Updates follow the original post…
Bonus ethics points are due Mediaite writer Luke O’Neill, who placed the word ‘satire’ in scare quotes while describing the website called “The News Nerd,” which he grouped with, in his words, “The National Report (behind this recent viral hoax about Bill Murray stopping a bank robbery), The Daily Currant, and the rest of the plague of woefully unfunny bottom-feeders who’ve clogged up our newsfeeds of late.” The site in question has been sued by pop icon Aretha Franklin, who argues that its unfunny fake story about her getting into a fistfight with fellow diva Patti LaBelle is defamatory. Aretha is going to lose, of course,* and worse, she is bringing more attention, traffic and income to the despicable website, which I will not link to and assist its sordid little game.
Getting links and traffic is the whole point of such sites: write and publish a plausible but strange made-up news story that enough news aggregation sites and bloggers believe, hope the story goes viral, and reap the monetary rewards of notoriety and ethical misconduct. “The News Nerd” had one of its “successes” recently by falsely reporting that George Zimmerman was peddling a new painting, this one of Trayvon Martin. It is a vile, if not especially new, creature on the web, one that makes the internet even less reliable and trustworthy than it was. Such sites’ victims are the trusting, hurried and inattentive. They masquerade as satire sites, but are intentionally poor ones. Their stories are not clever or sufficiently well-made to signal their allegedly humorous nature, and the disclaimers are hidden, perhaps a click away, or at the bottom of a screen, where the site-owners know many readers will never look.
Oh, there might be clues scattered around: on The News Nerd home page, some headlines are sufficiently ridiculous (“Leonardo DiCaprio Cast as MLK in New Film, Will Wear Blackface”) if not particularly amusing. That’s part of the game too: to the extent that there is any pleasure to be derived from the site, it is from the mockery aimed at those who fall for one of the hoax stories by those who either did not, or who will maintain they wouldn’t have even though they were alerted to the hoax when they first learned of the story.
You know how I feel about web hoaxes (if not, you can catch up here, here and here). Undercover “satire” sites like The News Nerd are prime offenders, and the remedy for must be cultural, not legal. In other words, we have to just hate them to pieces, and hope they slink away. There is no fail-safe way to distinguish between true satire, in which the objective of a faux news story is to amuse, and a hoax, in which the real objective is to trick as many people as possible into accepting the story as fact, so others can say, “What a gullible idiot you are!” Professional, competent, well-labeled satire such as what appears in The Onion still fools some people, and even the most fantastic nonsense, such as an Esquire piece lampooning real life “birthers” ( from the defamation court decision: “…reported upon a 2010 incident in which Farah and Corsi, visiting an aquarium during a World Net Daily team-building exercise, rushed the stage during a children’s show and began sexually abusing a performing walrus to the gasps and horrified screams of onlookers. “TAKE THAT KENYAN FASCIST,” Farah and Corsi reputedly screamed, although the aquarium’s presenter had specified that the walrus was indigenous to the Pacific. Esquire writer Mark Warren speculated that the outburst was spurred by the revelation that the walrus was named “Barry”…)might, like the Franklin-LaBelle story, spark a lawsuit, particularly when the targets are not too bright.
No law that would punish sites like The News Nerd could avoid threatening and chilling genuine wit and satire, so we are stuck with the “bottom feeders” as part of the price of a free speech. That means the burden is on legitimate journalists to check their sources carefully, and not rely on second or third-hand relays of stories that seem juicy and odd. If they trace back to an obscure website, it then has to be scoured for small print, hidden pages and other subtle disclaimers that announce, but quietly, that the plausible and provocative tales on the site involving real people or current events are not true. The people who wrote the disclaimer hope it isn’t found, you see, because that’s the fun: tricking those who are trying to inform the public into spreading misinformation and starting rumors that will be just about impossible to kill. They are the web equivalents of the fool who left the fake bomb at the Boston Marathon finish line last week. His unfunny hoax just wasn’t protected by the Constitution.
[Update (Nov. 14, 2014): The dishonest excuse used by News Nerd defenders that the site discloses its “satirical” nature—the fake stories are neither satirical, witty nor amusing—is decisively disproven by the latest scummy post, which amasses over 800 indignant comments that one has to scroll past before seeing the small “disclaimer.”]
[Update (Aug. 1, 2014): The News Nerd web polluters are doubtlessly puffing up their pigeon breasts with pride because yet another of their fake, unfunny “satires” fooled journalists and bloggers. This one was about a Facebook “fire challenge” that caused teens to set themselves on fire. Hilarious!]
* As a public figure, she’ll have to show that there was real malice (wherein she’ll face the “Can’t you take a little joke?” defense), that she suffered tangible and measurable harm, and that the story was widely and reasonably believed despite the website’s disclaimer and some of the other, less likely headlines surrounding it.
Graphic: Rolling Stone