The Onion and Snopes

By now, it seems like everyone’s heard about Facebook labeling satire sites. I wish I could say it surprised me, but then I get links to places like Literally Unbelievable, which archives user-submitted occasions where people really believed The Onion and sites like it. It seems as though there’s a consistent theme for the credulous, though: The satire they believe is true almost always asserts whatever would confirm the reader’s fear or anger. I think it’s an important reminder to be skeptical not only about the things you disagree with, but with the things that only further entrench your beliefs. No one has a monopoly on the truth.

It’s enough to me that sites like The Onion and Empire News will tell you “Hey guys, we’re just joking around!” when prompted. Their made up story is there to make people laugh and, maybe, provoke honest critical thinking about the situations they’re satirizing. This is in no way comparable to another problem is social media. I don’t have a single word for it, but I describe it as “satire or intentional misinformation designed to prey upon pre-existing gullibility, anger, or fears in their target audience.” I guess most people just calling it “lying.” I guess I could also call it “Why Snopes exists.” And thank goodness they do. The sheer amount of junk they have to debunk each day must seem overwhelming. And it’s not just religious and political stuff, which might be conflated with propaganda. No, it’s also just flat out stupid stuff. Things that make you question “Why would you make this stuff up?” It’s not selling anything. It’s not promoting a cause. I guess it’s just to see how many people will believe it and repeat it. I have no idea.

And, every now and then, I’ll find a rabbit hole. I’ll find that one person who not only repeats things without due diligence, but defends it if you try to show it’s false. “Anyone can edit Wikipedia.” “Snopes is biased!” “Every fact checker site is biased!” I’m not saying that bias doesn’t exist, even in the sources I listed. Not every topic has completely neutral tone or phrasing, and it’s reasonable to suspect an author’s tone and fact selection implies something not explicitly stated. But, to confuse that with the demonstrable lies being propagated from the debunked sources is absurd. I wish I could help the people who believe them. I wish I could just get people to see that the proper response to “this doesn’t fit my model of reality” isn’t “so it must be false, and I’ll keep saying every source you can find is biased and false as well,” but “Oh! I should take the time to re-evaluate that part of my model of reality.” It’s perfectly reasonable to question the motivations of a source. It is not reasonable to rule out 97% of otherwise reputable sources so you can find that 3% who’s saying what you want to hear.

And, finally, I’d like to say that if you ever find one of your posts has a comment from me linking to Snopes, please take it as a compliment. It means I think that, if you see the truth, you’ll accept it. I’m not targeting you to make you look stupid and I’m not trying to make myself look smarter. The stuff going around out there is designed to be persuasive and convincing. That’s how it got to you and that’s what got you to put it in my feed. But I think you’re smart enough to see that when I add in a Snopes link, it’s just constructive criticism I’m intending.

Thanks for reading.


One thought on “The Onion and Snopes

  1. […] Ignoring the political target here, it seems that the creators are somehow conflating altruism with Nazism, which is probably the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard honestly posited. I have no idea what the message of “We should take care of people” has to do with murdering a minority ethnic group, nor why I should denounce someone proclaiming Utilitarian views. What it leads me to do is classify the behavior of the person who shared it in at least one of several ways: 1) They don’t know how to identify bad arguments 2) They are susceptible to bad arguments 3) They don’t care what argument is being made, so long as it reinforces their viewpoints, and we all know how I feel about that. […]


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