When Bad Satire Becomes Reality

This treatise begins with a quest. Like many desperate writers in the age of creative entrepreneurship, I was scouring Facebook groups for a place to plug one of my articles. Through my digital travels, I subscribed to a myriad of pages, joined groups, shared my story, then promptly forgot about all of them. Since then, intermittent posts from these internet places would populate my feed, though they went largely unacknowledged until this photo popped up on my timeline:

A photo of a pool. To be clear, there’s nothing inherently subversive about the pool or this picture. But the accompanying caption was vastly more insidious:

“Breaking News (Branson) — White Water to rename park, remove ‘White’ from name.

“Due to mounting pressure from the public, White Water has voted to remove ‘White’ from the park name. The park will now simply be called ‘Water.’ The vote on the name change was unanimous, and the name change will go into effect immediately.”

At the time of this publication, you can still view the original post in context here. It originates from a page called “Branson Area Breaking News,” a humor Facebook page that published satirical news for the town of Branson, Missouri. For context, Branson is a small town in the Ozarks that would probably like you to remember it for its Silver Dollar City amusement park or its scenic railway attraction; however, thanks to recent media coverage, you’re more likely to recognize them for their confederate general store, Dixie Outfitters.

Dixie Outfitters came under fire for–among other things–calling Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs” and posting that BLM protestors “don’t just hate us…they hate our country!” There are a lot of things you could say about Dixie Outfitters and their owners Anna and Nathan Rob, including mentioning their personal ties to the KKK, but I think the most poignant critique of Dixie Outfitters comes from this Yelp review:

Back to Facebook: At first glance, I thought the Branson Area Breaking News (BABN) was right-leaning, but further review of their off-color humor revealed a desire to appear more edgy than political. That said, some of the posts are just flagrantly racist, which is pretty on-brand for the GOP, so you can see how I’d get confused. Even this post, which lampoons real corporations changing their actually problematic names (e.g. Aunt Jemima’s cancellation) presupposes the viewer’s haughty attitude towards racial sensitivity.

(I should also clarify that I don’t follow BABN, but I joined a satire posting group that reposted this publication from their page.)

More concerning than the original poster’s sense of humor is what happens when the context of the page is lost or, even worse, stops mattering. There are 269 shares on the original post. Of those 269, almost half seem to take the post at face value, interpreting the announcement as an actual news bulletin.

Sure, it’s funny to see somebody swing and miss, but keep in mind, this is happening over a hundred times within this post alone. Fortunately, there are some good Samaritans out there to set the record straight:

Or take Jean, incredulous at the notion that her favorite water park would henceforth be known as “Water,” who proclaimed to her followers that this fictitious decision was “stupid ridiculous”:

Luckily, Debbie and Carissa stepped in with the one-two punch of truth and revelation:

Sorry, Nellie, your skin tone will henceforth be known as khaki.

Now, in the case of Katelyn’s share, the good Samaritan might have arrived too late:

For the record, Mary, it’ll be easier to kiss your ass if you bend over.

Still, my all-time favorite good Samaritan is Wes. Wes’ journey began on the Branson Area Breaking News page, where he commented on the original post:

Wes, an insatiable seeker of knowledge, demanded to know Branson Area Breaking News’ sources. As a well-informed citizen of Taney county, he had major misgivings about this “breaking news”; however, after a quick back and forth with the denizens of BABN’s comment section, Wes learned that he had, in fact, acted the fool.

But his journey was far from over. Like Odysseus returning from the Trojan War, Wes brought his hard-won knowledge home to his people:

I love Wes. Before Freda could succumb to the same ingenuous gaffe, our hero rushed to his keyboard to shine a light on the post’s dubious origin. We need more Wes in the world. (Only with regards to this hyper-specific segment of his character. I’m not going up to bat for him only to discover later he patronizes Dixie Outfitters.)

Jokes aside, this post metamorphoses from satire into misinformation when the sharer eschews the original context. People like Christy become what Kate Starbird of Nature refers to as an unwitting agent, people who “are unaware of their role, but who amplify and embellish messages that polarize communities and sow doubt about science, mainstream journalism and Western governments.” In the context of Starbird’s article, she’s referring to campaigns of disinformation stemming from foreign agents that ultimately take on a life of their own through these unwitting agents.

Still worse is when an unwilling agent becomes an uncaring agent. A population of the sharers expressed apathy towards the veracity of the post, simply throwing their hands up and surmising that it might as well be true:

This sentiment was echoed in Danielle’s comment section by Jeremiah, sharing his truth from underneath a GIF of exasperated Stitch:

But the problem is you can know, Jeremiah. You can know super easily; Branson Area Breaking News is a satirical page whose tagline is “just for fun.” If any of the sharers had bothered to click on the name of the page whose content they were sharing, it would’ve become immediately apparent that this was not real news. Yet, for so many people, it just does not matter whether it’s true.

Good for Dolly.

Anyway, yes, the misdirected outrage can be funny to witness, and yes, it happens on both sides. As far as I know, my camp is just as likely to earnestly retweet a piece of satire as real news and take information out of context. So, if we’re all guilty, what’s the harm? Well, for starters, there are guys like Mike:

Perhaps I’m naïve for taking Mike’s post at face value. In a vacuum, you might rightfully say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, what is Mike going to do? Turns out, I don’t have to look much further than my home state of North Carolina for an answer.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, three members of the local police force, Cpl. Jessie Moore and officers Kevin Piner and Brian Gilmore, were arrested after a video audit on June 4th for making racist and threatening remarks towards members of the black community, including Magistrate Maurice Daniel Sr. Their conversations were recorded by pure chance when a camera in Officer Piner’s car accidentally captured the damning exchange.

During the exchange, all of the officers employ racist language and endorse racist ideas, many of which involve committing violent crimes against black citizens; however, Officer Piner was, by and large, the most profligate in his bigotry, repeatedly using racial slurs and advocating for the murder of protestors.

According to the official investigative report from the incident, “Piner tells Moore […] that he feels a civil war is coming and he is ‘ready.’” He says that he’s planning on buying a new assault rifle and proclaims that soon “we are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fucking [redacted].” Officer Moore disagrees with that sentiment, and Piner replies, “I’m ready.”

If you want to see the investigative report, you can view it here. It’s extremely graphic, and most harrowing of all is the notion that conversations like this are going on all over the country unrecorded.

Both Officer Piner and Facebook Mike share the same belief that we’re on the cusp of a civil war. These aren’t necessarily fringe views either; according to Keith Mines, a member of the U.S. State Department, we are facing “a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years.” Regardless of whether Mines is right, one thing is for certain: There’s tension in the air.

Of course, misplaced outrage over Facebook posts and Tweets didn’t make Officer Piner or his pals’ violent racists, but they’re what’s sitting at the end of a long funnel greased with disinformation. In an age when quality information is too often obscured by ubiquitous fake news, it’s vital that we cast a critical eye over the content that we share. Because the best case scenario is you look like a fool, and the worst case is we end up in a war with guys like Mike.

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I write about the environment and climate change from Raleigh, NC. 🍁 🌳 ☀️

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Zachary Turner

Zachary Turner

I write about the environment and climate change from Raleigh, NC. 🍁 🌳 ☀️

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