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Poe’s Law and Internet Satire

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In 2005, author Nathan Poe was involved in a debate on christianforums.com when he proposed an internet rule that has since taken his name.

Mischievous users in the forum were posting parodies of Christian beliefs that caused some to react in outrage while others gave supportive replies. This prompted Poe to formulate his law this way: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.”

Poe’s Law has since expanded to cover any fundamentalist or extremist belief such as atheism, feminism, socialism, capitalism, Trumpism, and many other “isms.”

Irony and sarcasm are difficult to get right on the internet. For satire and parody to work effectively there needs to be voice intonation, facial expressions, and body language, all of which are missing from the screen. Emoticons have been recruited to cover for missing signals but they only do a partial job.

Poe’s Corollary

The Urban Dictionary has given us Poe’s Corollary: “It is impossible for an act of Fundamentalism to be made that someone won’t mistake for a parody.”

Here, under the banner of “They can’t possibly swallow this stuff,” are some of the beliefs that come out of evangelical Christianity:

  • Pigs can be controlled by evil spirits;
  • Interbreeding between demi-gods and women created a race of giants that roamed the planet along with dragons that breathed fire;
  • Those who believe in God can survive a snake bite or the ingesting of poison;
  • The lights we see in the night sky are actually doorways into Heaven through which true believers will pass; and,
  • Being disobedient to God caused people’s skin to turn brown.

The fact that I made up one of those beliefs demonstrates how difficult it is to tell the difference between the real thing and parody. (The bogus belief is revealed below).

Model of the sculpture "Fundamentalism" by Danish Artist Jens Galschiøt.

Model of the sculpture "Fundamentalism" by Danish Artist Jens Galschiøt.

The World of Godfey Elfwick

It started with an anonymous opinion piece in 2016 in the British newspaper The Guardian. The writer explained how he went from being a progressive liberal to being an alt-right believer by watching extremist videos on YouTube. That’s when Godfrey Elfwick pounced and claimed to be the author.

On Twitter and other social media platforms, Elfwick played the role of an ultra-left, extremely politically correct liberal. He claimed to be “transblack,” that is a Black man born in a white skin. When the movie 12 Years a Slave was released, Elfwick got into a high dudgeon complaining that it was “Typical of Hollywood to cast a black actor in a stereotypical role as a slave.”

When those teenage boys were rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand, Elfwick was annoyed that they were led to safety by British white men: He tweeted “I demand they be replaced with two differently abled transgender people of mixed race to offer those children a more empowering experience.”

That so many were gulled into believing such self-evidently ludicrous pronouncements points to the degradation of political discourse on the internet which Elfwick sought to deride. Those who were incensed by Elfwick’s jibes at offence culture only served to highlight the necessity of his existence.”

Andrew Doyle, Spiked

Large numbers of people mistook Elfwick’s rants for honestly held beliefs. Embarrassingly, Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper and The British Broadcasting Corporation, interviewed Elfwick without realizing he was a fictional character.

Complaints poured in to Twitter, some claiming that Elfwick’s was an alt-right account set up to parody the left. So, in this hall-of-mirrors world, people were confused about whether Godfrey Elfwick was an example of Poe’s law, or a satire of Poe’s law, or neither, or both.

In 2018, Twitter decided to kill off Godfrey Elfwick’s account. But, help came along in the form of Titania McGrath whose creator, comedian Andrew Doyle, says she is “a militant vegan who thinks she is a better poet than William Shakespeare.”

The Onion Taken Seriously

Sometimes, politicians say such ridiculous things that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. So, of course, politics brims over with examples of Poe’s Law in action.

The Onion is a satirical “news” website. Everybody practicing politics knows, or should know, that it does not publish anything remotely connected to the truth.

When Sean Spicer was appointed Donald Trump’s press secretary, The Onion put out a Tweet in which it said his “role in the Trump administration will be to provide the American public with robust and clearly articulated misinformation.” Spicer re-tweeted the video with the comment “You nailed it.”

In 2019, The Onion carried a story announcing that a CIA investigation had revealed that Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and that the spy agency had issued a posthumous apology. Indonesia’s former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan demanded that the U.S. government make a statement clarifying its position.

And, when The Onion named North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un the “Sexiest Man Alive” the country’s People’s Daily Online completely misunderstood. The government-controlled newspaper reported that “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.”

Kim Jong-un; what a hunk.

Kim Jong-un; what a hunk.

Then, there’s @GOPTeens, a Twitter account that purports to recruit young Americans to the Republican Party. It’s run by one Daniel Kibblesmith who bought the domain when it fell dormant. He is associated with The Onion.

Emma Roller in The Atlantic says “Most of GOP Teens’ tweets are clearly satire . . . so realistic that it becomes almost indistinguishable from the object it’s satirizing.” It is another example of Poe’s Law in action that highlights the increasing difficulty of separating fact from fiction.

Confusing illusion.

Confusing illusion.

The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.

Friedrich Nietzsche

All Is Revealed

The bogus evangelical belief is “The lights we see in the night sky are actually doorways into Heaven through which true believers will pass.” Although we cannot be sure that someone, somewhere, doesn’t actually believe it.

Bonus Factoids

  • Harry Golden was an American author who satirized segregationists. The writer Calvin Trillin devised the Harry Golden Rule in his name. It states that “in present-day America it’s very difficult, when commenting on events of the day, to invent something so bizarre that it might not actually come to pass while your piece is still on the presses.”
  • The internet has made it simple for people with malicious intent to undermine campaigns through what’s called a Stealth Parody, something that overlaps Poe’s Law. While appearing to be supportive of, say vegans, the stealth parodist will post a comment so outrageous that it discredits the movement. Sometimes, also referred to as Sockpuppets.
  • Starting in 2005 and running for 11 seasons The Colbert Report was Poe’s Law writ large and on television. In the show, comedian Stephen Colbert played the role of a right-wing pundit in an obvious parody of Fox News and, in particular, its star personality the now-disgraced Bill O’Reilly. Colbert described his character as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot.” The show won three prime-time Emmys and many other awards.

Sources

  • “Internet Rules and Laws: the Top 10, from Godwin to Poe.” Tom Chivers, The Telegraph, October 23, 2009.
  • “Where Does Poe’s Law Come from?” Dictionary.com, undated.
  • “Poe’s Law: The Problem with Parody on the Internet.” Sectes et Pseudo-Sciences, undated.
  • “Poe’s Law.” Tvtropes.com, undated.
  • “Alt-Right Online Poison Nearly Turned me into a Racist.” Anonymous, The Guardian, November 28, 2016.
  • “Sean Spicer Retweets Onion Video Saying He Provides ‘Robust Misinformation’: ‘You Nailed It.’ ” Madison Malone Kircher, New York Magazine, January 29, 2017.
  • “Here Are the 20 Weirdest Religious Beliefs.” Valerie Tarico, AlterNet, January 14, 2019.
  • “The Death of Godfrey Elwick.” Andrew Doyle, Spiked, July 25, 2018.

Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.

Alan Morgan’s 2nd Law of Newsgroups

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor