Cop’s alleged threat against AOC highlights Facebook’s tricky problem with ‘satirical’ news
A police officer in Gretna, Louisiana, has been fired after a Facebook post in which he appeared to call for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to be shot, nola.com reports, and a second officer was fired after liking the post. The officer was responding to a bogus news story claiming the New York Democrat said soldiers are overpaid.
But the false article, from a website called “Taters Gonna Tate,” isn’t the type of fake news story created simply as partisan propaganda. Instead, it’s from a network of sites called “America’s Last Line of Defense,” which shares what it calls “satire” articles. They often make over-the-top false claims about Democratic politicians and others on the left. The sites, run by Christopher Blair, are to some extent in the same vein as more mainstream parodies of right-wing media, like Stephen Colbert’s character on Comedy Central or The Onion‘s Patriot Hole articles.
But Blair, who was profiled last year in the Washington Post, doesn’t just poke fun at right-wing media. He also seeks to expose and mock conservatives who fall for the outrageous claims posted on his websites.
In an email to Fast Company, Blair said that the sites were designed to “troll the alt-right” and that, with numerous disclaimers already on them, it would be difficult to make it more obvious that the pages are meant to be satirical. “At this point, I have so many disclaimers that my disclaimers are almost satirical,” he wrote.
He also downplayed the idea that the fake news story would incite anyone to violence. “The racist douchebag wasn’t ‘incited to violence’ over this story,” he said of the officer. “The racist douchebag is a racist douchebag who was discovered and outed because of how ridiculous the story was that he shared.”
On a Facebook page for America’s Last Line of Defense, users and page administrators often post mocking comments and emojis about comments from out-of-the-loop readers. Those readers respond with outrage to troll-bait articles claiming that, for instance, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib is suing to have Melania Trump deported, that Pope Francis intends to amend the Ten Commandments, or that Ocasio-Cortez intends to donate her brain to science. While the articles, websites, and Facebook pages are all marked as “satire” and untrue, it’s clear that many simply react to the headlines without checking the authenticity of the source.
People taking satire as the truth is nothing new: Writers from humor publications like The Onion and National Lampoon have long commented on receiving letters from ill-informed readers, and the American Library Association’s survey of challenged classic books reports that George Orwell’s 1984 has been critiqued as “pro-Communist.” The former supermarket tabloid Weekly World News, a fake news publication known for its grainy photos of Bigfoot and Elvis, ran a column by fictitious ultraconservative Ed Anger, whose fans reportedly included both those who recognized it as parody and those who agreed with his bombastic rants (a 1995 collection of Anger’s articles was titled Let’s Pave the Stupid Rainforests & Give School Teachers Stun Guns).
But Facebook and social media may make it especially easy for credulous users to simply see and react to a headline being shared by a friend or a followed page or group without taking the time to evaluate the underlying source of the information or even read past the headline. A 2014 April Fool’s story from NPR titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” explicitly told those who read the story not to comment on social media, exposing many who simply reacted to what they assumed the piece was about based on the headline.
Facebook didn’t respond to an inquiry from Fast Company. The company has previously said it takes steps to limit the spread of articles by repeated purveyors of misinformation and warns readers that “false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire.”
While Blair reportedly said in a nola.com comment that “exposing people like” the Gretna officer is why he publishes his sites, he also runs the risk of inciting threats or even violence by people who take what fact-checking site Snopes calls his sites’ “junk news and inflammatory misinformation” at face value.