POLITICAL jokes travel farther than ever before. Last year the Onion, a satirical magazine in America, declared Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s round-faced leader, the “sexiest man alive”. The People’s Daily newspaper in China took the nomination seriously and ran a 55-photo spread to celebrate the honour. When the Onion published a fake poll announcing that rural white Americans had a more favourable opinion of Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, than of Barack Obama, an Iranian state news-agency covered this as real news. Lots of people are less ingenuously looking at the Onion to entertain themselves. In the past year its web traffic has grown by around 70%.
Political satire used to be the preserve of artists and writers like Honoré Daumier, who caricatured King Louis Philippe in 19th-century France, and George Orwell, the author of “Animal Farm”. It has existed at least since Aristophanes took aim at the Greek elite in his plays, but thanks to modern technology and a changing political climate it is almost everywhere today. The internet has made it easier for the masses to join in the fun. Cartoons and lampoons can be posted online, no longer needing a print publication to host them. Social media have helped political sideswipes to spread as contagiously as laughter, and have fostered a “remix culture” in which internet-users share memes and post spoofs with abandon.
The internet has also made it easier for satirists to bypass censors and stay anonymous. The Pan-Arabia Enquirer, a Middle Eastern satirical news site, is run by a nameless editor. Satirists enjoy a global reach they never would have had otherwise. Jon Stewart, an American who hosts “The Daily Show”, a humorous news programme on the Comedy Central channel (pictured above), has inspired copycat shows abroad, including one by Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon, who started posting videos on YouTube; they became so popular that he was given a slot on an Egyptian television channel.
Satire is still flourishing where it was born: in theatres. “The Book of Mormon”, a musical making fun of Mormonism, has broken box-office records in America and Britain. But innovation mainly happens online. When Wendy Davis, a Texas state senator, spent 10 hours on her feet filibustering a bill that aimed to restrict abortion, her supporters turned to Amazon, the online retailer, to skewer opponents. One product review of the Mizuno running footwear worn by Ms Davis that day says it “fits perfectly up a Republican’s rear end”. KermlinRussia, a Twitter account, mocks Russian government news releases.
Once such pronouncements were honed in satirical essays. Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, gave humorous advice to the British government in 1773 when he penned “Rules by which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One”. Such essays are experiencing a resurgence of sorts. A recent cartoon essay hosted on CNN’s website by Matt Bors about youths facing discrimination from their elders was shared avidly across social media.
In authoritarian countries coded images, rather than words, are a common form of satirical dissidence, not least because they have a greater chance of evading censors. On the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, Weibo, China’s microblogging site, was filled with photos of yellow plastic ducks in an empty square in Beijing. They went viral before censors intervened, blocking the phrase “big yellow duck” from search results. When CNN’s Turkish channel decided to show a documentary about penguins that month rather than cover big protests in Istanbul’s Gezi park, penguins shuffled across social media sites.
New technology is not the only explanation for today’s satire boom. Political change, including a worldwide move towards democracy, is helping too. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, thinks satire is doing particularly well in the “middle ground”—in countries where freedom of expression is constrained enough to outrage people but where political repression is not so severe as to crush people’s ability to communicate relatively freely. Regime change brought about by the Arab spring has sparked a new season of creative and daring cartooning (see article). According to Andrei Richter of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute, a think-tank, the internet may also have made politicians more accustomed to ridicule and less likely to bring charges against satirists, since they can see their competitors are being pilloried too.
Still, many satirists in countries with humourless governments, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, struggle to express themselves. They are routinely jailed, kidnapped and threatened, says Bro Russell of Cartoonist Rights International, an advocacy group. Some countries are trying to rewrite laws to make it easier to crack down online.
And while the internet may have boosted satire in general, it has also made it harder for practitioners to make a living from it. This is particularly true for professional cartoonists. Their numbers have dwindled as newspapers have gone under or cut staff. American papers employed around 2,000 full-time editorial cartoonists a century ago. By 2010 only 40 were left; most work is done by freelancers. Their best (and often only) paycheques come from cartoons that sell nationally. Thus local politics now rarely attracts their attention. The most successful cartoonists run their own websites and sell merchandise such as mugs and T-shirts. But that is rarely lucrative. Tjeerd Royaards of the Cartoon Movement, an online publisher, says, “There are more cartoonists in the world, but more part-time cartoonists.”
It is not just politicians who find aspects of the explosion in satire unwelcome. Thanks to the internet, professional purveyors of the stuff face a lot more competition. For once, the joke is at their expense. A niche craft practised by a talented few has turned into a globally popular hobby, and what was once considered audacious commentary is now mainstream. Satirists used to shock people, says Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics. But they have lost impact, no matter how vicious or personal. “Everyone is rude on the internet.”
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THINK BEFORE you click. You may be sharing propaganda as truth—and thus, helping to dumb down people who access the Internet and social media.
The Internet, as a wide and open platform, provides space for a vast number of websites of dubious reliability, which are nevertheless, widely quoted and used as sources of information to spread propaganda or any social or political organization, including the government. There are many who assume that whatever appears on the Net must be true. The “information” they provide is shared in different social media platforms, especially on Facebook, without verifying through other sources whether it is accurate or not.
Since it is easy to create a website with content management systems like WordPress and Blogger, the number of sites providing news and information has increased. Websites have sprouted with outright biases for political parties and politicians or for a clear and acknowledged advocacy for a cause. Sites that aggregate—or collect and repost– news from other news sources without checking its accuracy are also on the rise.
