Satire can spread online as misinformation. Here’s why we still shouldn’t label it

There has been much discussion in recent years about satire’s role in the online world – and the risks we face from it being misunderstood.

In a recent article, NewsGuard editorial director Eric Effron bemoaned the fact that satire mistaken for news is stoking disinformation and political division. He even suggests satire should be explicitly labelled.

Here’s why that’s not really a fair proposal.

Satire: a slippery slope

If a certain work – whether it be an article, performance, essay or meme – is to operate as satire, it has to be recognised by its audience as satire.

While this may sound circular, it is important. Satire that is widely mistaken for news ceases to be satire and instead becomes misinformation. Then if someone circulates it knowingly, it becomes disinformation, and they are acting badly.

What should be done about this issue is a more complicated question. Satire has some cultural and legal licence, wherein it is hard-earned and mostly justified as a contribution to civic debate and democratic practice. But it can be messy.

A work is what we make it

Back in 1702, English novelist Daniel Defoe published a pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. He wrote anonymously, which was normal at the time, but also integral to his satirical purpose.

Defoe was known as a prominent dissenter – specifically, a Protestant dissenting from the established Church of England. Considering his pamphlet appears to recommend the execution or expulsion of all dissenters, publishing it under his real name would have spoiled his joke.

Unfortunately for Defoe, he was too good a mimic. A lot of readers took the persona of his text – a bigoted little Englander (who would be right at home in the current UK election) – at face value. Moreover, a lot of the readers agreed with the persona and thought the proposal a damned good idea.

When Defoe announced the point of the joke, the readers were so annoyed at being fooled that they prosecuted him for seditious libel and he spent time in the stocks.

I tell this story to make two points. The first is that satire without a clear play-frame around it takes a risk by relying on its audience to get the joke. The second is that misunderstanding satire is part of the genre, and can be traced back to long before the digital age.

That the internet now allows satire to circulate rapidly and more idiotically as “fake news” reflects a change in quantity but not in kind.

That said, the situation is admittedly getting worse. Artificial intelligence (AI) is particularly ill-equipped to understand the framing and intentional context needed to spot satire. All AI sees is a plausible pattern of words to ingest into its language model.

If, like me, you are cranky enough to think truthfulness matters, this situation looks bad.

Would labels even work?

In 2019, a research team from The Ohio State University found clearly labelling satirical content as satire could “help social media users navigate a complex and sometimes confusing news environment”.

It’s superficially an attractive idea. If the satire labels stayed in place, everyone would know (as fictional examples) that Anthony Albanese isn’t really an Albanian spy, or that Peter Dutton isn’t really descended from patrone potatoes. Or perhaps it would finally prevent Australian news outlets from republishing stories from The Betoota Advocate.

However, there are practical and principled problems in the proposition.

In practice, it is hard to see how satire labels would stick to texts as they circulate. Words or tokens marking a text would easily fall off in recirculation, be shorn off on purpose, or may never be added in the first place if the work comes from a bad actor.

An alternative could be some method of deeply encrypted digital watermarking. But this might also be impractical and would risk coercive control by whatever authority is enforcing the rules.

Similarly, voluntary satire labelling would only work if everyone obeyed these rules, which seems unlikely. Misinformation would still spread through human carelessness.

Disinformation would also spread. And we may even see deliberate hoaxers thrive as the good citizens of the world come to expect satire to always be appropriately labelled.

The right to be fooled

A lot of satire announces itself as such by the way it is framed. A political cartoon or a mock-news website tells the audience to look for laughter.

But to go back to Defoe, some satire’s provocative effect depends on it being mistakable as a sincere work. If The Shortest Way had been given the 18th-century equivalent of a laugh track, it would have ended up merely preaching to the converted.

And here is where I have a democratic resistance to the compulsory labelling of satire. It’s my job as a citizen to work out whether something is satire or a statement of fact.

I have a right to be fooled – and I’m not comfortable with waiving that right to some truth-and-joke-discerning authority. They may be diligent and pure-spirited fact-checkers with my best interest at heart, as wise as the Guardians in Plato’s Republic. Or they may not.

One of the reasons satire has developed in some cultures and is suppressed in others is because it makes space for dissent and for the dissemination of narratives other than those of the powerful. This often leads to crackpot ideas, but it is the citizens’ job to sort those things out.

We’re in the early days of the digital revolution, so chaos often wins out over clarity, tolerance and sense. But while this is annoying, the better path forward is through the mess, rather than towards technical fixes.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Robert Phiddian, Flinders University

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Robert Phiddian receives funding from the Australian Research Council for a study of Australian Political Cartooning.