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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, and many other “isms.”

Online Sarcasm

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.

These issues were recognized in 1983 by Jerry Schwarz who wrote about satirical comments on Usenet: “Without the voice inflection and body language of personal communication these are easily misinterpreted. A sideways smile, :-), has become widely accepted on the net as an indication that ‘I’m only kidding.’ If you submit a satiric item without this symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.”

As dictionary.com notes “The point is that fundamentalist or dogmatic views can become so extreme, despite their acceptance, that even parodies of [these] views are unmistakable for the real thing, to the point that extremists may accidentally embrace a parody as truth. The converse can also be true; sometimes a person’s actual views are so extreme that another misinterprets these views as a parody. ”

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

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

Poe’s Corollary and the Crocoduck

In 2008, the Urban Dictionary gave us Poe’s Corollary: “It is impossible for an act of Fundamentalism to be made that someone won’t mistake for a parody.”

In 2007, ABC Nightline carried part of a debate about the existence of God that featured two creationists, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort. The two men proposed the argument that if evolution was real there should be a fossil record of a transitional animal between a crocodile and a duck – a crocoduck.

Cameron held up a painting of his mythical beast, half crocodile, half duck. The aim of the crocoduck was to show the absurdity of the beliefs of evolutionists, to open them up to ridicule.

Instead, the crocoduck displayed a complete ignorance of evolutionary science and backfired spectacularly on its proponents. It was intended to seriously bolster the creationist argument but was received as a parody of its own arguments.

It was a classic strawman tactic in which an absurd version of a belief is set up and attacked, rather than launching a rebuttal of the belief itself.

The Colbert Report

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.” But, of course, there were plenty of people who didn’t get the joke and thought Colbert’s caricature of conservative TV personalities was the real deal.

Some academics at Ohio State University studied this and found that “conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.”

Sometimes, everything gets so tangled up that you don’t know if you’re seeing Poe’s Law in action, a parody of Poe’s Law, or both at the same time.

In 2009, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) released an anti-gay marriage advertisement that claimed same-sex weddings would bring on tornadoes to threaten Christian heterosexuals. Stephen Colbert responded with a lampoon advertisement of his own, which prompted NOM to write the comedian a letter thanking him for drawing attention to the issue.

Confusing illusion.

Confusing illusion.

Parodies Fool Politicians

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. In May 2011, it ran an article under the headline “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 billion Abortionplex.”

Louisiana Republican Congressman John Fleming bit down hard on the bait and ranted about the “pernicious evil” of abortion. But Fleming is a serial dupe.

In 2013, he complained, on the floor of the House of Representatives no less, that “I have trouble with several anti-Christian steps the Pentagon has taken in recent years.” This came in response to another Onion story that said the Department of Defense was court-martialling Christians in order to kick them out of the army.

Or, as President George W. Bush so eloquently put it:

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.

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

Friedrich Nietzsche

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.

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.
  • “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.” Heather L. LaMarre et al, The International Journal of Press/Politics, April 1, 2009.
  • “Anti-Gay Group Sends Letter to Colbert Thanking Him for Mocking Them.” Jason Linkins, HuffPost, May 18, 2009.
  • “Congressman Who Fell for Onion Story Still Hasn’t Learned to Check His Facts.” Chris Rodda, HuffPost, December 6, 2017.

Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.

Alan Morgan’s 2nd Law of Newsgroups

© 2019 Rupert Taylor