A huge number of websites present themselves as “news providers.” But these do not always produce their own content. A majority of these draw their stories from trending and viral posts in the Internet. One example is the Aug. 26 post from President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign spokesperson Peter Laviña of a photo of a nine-year-old girl who was supposedly raped and murdered somewhere in the Philippines.
Laviña said in his post that “We haven’t heard condemning (sic) this brutal act from human rightists, bishops and ‘presstitutes’ who are derailing the government’s war against drugs and crime.” The posts garnered 4,600 likes in Laviña’s Timeline alone; shared 5,000 times by other Facebook users and was reported by online news sites.
The photo was a hit in that sense– only to be debunked by Filipino journalists Froilan Gallardo and Inday Espina-Varona, who found a link that revealed that the incident happened in Brazil, not the Philippines. Clearly, the Laviña post was propaganda based on false information and meant to provoke anger against human rights activists, the religious, and members of the press critical of the government’s war on drugs.
CMFR tried to track online trending news websites (Trend Titan, News Info Learn, Public Trending, News Today, Politiko.com among others) that carried Laviña’s post and found that the news article has not been removed or edited despite its having been proven to be false. This raises questions about the credibility of these websites and the capacity of social media users who share them to identify what’s reliable and what’s not.
CMFR listed the following criteria which should warn Internet users about the reliability of their content:
Fake news sites are designed like legitimate sources of news. They are presented to be legitimate news providers, employing trained and credentialed reporters, with articles that are vet-ed by editors, imposing a fact- and –context checking process.
One quick way of checking the legitimacy of the news is a website is the editorial information about the providers. The “About Us,” “Contact Us” page of websites contains information about the site’s editorial team and staff, the physical address, telephone number, email address, its history, and other important information. As in mainstream news, these websites list the names of persons who are accountable for the content it holds.
A news website should be accountable for what is posted on its page, and it starts with identifying the people behind it, as well as how they can be contacted so they can be asked to explain errors posted in their sites, among others. These are set apart from bloggers. They do not choose anonymity and like their counterparts in the mainstream are answerable to the public.
These should be differentiated from bloggers who write opinion pieces. Bloggers may choose to write under a “psyeudonym” for whatever reason. These do not pretend to provide news content about events and developments to inform people about current public affairs. They are expressing what they think. Their political opinions should be regarded as columns and readers can agree or disagree with them. In journalism however, commentary should be based on factual information.
Websites which present news from through aggregated content do so without checking whether these are true or not. The practice exerts no effort to verify the sources or the process by which the report is produced. Content aggregators and curators scour the net for interesting content and share it with the Internet and social media community. Websites which aggregate and curate content nowadays do not only share content; they also create their own reports from other news sources. These often do not verify information prior to quoting a news article, hence the possibility that they’re spreading falsehood. Another practice is to pull out a factual report from mainstream news sources and to “spin it”—giving it an entirely new meaning.
Users of such websites should check whether the website shows any kind of information about who is doing the aggregation. If there is no information about the producers of the content, then what they offer should not be taken as editorially processed news.
Article Submission News Sites
These news websites invite the public to contribute content. Anyone is welcome to send articles, videos or photos to be posted on the website regardless of its being biased, and whether it’s a public relations piece or downright propaganda. These do not satisfy any journalistic criteria and should be dismissed as a news source.
News Trending Sites
Generally, these sites pick up selectively from viral and trending posts in the internet. No other criteria govern the selection. If the content has gained a significant amount of following, it is included, the only purpose for that use is to be hooked on to the “viral.”
Some of these sites provide an excuse from possible errors, warning users with a disclaimer that their content has not been verified and is likely to be unreliable.
Satire uses “humor, irony, exaggeration and ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity, or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” It is applied in various literary forms, essays, editorials, drama, plays and film. Satire makes fun. It creates fictional characters and situations to render more sharply the folly and error involved in the subject of the satire, without reference to the actual public figures, actions or developments bein g satirized. While the work itself is fictional, like all great literature, good satire actually shows up and exposes ‘truth.”
Its more contemporary forms are the spoof or send-up. All done in the spirit of fun, satire succeeds as sharply critical of the subject.
Material from satirical websites, the content of which is often taken literally by those who access them, despite tag lines and disclaimers that proclaim that they are satirical, or are meant to spoof or make fun of ideas, events and individuals, are also often used and reposted as if the content is factually true.
Many Filipino social media users cannot distinguish truth from satire. A Rappler Move.PH article “Why can’t many Filipinos tell truth from satire?” by Rappler Social Media producer Marguerite de Leon points out that while other cultures have a ready understanding and appreciation for satire, this is not generally true in the Philippines. The article pointed out that “It’s possible, through a flawed educational system, that many Filipinos were not taught to think critically enough. And if you can’t think critically enough, grasping satire may be more difficult than it should be.”
CMFR also compiled a list of some of the satirical websites in the Philippines:
Think Before You Click
The Asia Digital Marketing Association (ADMA) noted that in 2015, the Philippines had the 2nd highest number of Internet users in Southeast Asia and was 6th in all of Asia with 44.2 million users. Ninety-four (94) percent of these numbers have social media accounts which they use to share news and information. This 94 percent can be influential in shaping the international image of the Philippines among people from other countries who access social media. What’s as important, they also multiply possible errors among themselves and the rest of the Philippine Internet community by reposting and sharing flawed information.
It is important to read and be critical of material posted in certain sites before actually liking or sharing them on Facebook or Twitter. Sharing misinformation through social media can actually lead to the dumbing down of large numbers of people, and contribute to the further deterioration of democratic discourse.