by Dan Abromowitz

In recent weeks, Facebook has been testing the addition of a new [SATIRE] tag for headlines from satirical websites, designed to help people distinguish real news from fake stories. It’s currently being applied to both actual satire, like The Onion and Clickhole, as well as viral hoax sites like the Daily Currant and the National Report.

That’s all well and good, but it suggests that a lot of folks are struggling to tell the difference between news, satire, and fake “satire”—a valuable media literacy skill. In the interest of ‘net betterment, here are the questions to ask to figure out what’s satire... and what’s "satire."


Is it from The Onion?

Let's start easy. Recognizing satire from The Onion should be easy as recognizing a dog: you ask yourself, “Hey, is that a dog?” And if it's a dog, you say to yourself, “Yeah, sure is.” And you smile, because you saw a good thing. That's The Onion.

Verdict: It's satire!


Is it from The New Yorker?

So you've come across a headline that resembles something from The Onion, but it's wordy, cloyingly liberal, and instead of making you laugh, leaves you cold and a little bummed out. And, because it's on The New Yorker, your parents' friend Peg has posted it ("Sarah Palin does it again!") under the delusion that it's real, breaking news from a publication that never covers breaking news. Is it satire?

Ish! That's the Borowitz Report, an absolute juggernaut of site traffic for NewYorker.com, and it panders softball garbage packaged to dupe liberals into thinking it’s actual, shareworthy "wild" news of Mitt Romney's latest rich-guy thing. It’s a pretty ingenious strategy, since the target audience are the same folks who, on learning their mistake, will readily defend it with, "Well, but it could be true!" Having made a fuckzillion dollars off of creating The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Andy Borowitz has spent the rest of his adult life juicing the lowest-hanging fruit; the Borowitz Report is his dribblings. He also clearly edits his own Wikipedia article.

Verdict: It's satire, but c'mon.


Is it from a site you don't recognize?

Context is crucial for recognizing satire, but some sites go out of their way to sound generically news-y to give superficial legitimization to their bullshit scoop, as though their founders generated site names with pairs of neutered sex dice. Slap together any permutation of "News," "Daily," "Viral," "Report," "Record," "Science," and "World," and you're good to crank a few thousand bucks out of Google ads through blind click-throughs, as long as you remember to bury the operative word "satire" somewhere out-of-the-way, like a little abused Snowpiercer child.

Verdict: It's "satire," like how punching your little brother is a "joke."

Is it about Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Michele Bachmann, John McCain, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Kim Kardashian, Rush Limbaugh, Kanye West, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Sterling?

Follow-up questions:

  • Does it involve a particularly ironic misfortune befalling them (e.g. "Kanye West Breaks His Nose Trying To Kiss His Reflection")?
  • Does it take the easiest possible approach to its subject, without any hint of original thought (e.g. "Donald Trump Reveals He Wears Wig")?
  • Is it structured as a context-free, incendiary/idiotic pull quote by a public figure who only ever appears in the news next to context-free, incendiary/idiotic pull quotes (e.g. "Sarah Palin: 'I'd Let Putin Motorboat Me To Save Ukraine')?
  • Is "twerking" in there anywhere?

Verdict: It's "satire."


Is it shared by one of your sensationally and/or ideologically-inclined friends?

With social media, context clues extend beyond the piece itself. We've all got Facebook friends who surf their days away on wave after wave of moral outrage, churning with all the discernment of a woodchipper through intoxicatingly infuriating blog posts, and sharing them with a "disgusted. can't even." To parasitic "satire" websites looking to go viral, these folks are their patient zeroes. So when you see "Absurd: Woman Gets KICKED OFF PLANE For Mentioning Her Period!!" pop up on your feed from Johnny Danger Linksalot and think to yourself, "Hey, that shouldn't happen," there's a pretty good chance it didn't.

Verdict: It's either "satire" or hatebait; either way, it's internet backwash.


Is it actually making a point?

Sometimes, satire is actually satire! Believe it or not, words still have the power to cleverly expose commonly-held fallacies, reframe assumptions, draw meaningful comparisons, make us self-conscious, and offer perspectives beyond what's readily apparent! And sometimes they still do! It's just up to us, as readers, to approach what we read with a healthy balance of openness, skepticism, and irreverence to allow any of that to actually happen. So, regardless of its source or packaging, if you find yourself reading something that's making you somehow laugh and think at the same time, take a second to note that this is what it's supposed to feel like. It's nice, right?

Verdict: That's satire, baby!

Dan Abromowitz doesn't know how to do anything. Follow him on Twitter.