Twice within a few days, the otherwise exemplary Facebook advocacy group “In Defense of Animals” succumbed to sensationalism and posted two articles sourced from satirical websites believing them to be factual. The Empire News article, which saw over 2,000 shares on the IDA Facebook page, claimed that “the gambling industry has been quietly seeking a controversial betting offshoot – legalized and industry regulated dog fighting.” Of course this is carefully tailored nonsense since dog-fighting is a felony across the United States. Wonkette is a online magazine of topical satire and political gossip, and the IDA mistakenly posted this article entitled “The National Rifle Association Paves The Way For Dogs and Cats To Be Eaten.” The article actually discusses the NRAs vested interest in the continuation of pigeon shoots, which is true, but they add a layer of falsity to their writing by suggesting that the failure of House Bill 1750, which opposes dog/cat consumption as well as pigeon shoots, now paves the way to eating these animals, courtesy of the NRA. The Wonkette article was not really wrong, but it rather stretched the truth until it was elliptical. There are so many credible descriptive sources of information that could have been used to highlight the fact that the extremist NRA came out in full force against the Bill, which sought to stop birds from being launched out of traps in front of awaiting shooters.
In Defense of Animals finally took down the Empire News post about dog fighting, but it was up for at least 12 hours, during which time thousands of posts were made by outraged people who were planning to start petitions and cancel travel plans to Vegas. Unfortunately, IDA did not issue a retraction or clarification for either article, which means that some, if not most of these people, will be left with the belief that dogs and cats are about to be put on the menu in Pennsylvania and that dog fighting is imminent in Las Vegas.
Had these topics not been so serious, the internet would have erupted in laughter. But instead, some of the 270,000 followers of the IDA page erupted in sheer rage or utter sadness. The dog fighting article was not remotely funny, certainly not in a way that The Onion is funny, and was easily mistaken for an actual news article. With such a huge number of followers, the group had a duty to fact-check articles from unknown or relatively unknown sources. Even more aggravating is the fact that some people posted to IDAs timeline imploring them to remove the dog fighting story, and instead saw their posts removed while the sharing continued without abatement, making it appear as though the IDA was engaged in some sort of traffic grab.
Both Wonkette and Empire News (among other satirical sites) are loaded with click-bait generating links and stories that suck in those persons with a keen immunity to irony. I’ve occasionally been caught forwarding some of these articles, albeit rarely, but I don’t feel so badly (and others shouldn’t either) when we find out that The Washington Post fell for a report that Sarah Palin was joining Al Jazeera America. How many people were taken in by an article reported via The National Report: America’s #1 Independent News Team, (sounds official, right?) that Cliven Bundy is being considered as a GOP candidate for president in 2016? And if you see an article claiming North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was pronounced the “sexiest man alive” you would probably question the source, amirite?
The imitation of The Onion, The Daily Show, or The Colbert Report has spawned a legion of poor facsimiles – websites which are devoid of entertainment value or are even harmful as we’ve just seen. Most of these websites are stuffed with high trending keywords associated with current news stories. The way they make money is all in the headlines— they’re designed to be inflammatory but just believable enough to entice readers to click on them and share them without thinking too much about the content. Some of these satirical sites also publish real news alongside outright fabrications, which has the obvious effect of making all their stories seem real, thus confusing the reader. The internet’s viral bullshit culture actually rewards the creators of these bogus articles if they have an ad-saturated website, which most do. But would you repeat a story you heard from a random person on the subway without independently corroborating it elsewhere?
To avoid becoming a victim of satire news, be sure to read the “about” section of the news site you’re visiting. Or check out the comprehensive list of satirical news sites on Wikipedia. Both Empire News and Wonkette make such acknowledgements on their websites, probably for legal reasons. Sadly these disclaimers were missed and the posts in question negatively impacted the reputation of the group who are on the front lines trying to make the world a better place for animals.
In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization dedicated to ending the exploitation and abuse of animals by raising the status of animals beyond that of mere property, and by defending their rights, welfare and habitat. IDA’s efforts include educational events, cruelty investigations, boycotts, grassroots activism, and hands-on rescue through sanctuaries in Mississippi and Cameroon, Africa.