The popular fact-checking website has become an advocate of censorship, and a danger to one of humanities most powerful forms of protest literature.
In their recent article, Study: Too Many People Think Satirical News Is Real, Snopes calls for internet media giants to create a form of censorship which recalls the tyrannical folly of the Parents Music Resource Center of the 1980s.
“We found that labeling an article as “satire” was uniquely effective. Users were less likely to believe stories labeled as satire, were less likely to share them and saw the source as less credible. They also valued the warning.”
While Snopes has no real direct power to create or enforce a labeling system across the internet, there is no doubt that their intent here is to influence the likes of Google and Facebook to do so. By stirring up public outrage and fear from the height of their soapbox as arbiters of truth, Snopes intent can be read as nothing other than an attempt to become the flagship leading a charge to institutionalize anti-satire policies across the internet.
Perhaps the most embarrassing part of this debacle is Snopes failure to understand the role of satire in culture, literature, history and dissent. By applying concepts like ‘truth in advertising’ and ‘journalistic ethics’ to satire, it is clear that they have no idea of the important functions satire has played across societies throughout history. Satire is not news, but neither is it merely entertainment. And although it is often considered a form of humor, it is not necessarily that, either. So what is satire?
Satire is a form of literature and the arts which aims at the people, policies, institutions, ideologies and practices of power by dissecting them through metaphors, allegories and parables which highlight the abuses and absurdities not apparent in traditional literary or journalistic forms.
It is such an important part of human endeavors that historians often rely on it to glean details unavailable in official historical records. Tyrants and despots may disregard, discard and reinterpret facts over time, but satire preserves the zeitgeist of every era, allowing us to view history from the perspective of those who resist and dissent.
And though the purpose of satire is not to trick the reader, it is in blurring the lines between reality and absurdity that it gains its power. If a work of satire has no chance of being mistaken for truth, then it has likely failed to address its target in any meaningful way. The possibility of being tricked exists to warn us away from intellectual complacency, and provides checks and balances to the media environment by encouraging critical thinking. It is therefore crucial that satire is disseminated among the populace without an explicit statement of intent, less it be cast aside by the masses as frivolous, and excuses us from our own responsibility to tread cautiously at all times.
Does this mean that satire will often trick people? Most certainly, but that is a feature, not a bug. It is in misinterpretation and social outrage that it is distributed and preserved, allowing it to reach those who can draw deeper meaning and usage from it.
The larger problem is not that satire tricks too many people, but that too many people are easily fooled, which is a consequence of naive realists like Snopes.
There are no uninterpreted facts. Every piece of information carries the biases and prejudices of those who create and share it. Today we face a crisis of media serving up their interpretations as ultimate truths. Snopes sells its goods to the public as though they are a commodity to be consumed to add value to their customers lives. It eschews the need for individual interpretation and research, and instead sells its goods from a position of authority.
The habit of consuming media in such a way is that, over time, consumers become less savvy at doing their own critical thinking. The falsehood of prepackaged, pre-approved truth leads to anti-intellectualism and blind faith. It pulls us further and further from the skills required to recognize the purpose and intent of information and informants.
While Snopes is concerned about the effects of satire on the gullible, they are unable or unwilling to recognize their contribution to making the public more gullible. By serving up Happy Meals of Truth, they create cognitive habits which turn thinkers into mindless consumers.
It would be nearly impossible to argue that, at this point in history, we do not face a crisis of gullibility and widespread inability to interpret information. The problem, however, is not satire, but a media environment which treats information as a commodity instead of as a starting point for personal investigation. And there is hardly an outlet as guilty of this in the current media environment as Snopes, who profit greatly from playing the ultimate arbiters of the One True Interpretation.
“Nullius in verba.”
Or, ‘Take nobody’s word for it.’ This has been the motto of the Royal Society, the oldest association of empiricists in existence, since 1660. The motto is a reminder that each and every individual is responsible for reaching their own interpretations through investigation, and should never bow to any authority of truth. Although Snopes wears a mask of empiricism, what they ask their readers to do is precisely the opposite of the spirit of scientific endeavors. Snopes wear their very own crown of authority, which ought to make them a target of satire, not an expert on its use.
The problem with Snopes extends beyond their dangerous stance against satire and into other areas of human thought. They have championed mainstream liberalism, scientific materialism and other modernist ideologies at the expense of alternate and dissenting ideas. Mind you I am not suggesting they are too progressive, but just the opposite, too conservative. They ignore centuries of thought in idealist philosophy, post-modernism and phenomenalism; choosing instead to champion Protestant-derived realism. They eschew actual leftism in favor of nationalist concepts and other intellectual vices of authority. And it precisely this falsehood that allows them to mistake their self-delusion and agenda as integrity.
There are, in fact, many pressing problems among satire outlets these days which need addressed. Satirists often play false dichotomies within power structures against each other, rather than addressing the power structures themselves. By doing so they validate the infrastructures of inequality, drowning out more potent and meaningful forms of dissent. On top of this, in their thirst for media success, they have watered down satire with cheap humor and clickbait headlines that offer no substance. Satire that is driven by personal ambition and market forces, rather than the purpose of exposing the folly of the unscrupulously ambitious, is also a threat to dissent, literature and humanity.
Yet all told, satire is not the problem here. The problem is that we have a very powerful tool which we have forgotten the purpose of, and instead of correcting that issue, we blame the tool for our misuse.
The crusade against satire which Snopes has led the most recent charge is yet another attack by puritanical fundamentalists who are too literal and self-interested for the good of humanity as a whole. The real issue is that too many people think the authority of media is real. And asking that very same media to self-regulate through insidious forms of censorship is not just an example of Snopes authoritarian stance, it is a harbinger of the increasing tyranny of media propaganda disguising itself as objective altruism.
It is no wonder that Snopes thinks we are too stupid to parse out satire from journalism, since they have been a major contributing factor to dumbing us down in the digital age. Beware those who would dumb you down, then claim to want to protect you from your own stupidity.