The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

In the age of disinformation, satirical news is especially vexing.

Satire is considered a very important part of our daily lives. The underlying assumption when sharing satirical news articles is that the conveyed information is not real. Still, in some cases, they are taken out of context and could mislead others. While the virtual and real world contend with the ramifications of disinformation, this issue has become a serious problem.

In August, Étienne Klein, a renowned French scientist, shared a photo on Twitter of what he claims was a distant star taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Thousands of Twitter users took him seriously, commented, and retweeted it. Klein later admitted it was a joke and the photo was a slice of chorizo.

In some cases, satirical news can have political and social ramifications that correcting in time before it goes viral can be difficult. In July 2021, a satirical news article was published citing Joe Biden saying that unvaccinated people would be sent to quarantine camps. While Biden has never said anything remotely similar, many shared this story on social media. Fact-checkers at USA Today and Reuters stressed the source was satire, but some still remained unconvinced. Likewise, a story about Michelle Obama’s mother giving her fortune to her son was also spread on social media as real.

News websites can fall prey and assume satirical websites are serious sources of information. The Onion has been mistakenly cited as a real news source by some well-known news agencies around the world and was even cited by the former vice-president of FIFA during his trial.

Politicians have used satirical content to mislead the public about their opponents. In 2020, then-U.S. President Donald Trump shared a story that was published by The Babylon Bee, a satirical news website. The story claimed that Twitter had “shut down its entire social network” to suppress negative Biden news.

Social media platforms have taken some action to protect their users. For instance, Facebook added a satire label to certain stories, and Twitter has a policy for satirical content.

In the U.S., satire is protected by the First Amendment. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed that satire is protected as free speech.

One way to help the public not fall prey to satirical news is by sharing lists of satirical news websites. Search engines like Google could also do a better job of more clearly labeling something as satire in search results. Google search results for The Onion do tell users the source is satire but the label is quite small and unobtrusive.

It’s obvious that it doesn’t take much effort to pass a piece of satirical news off as real news given the black hole that is social media. While there are many legal frameworks and platform regulations, raising awareness is still a powerful approach to combat the danger of satire news packaged and presented as legitimate news.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern University and also holds a degree in Engineering form the University of Khartoum.