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We've lost the skill to think critically, to ask ourselves "is this real?" People read the headline, skim the story, and jump to the comments
My wife and I rented Gravity a while ago, a movie I enjoyed thoroughly. I knew enough about space exploration to pick out some of the inaccuracies, but I was able to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy the movie. Telling her this, my wife told me about someone who couldn't suspend their disbelief at the movie – astronaut Chris Hadfield. She had skimmed a story a friend had posted to their Facebook page about Hadfield being asked to leave a theatre after creating a disturbance mocking the movie during an early screening.
I heard the story, but it didn't seem right to me. Chris Hadfield? I had seen him a few times on TV and he seemed so nice. He recorded a cover of Space Oddity on the International Space Station and posted it on YouTube. It was so cool. This does not sound like a guy who'd be yelling "Yeah, that'd never happen! George Clooney, you're an idiot!" in a movie theatre. But she said the article came from a newspaper. I shrugged, thought maybe it happened. I could see the movie getting under astronauts' skin, like how scenes depicting computers unrealistically get under my skin (*cough* *cough* NCIS *cough*).
It was the kind thing that didn't sit well with me, though. I didn't want to believe it. Chris Hadfield is an astronaut golden child, and a Canadian hero. Was it true he was also a jerk? It shouldn't have been still bugging me days later. But it was. So much so, that I had to find the original newspaper story.
And I did find it. I read the story, and skimming it, it looked fairly legit. But reading it, it doesn't sound true. So I looked up The Beaverton, and the mystery was fairly quickly solved; this paper is a satirical news source.
Many people have heard of The Onion, one of the best satirical news sources. It's a very clever parody of real news, and they manage to mock not only news makers, but also the medium of news reporting itself. I think their TV show is a brilliant send up of the typical American Fox News/CNN/MSNBC 24/7 news cable network. There are other good parodies too, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and the Chaser's CNNNN are some examples that stand out.
But the problem with good satire is that it often becomes bad satire. And the problem with The Beaverton, with all due respect, is that it's more "meh" than "lol". Good satire is hard.
So when a fictitious news story isn't all that funny, but it looks like what we'd expect a bona fide news article to look like, there's no signal to the readers that "this is just a joke".
Sometimes it's cultural – the joke goes beyond the target group, and the semantics of the satire is lost. Canadian fake news program This is That posted a segment on their website two years ago about dogs in Montreal being required to be bilingual French and English. As a Canadian from that part of the country, I got the joke and found it pretty funny. But the story went viral, and people outside the target group didn't see it as a satirical comment on the bilingual laws that do exist in Montreal.
So perhaps it's also the audience's fault. We're bombarded with news and spin, and we've been acclimatised to that 24-7 cable always-on-reporting-nothing style. We've lost the skill to think critically, to ask ourselves "is this real?" People read the headline, skim the story, and jump to the comments. Take a look at NPR's April Fools hoax – the story was obviously not true, but the commenters didn't seem to notice.
This isn't new of course. When radio was still a new medium, Ronald Knox had listeners believing a Communist revolt had broken out in London. Twelve years later, Orson Welles famously panicked people with news reports of the Martian invasion. Both broadcasts sounded real to listeners, and at the time, the idea of a fake news report was unheard of.
But today, we don't have that excuse. And if it doesn't sound right, we should do our homework and follow it up.
So, when you skim an article that sounds dubious, take the time to read closer, look for the clues, research the source. Maybe it's just a joke you didn't get, and dogs don't have to speak two languages, kids aren't playing soccer with imaginary soccer balls, George Bush did not vote for Obama by accident, and Chris Hadfield is still the coolest astronaut ever.