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There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

Satire is fine; in fact, everyone loves to read something that puts a smile on their face. However, when satire is taken as fact, it becomes a whole different concept. What gives us pause in some cases is when a site such as The Onion writes a satirical piece that six months later turns out to be true.

Satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose the stupidity or vices of certain people, especially in the context of current events. In other words, it is supposed to be a joke. While it can often be used as a parable to convey a lesson, it is not based on fact.

PT Barnum_Poster from Flickr via Wylio © 2011 Dave Hannon, Flickr | CC-BY 

You might recognize the headline of this article as a quote attributed to PT Barnum. In reality, it is unknown if he is the originator of the adage or not, but he certainly took advantage of the apparent fact. People are gullible. And if they want to believe something it is easier to fool them.

PT Barnum sold his deceptions for entertainment and profit, as do many websites today. There is certainly a difference between sites that are up front about being satirical and entertaining, and those who publish misinformation. Propaganda is the trade of politicians, and media that want to fool you, confounding your perception of reality.

My point today is, that amid calls for censoring and prohibiting the “fake news” sites, we need to first understand that this is nothing new. But asking the government to control the content of media is like asking the fox to guard the hen house. Increased liberty requires a higher level of responsibility.

To give up liberty to assure security is to guarantee you neither have nor deserve liberty OR security.

Mark Twain once said, “It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” This is true in so many ways! Consider the following story:

"A petrified man was found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner - which lifetime, by the way, came to a close about a century ago, in the opinion of a savant who has examined the defunct. The body was in a sitting posture, and leaning against a huge mass of croppings; the attitude was pensive, the right thumb resting against the side of the nose; the left thumb partially supported the chin, the forefinger pressing the inner corner of the left eye and drawing it partly open; the right eye was closed, and the fingers of the right hand spread apart. This strange freak of nature created a profound sensation in the vicinity, and our informant states that by request, Justice Sewell or Sowell, of Humboldt City, at once proceeded to the spot and held an inquest on the body. The verdict of the jury was that "deceased came to his death from protracted exposure," etc. The people of the neighborhood volunteered to bury the poor unfortunate, and were even anxious to do so; but it was discovered, when they attempted to remove him, that the water which had dripped upon him for ages from the crag above, had coursed down his back and deposited a limestone sediment under him which had glued him to the bedrock upon which he sat, as with a cement of adamant, and Judge S. refused to allow the charitable citizens to blast him from his position. The opinion expressed by his Honor that such a course would be little less than sacrilege, was eminently just and proper. Everybody goes to see the stone man, as many as three hundred having visited the hardened creature during the past five or six weeks."

 

petrified_man

Illustration of the Petrified Man from 1882 edition of Twain's Sketches, New and Old. Note the position of the Petrified Man's hands.

The author of this story was Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. This satirical piece was written about the same time it was revealed that the Piltdown Man was a hoax. Clemens was shocked his story took on a life of its own, and that people actually believed it. It was his first attempt at a hoax, when written he viewed it as “a string of roaring absurdities.”

His mission was two-fold. One was to poke fun at the petrification stories that were all the rage at the time. Of course, it didn’t work, because most did not recognize it as satire. The other was to mock a local politician-  one with whom he’d had a falling out and considered to be a pompous fool.

Clemens did offer one clue as to the veracity of the story, the position of the man’s hands. If you look at the picture, you can see the man’s hands are held in a position of ridicule. Intentional hoaxes are not new, whether it was PT Barnum’s bearded lady or Samuel Clemens's petrified man.

Some other classic hoaxes are:

A man who puts up signs in stores and parks directing people to follow comical directives, such as all pets must be clothed and that the park is not responsible for your failed marriage.

In 1949, a waitress found a bottle on the beach that bequeathed to the finder a $12 million inheritance.

Poodle clipping was an Olympic sport in the 1900 summer Olympics.

Let’s face it, if someone can think it, it can be written down and published. Why do people believe these things and not take the time to verify before believing and sharing?

In some instances, it is “confirmation bias-” the idea that we seek out news and information that confirms our beliefs. It also lends credence to the belief that some people are just lazy and won't make an effort to confirm a story or its source. It demonstrates a lack of professionalism in legitimate news organizations. Editors used to be “gatekeepers,” verifying stories and sources before publication. In a dog-eat-dog world of 24/7 news and online sites, getting it out takes precedence over getting it right.

We have a tendency to trust our friends. If a friend shares something, we trust it is valid. As I have discussed before, people do not read past the headline. They will simply share, and often the article has nothing in the body of the story that relates to the headline!  Often times source sites are not verified to find out whether they are legitimate, satire, or one of questionable accuracy. Related stories do not assure legitimacy.

I love a good story; reading an entertaining piece is quite enjoyable for me. My imagination can take off, and I can escape reality for a short time. However, I have been fooled by a story before, and I am certain you have had this happen, as well.

Let the buyer beware; take a little time so you can understand whether you are reading and sharing fact, fiction, or lies. Sharing fiction is fine, but you might add a note regarding its fictional nature, so you don’t inadvertently add to the problem.

Ultimately, WE are the final gatekeepers.

Under no circumstances should we ask the government to do our due diligence.  

 

Photo Credit: "THERE'S ONE BORN EVERY MINUTE", © 2012 marc falardeau, Flickr | CC-BY  


Written by Michael Murphy The Voice of Reason

The Voice of Reason


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