The Gray Area Between 1st & 2nd Degree
Rise of social media, Internet’s omnipresence, fast and continuous sophistication of mobile devices… Even though we heard the old saying of “technology being such a life changer” so many times, it’s hard to deny that, in this day and age, this is truer than it’s ever been.
Trump’s victory at the last election serves as a great demonstration of that. Firstly, never has a president tweeted that much, despite his team’s repeated attempts to convince him to stop. Secondly, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Moscow used hackers to trick the election. Finally, since Facebook has become a popular platform for publishing news stories, there were a lot of discussions (we took part) about the influence fake news (generally pro-Trump and anti-Clinton) might have had on the election result.
However, there is another principle – which has to do with technology, but also communication at large – that Trump’s ascension reveals: Poe’s law. Articulated by Nathan Poe during an online debate about Creationism, it can be summarized as such: on the Internet, it is very hard (perhaps impossible) to parody extremism without having at least some extremists believing that the parody is a serious expression of extremism (which they then support).
When that law is at work, it tends to create a lot of confusion. For instance, during the Name Our Ship initiative launched in Great Britain, how many British respondents were serious when they massively voted for the name “Boaty McBoatface”? How many saw their entry as a joke, an attempt at irony? When the Cincinnati zoo killed Harambe the gorilla after a child had fallen into its enclosure, how many of the memes that followed were actual expressions of grief? How many were just gags mocking the amount of media attention that the primate’s death received? When a very epic video (literally edited like a video game trailer) glorifying Trump abundantly was released in the Internet arena, people asked: is it a flagrant parody? A sincere tribute? Many (including Trump) believed this last theory. Were they right? One can only guess.
All of this to say that, when a given opinion is expressed through parody in a highly polarized debate, Internet users see what they understand, and they’re far from all perceiving the same thing. As a matter of fact, after the election, when the debate around fake news was in full swing, many people denounced this clear resemblance between news stories dubbed “legitimate” and satirical parodies. According to several observers, their similarity is that much more flagrant when both are displayed in social media such as Facebook with equal weight. These critics ask – and it’s a valid question – whether these pro-Trump fake news can actually be considered parodies (as their authors claim). Are they not deliberate, calculated, dangerous forms of propaganda?
Given the existence of Poe’s law, even the most exaggerated parody risks being interpreted as a serious article by an alt-right extremist. After all, do we not tend to read articles that reinforce our existing convictions? This fake information, this so-called joke will still be disseminated on the Internet and might very well end up in the hateful (and serious) speech on an American neo-Nazi.
In that light, it would be fair to say that it’s not really relevant to ask yourself whether a post is a parody or a legit opinion. An article that is created as a parody may have the same harmful effects as deliberate propaganda, since, at the core, there isn’t much of a difference between the two. Ask the staff of Washington’s very own Comet Ping Pong, a restaurant that a satirist – in a parody, of course – described as an accomplice in a child prostitution ring implicating Clinton and Obama. After this fake news story took viral proportions (#pizzagate), the pizza place received the visit of a man carrying an assault rifle, who opened fire. I bet they laughed a great deal at that funny joke that went around the Internet.
What do the authors of such writings have to say when they’re exposed to the potentially damaging effects of their creations? Robert Winland, one of them, describes his work by saying: “Now it has become what I consider a social experiment. An experiment to see how far the stories can go, how crazy they can get and still get people to share them.” As for Mike Horner, another self-proclaimed satirist, he says it’s just humour, nothing more than satirical comedy.
“It’s only a joke”, “I was just trolling”, “oh, but it’s a parody”: that’s the kind of answers the alt-right tends to use as a defence when they’re accused of lacking basic ethics. By responding such things, do they think (like Paul Ryan) that people – Trump supporters, more specifically – are able to tell the difference between parody and reality? Or is it just a way to go back on their word when they see their (often hateful) remark proved unpopular? Or else, is something even more insidious at work?
That’s when things get tricky. Nowadays, the practice of trolling – starting fights online (in a forum, on social media) just for the hell of it, without any intention other than to provoke people – has become a widespread phenomenon. Consequently, numerous blogs and websites create helpful guides full of tips to help Internet users handle this type of online harassment. These guides do not offer exactly the same content, but the majority of them have one piece of advice in common: ignore these mean pranksters. Don’t pay attention to their bad jokes. Dismiss them. We have been trained to let out an exasperated sigh upon meeting a troll, and then keep scrolling down.
But think about it. Simply dismissing an extremist post (whether it’s racist, misogynistic, sensationalist, anti-Semite, Islamophobic, full of flat-out lies, etc.) does not make it disappear. It will keep circulating and – given Poe’s law – it will be understood differently by different people, with various allegiances. Aja Romano from Vox magazine explains it very well. She uses the example of an extremist who would create a photo of Hillary Clinton being chased by rabid wolves using Photoshop. Upon seeing this, a liberal might react by saying such picture is both alarming and sexist. The extremist would then tell the liberal that he fell for it, because this picture’s aim was to stir liberal hysteria and to mock the exaggerated image that the media give to the way the alt-right treats women, Clinton more specifically.
This extremist would then tell the liberal that this kind of reaction was precisely the one he sought to provoke, which proves that liberals are indeed crybabies who complain about trivial or non-existent issues. The liberal might then feel humiliated and would choose to ignore such memes in the future. Maybe he’d go as far as encouraging other people to ignore them too, saying these posts mock the liberal tendency to take trolls seriously.
All the while, that post of Clinton being chased by wolves keeps circulating and promoting violence towards women and hate towards Clinton, which, of course, was the extremist’s goal all along.
So by hiding behind their so-called comedy and by humiliating liberals in the process, extremists manage to spread their bigoted ideas without too much hassle. Moreover, even if certain liberals grasp the mechanics explained by Romano’s example, won’t they try to it to point it out loudly and emphatically, thus contributing to the amplification of that hateful message? There’s no such thing as bad publicity, they say.
It’s even worth asking whether there are secret Trump supporters among the citizens who claim to be liberal. After the entirety of American surveys lamentably failed to predict the election result, the post mortem that ensued revealed that lots of people who voted for Trump hid their allegiance prior to the election, because they were concerned about social desirability. Is it not possible that these same individuals could have shared a hateful post, claiming it was “just a joke”? Could they not be part of those people who use so-called comedy as a screen to hide their intolerant ideas?
So here we are, facing a tricky communication problem. The alt-right found a strategy to spread hate; how can we stop it? Should we stop using parody as an editorial tool? Or make sure that tonality is always at the forefront when creating a parody? Or should we just deal with the potential amplification that comes with denouncing falsehoods, in the name of a more balanced debate?
The quest for solutions has begun.