he steadily and implacably penetrated territory after territory, state after state, and land after land, till he swept the great globe and culminated in sublime and unimpeached legitimacy in the august London Lancet, my cup was full, and I said I was glad I had done it. I think that for about eleven months, as nearly as I can remember, Mr.----'s daily mail-bag continued to be swollen by the addition of half a bushel of newspapers hailing from many climes with the Petrified Man in them, marked around with a prominent belt of ink. I sent them to him. I did it for spite, not for fun.
It had been weeks, weeks, since a news organization was suckered by an obvious piece of satire. We were due for another face plant, and we got it: a hot piece of Breitbart.com clickbait titled “Krugman Files for Bankruptcy.”
David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post.
“Paul Krugman, the economic darling of the left, has filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection,” wrote Larry O’Connor. “Apparently this Keynsian thing doesn’t really work on the micro level.”
It’s actually “Keynesian,” and it doesn’t, but that’s not the point. The point was that O’Connor, like so many before him, had accidentally run with fake news from the Daily Currant. In nine short months, the Web publication has fooled people into thinking Rick Santorum was on Grindr, that Michele Bachmann was going to ban falafel in public schools, and that Sarah Palin had joined Al-Jazeera. The dupe on that last story was Suzi Parker, a contributor to the Washington Post’s She the People blog. “If Parker had a shred of self-awareness, integrity, and dignity,” wrote media watcher John Nolte, “she would have changed the headline to ‘Too Good To Check,’ and under it posted an essay about how shallow, smug, bitterly angry partisanship can blind you to common sense.”
Nolte is an editor at Breitbart.com.
I asked O’Connor and Parker to comment on the most embarrassing mistakes they made all year and help me conduct some media autopsies. To my surprise, they both declined comment. Luckily, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple tracked down the origin of the Krugman story—a sponsored item on the Boston Globe’s website published without any editor’s knowledge or consent. “Prudent Investor,” branching out from his normal work as a Pilgrim’s Progress character, cited “Austria’s Format online mag.” The bogus story, credited to the Daily Currant, was titled “Paul Krugman Is Broke.” English-speakers shrugged and hit “share.”
Why is the Internet so easily fooled by this Satire-Magazin? Daniel Barkeley, the 28-year old who founded the site last summer, has his theories. “We write articles that seem more real than articles you might see in the the Onion,” he says. “If you look at Ricky Gervais’ shows, like The Office, or Armando Iannucci’s shows, like The Thick of It, those are fly-on-the-wall documentaries. That’s the kind of comedy I like—it’s made to look real. 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.”
When Barkeley says “we,” he means himself and one colleague. It’s just two people who keep accidentally hoaxing the media. Barkeley went to the University of Oregon, then moved to Los Angeles, dreaming of a career as a comedy writer. “It was very spur of the moment,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody.” He switched to investment banking, went to school in France, and for his final assignment he designed a business—a satire website. One month later, the site was live. Less than a year later, Barkeley has built a “tight but livable” existence from online ads—a business that gets new attention, every month or so, when someone thinks a piece of satire is real.
New attention, but not necessarily new traffic. “I’m looking at the analytics,” says Barkeley, “and traffic isn’t much higher than it was a few days ago.” The Daily Currant’s faux scoops get shared at basically the same rate whether they spill into the mainstream or not. They’re written in the driest possible prose. A fake source in the Onion eventually starts cursing or otherwise giving up the game. A fake source in the Daily Currant sounds completely earnest. This was about as wacky as the Krugman story got:
“The majority of his debts are related to mortgage financing on a $8.7 million apartment in lower Manhattan, but the list also includes $621,537 in credit card debt and $33,642 in store financing at famed jeweler Tiffanys and Co.
“The filing says that Krugman got into credit card trouble in 2004 after racking up $84,000 in a single month on his American Express black card in pursuit of rare Portuguese wines and 19th century English cloth.”
It’s funny if you realize that Krugman would never buy anything like this. But if you’re inclined to hate the guy, you’ll read the numbers and nod your head. In the harsh words of Gawker’s Max Read, the Daily Currant’s parodies are ‘semi-believable political wish-fulfillment articles distinguished by a commitment to a complete absence of what most people would recognize as ‘jokes.’ ”
And that’s why people share them. Sometimes an article surges on social media because it’s got a scoop that changes minds. The rest of the time, the article rockets around Facebook because it confirms what the reader already thinks and what his friends believe. For one 2011 study, two academics at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles that had made it to the site’s “most shared” list. “Participants were less likely to share the story if they were in the high sadness as opposed to the low sadness condition,” they wrote. “Second, the results were similar for arousal; the high sadness condition evoked less arousal than the low sadness condition. Third, as hypothesized, this decrease in arousal mediated the effect of condition on sharing.”
That’s one theory, but it could explain most of the social Web. You share the picture of Abraham Lincoln next to the inspiring quote because it makes you happy. You share a paean to free speech by a Russian composer—“The Russian state is acting like a dominant male in a group of monkeys!”—because you felt inspired. You share the story about Sarah Palin being stupid because you think Sarah Palin is really stupid and refuse to let the 2008 election end already.
“After the whole Todd Akin thing happened,” says Barkeley, “I put up a story about how he thought breast milk could cure gay people. The Guardian contacted me and wanted to know where the video was. I said ‘No, no, it was a fake.’ But at least they checked, right?”