We No Longer Search for “All the News that Isn’t”–It Finds Us (And then we copy it)

In his book Socialnomics, Qualman reminds us of the Tina Fey/Sarah Palin skits on Saturday Night Live.

Do you remember how much fun people had watching and talking about these satires? Qualman finds the skits interesting in terms of how popular they were, and where people watched them. According to NBC estimates, 50 million people watched the skits, but according to Solutions Research Group, more than half the viewers saw these over the internet. People had it pushed directly to their social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

I wonder if that’s how Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets his news from The Onion. Does he have The Onion “liked” on his Facebook page? Maybe not anymore. The satirical news source, The Onion fooled Ahmadinejad and Iran’s official news agency with a story titled “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama.” The spoof article states that results of a recent poll show that rural white Americans would rather vote for, go to a ball game with, and have a beer with Ahmadinejad than President Obama.

Well, not only has the internet made it really easy to share the news with others, it has made it really easy to steal the news as well. Iran’s official news agency took the article (you remember it was a satire, right?), passed it off as their own journalism, and then published it in Iran.

I suspect heads may roll over this goof-up.

Qualman’s book says that some people think the SNL skits with Tina Fey may have influenced the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Did some people think that was actually Sarah Palin? Did people mistake SNL’s comedy for serious journalism?

Similar questions can be asked of The Onion incident. Does Ahmadinejad really think I’d rather share a home brew with him than with President Obama? Really? The Iranian news agency can’t recognize the satire in The Onion?

Actually, I’m not surprised. Sad, but not surprised. Satire and verbal irony can be tough to catch. (Every time I go through Stephen Crane’s poem “Do Not Weep, Maiden, For War Is Kind” with my sophomores, I have a frightening number of students who insist that Crane’s message was pro-war, despite me and other students pointing out the gruesome battle imagery and lines such as “… a field where a thousand corpses lie.”)

So what if people get fooled by internet content? A lot of people are being fooled by what’s on the internet. It used to be that the reliable news sources “looked” reliable. They hade professional layout, quality graphics, good photography, and they were the only sources that could afford to be published or televised. Now, digital technology and the internet give everyone the ability to self-publish professional-looking content. If our material is packaged right, it might get passed along to others. The problem is that it takes a more sophisticated audience to recognize credible sources today than it did ten years ago. Maybe satirical internet content should have to carry a warning label or start with the standard opening, “A funny thing happened on the way to Tehran the other day…”

About Rob_Henseler

Rob has been teaching high school English and Language Arts for 20 years. When he's not at school, he enjoys making and listening to music, woodworking, canoeing, and hands-on traditional skills.

Posted on September 30, 2012, in Literacy, Social Media, Society. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Really excellent post. While Qualman is right that many people are abandoning traditional news sources for RSS feeds and other on-the-fly methods, you make a good point about the consequences of that.

    People will tend to pick “news” sources that fit well with their worldview and will shun those that challenge their ingrained beliefs. Will people choose to be informed by the truth or will they choose to be comforted by half-truths? I hate to say this, because it makes me sound really cynical, but I think there is plenty of evidence that people don’t want news that challenges them.

    I really don’t think that Ahmadinejad or his propaganda goons were fooled by the Onion story, I think they assumed that most of their audience would be unwilling (or unable given Iran’s censorship) to uncover the truth.

    As sad as this is for Iranians, I think it is even worse for Americans since it should be extremely easy for us to sort fact from fiction, but most of us don’t. Recently a guy I know on Facebook posted a link to an online article/blog that claimed the Colorado Batman shootings were part of a left-wing conspiracy to enact tough gun control laws so the government could disarm us. That’s flat-out nuts, but he believed it. Yes, he got roasted on Facebook, but I don’t think it changed his mind. I’m sure he just unfriended the people that disagreed–and I don’t think he’s unique.

    There really should only be one truth out there, but social media lets people shop for the brand of truth that suits their tastes. Is it a coincidence that the U.S. is more divided now than it has ever been in my life?

  2. I really can’t tell whether Ahmadinejad and company were honestly fooled or not. They went through the effort later of appologizing, claiming they were fooled but that it was understandable because other Onion articles have fooled people in the past. I guess the question remains, though. Were they really fooled? Is there less shame in admitting being fooled than in admitting the agency stole and repurposed the article?

    I’m also curious about who the appology went to? I read excerpts of it, but couldn’t tell where it was originally posted.

    You’re absolutely right about picking the brand of truth that suits us and the division in the U.S. right now. I’m reminded of Billy Joel’s song “Honesty.”

  3. This is a great post because it brings up how in order to be literate these days we also need to be skeptical of what we read online. Sadly, some folks don’t recognize this as a skill so confusion happens…and with SNL, Colbert and Stewart out there, audiences also need to be aware of the intertextuality in order to “get” the jokes.

    Oh, and forget the Palin skits. I thought it was Obama girl that won him the election? http://obamagirl.com/
    Here’s my fav video of her series because it actually does reference specific facts about Obama & Guiliani: http://youtu.be/ekSxxlj6rGE

    Speaking of YouTube, the main reason I used to search the site was for tv episodes or clips from my favorite shows, but now I have On Demand services, Hulu, and Instant Netflix I can rely on.

  4. The internet does offer a much wider range of news sources. Indeed, Qualman talks about people who post news on their blogs for the sole purpose of spreading the news. This may differ from traditional media sources who may be influenced by advertisers and the corporate owners. That is, if one news company (i.e., Gannet) owns all of the newspapers or news channels, then we as viewers only read, see, or hear the news that that company transfers to us. Thus, personal blogers may provide other stories that would not have otherwise surfaced. However, as a society, we have some trust in traditional media to tell portray the facts. Can we trust new internet news sources to do the same?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.