Partisan satire and the mechanisms of unintentional misinformation

The Washington Post has detailed the vicious circle between two different political groups that is breeding unintentional misinformation - and increasing polarisation

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

What happens when people start believing your satire website? In a spectacularly bleak piece of reporting, The Washington Post spoke to the founder of a satirical website that become a rallying point for people unable to discern the satire:

What Blair had first conceived of as an elaborate joke was beginning to reveal something darker. “No matter how racist, how bigoted, how offensive, how obviously fake we get, people keep coming back,” Blair once wrote, on his own personal Facebook page. “Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?”

And then journalist Eli Saslow flips the perspective to a Facebook user on the other end of this:

On her computer the attack against America was urgent and unrelenting. Liberals were restricting free speech. Immigrants were storming the border and casting illegal votes. Politicians were scheming to take away everyone’s guns. “The second you stop paying attention, there’s another travesty underway in this country,” Chapian once wrote, in her own Facebook post, so she had decided to always pay attention, sometimes scrolling and sharing for hours at a time.

This is where Facebook comes into play, with our good old "friend", the filter bubble. This woman is being fed an ever-decreasing view of the world, based on her "engagement" with stories. And as the narrative of America under attack starts to dominate her feed, it starts to shape her world view. When other media challenges her newly-established world view, what happens?

For years she had watched network TV news, but increasingly Chapian wondered about the widening gap between what she read online and what she heard on the networks. “What else aren’t they telling us?” she wrote once, on Facebook, and if she believed the mainstream media was becoming insufficient or biased, it was her responsibility to seek out alternatives

Confirmation bias kicks in - she rejects the information that challenges her views, and then constructs an explanation to ease the cognitive dissonance. The media are concealing things from you! The news is… fake.

So, surely critical thinking is the answer? Not so fast:

What she trusted most was her own ability to think critically and discern the truth, and increasingly her instincts aligned with the online community where she spent most of her time.

Social and emotional factors overwhelm rational ones.

But, in a masterstroke, the piece switches back to our liberal satirist, making his money off the outraged clicks from the conservatives he's baiting:

“Aaaaand, we’re viral,” he wrote, in a message to his liberal supporters on his private Facebook page. “It’s getting to the point where I can no longer control the absolute absurdity of the things I post. No matter how ridiculous, how obviously fake, or how many times you tell the same taters . . . they will still click that ‘like’ and hit that share button.”

This is a great piece of reporting that illustrates the toxic hellstew we find ourselves in right now. Cheap publishing technology, engagement-based distribution mechanisms, and tribal behaviors are breeding polarisation and conspiracy theories, sometimes without intentional intervention.

Building a misinformation resistant society

Some of the pieces of this nightmare machine are now unavoidable facts of modern existence, and we have to find ways to live with them

  • The ease of digital publishing is not going away anytime soon.
  • We will always be prone to psychological weaknesses that are part of our make-up.

But some things can be addressed:

  • Intermediaries, like Facebook, can take more responsibility for the sorts of views they present to the world.
  • "Satirists" like Blair can give more consideration to the impact of what they're publishing. This is not, say, The Onion. This is a deliberate attempt to wind up conservatives - and to profit from it. By trying to "win", he's actually stoking polarisation and feeding conspiracy theories.

For decades, journalists have wrestled — not always effectively — with the ethics and responsibilities that come with publishing power. Now that power is available to everyone we need to start having that discussion at a societal level — and start ensuring their are social consequences to abusing that power.

UPDATE: The owner of the satirical site in question, Christopher Blair, has responded to my post in a long Facebook comment.

satiremisinformationconfirmation biasfilter bubblepsychologypolarisationinternal politics

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.