The headline read “Disney announces Mulan will be transgender in 2020 live-action remake,” and the article made its rounds on Facebook; it appeared on my feed multiple times from several Facebook friends, with variations of the same outraged captions. “They have to ruin everything” or “the alphabet people gettin’ annoyin’ now.” The only problem? It wasn’t a real story. This article was posted on NPC Daily, a right-leaning satirical site. Browsing through the site, it is very easy to find their disclaimer, found here:
My initial reaction was anger. Are you just unwilling to verify sources? Are you even aware that verifying sources is a thing that needs to happen? How dumb can you be? It is worth noting that I don’t actually consider those people dumb. NPC Daily’s writers and I fall on different ends of the political spectrum but as a writer, I objectively consider the writing to be very good, given the criteria of closely mirroring a news story. The Onion, one of my favorite satirical sites, also routinely gets confused for real news stories. So do other sites like Huzlers and Click Hole and other popular satirical sites. Considering this, my emotions shifted from angry to terrified. The question that came to mind immediately after I stopped being angry was this: if we can’t discern satire from real news, then how are we supposed to handle an actual, targeted disinformation campaign? Is the entertainment that satire provides worth the confusion it can cause?
Disinformation is generally content which is intended to deceive, mislead or manipulate its target population. This can come in several forms but recently, it has largely taken the form of propaganda spread by or on behalf of a government and highly partisan sites. This is not to be confused with misinformation, which is content that is false or incorrect but not with the intention of causing harm. While they are not the same, they are both lumped under the blanket term, “fake news.” So is satire. All of these mirror real news and cause confusion, but satire is one of these that is usually labeled as fake so that the reader isn’t confused by it. The issue is that the reader frequently takes the story at face value and doesn’t bother to validate the sources and information presented. Disinformation campaigns rely on this. And in satirical articles, we have the opportunity to have a test run of sorts, and frankly, we’re not doing a good job. And the role of satire in providing social commentary is quickly being overshadowed by its ability to be confused for real news. When this leads to groups like sexual and gender minorities and people of color being antagonized because satire was taken to be actual news, we weaponize comedy and turn it into disinformation. These minorities are often the targets of actual disinformation campaigns that we further perpetuate. We can only hope that if a small population like the Virgin Islands is ever targeted by an actual disinformation campaign, we won’t just be a sitting duck. But by the looks of it, we will not be ready.