The Onion in the age of Trump: ‘What we do becomes essential when its targets are this clownish’ | Culture

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When you’re scrolling through your Facebook news feed and you see a headline like “Pope Francis Declares Abortion Forgivable”, do you think it’s legitimate?

What about: “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”? Would you immediately know if it was a breaking story, fake news or satire? How?

Since the US presidential election campaign in 2016, fake news – and we don’t accept Trump’s definition of fake news as anything he disagrees with – has become a real problem. It’s a problem for news organisations and for aggregators like Google and Facebook, who stand accused of spreading and legitimising it.

But it’s also become a problem for one of the oldest sources of fake news: American satirical publication the Onion. Launched in 1988 as a print publication, the Onion is now a digital-only media company that publishes the Onion and sister website ClickHole – their answer to viral sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy – and its alt-right parody channel, PatriotHole.

PatriotHole
(@PatriotHole)

RT if you agree it’s unfair that the lamestream media is witch hunting Trump into an early grave while Osama bin Laden remains at large.


July 7, 2017

The Onion, which calls itself “America’s finest news source”, has a team of paid writers and editors who imitate the style of respectable newspapers like the New York Times to lambast politics and society at large; to make us smile and make us think.

One of the founding editors, Scott Dikkers, expressed his frustration with the confusion between fake news and satire when he spoke to university students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, earlier this year.

“A lot of people now think satire and fake news are the same thing,” Dikkers said in February.

“It’s satire. It’s totally different from fake news, and it bothers me when those fake news organisations are basically out there printing lies or propaganda [and] label themselves satire.”

The key here is deception. Technically the Onion produces fake news but it’s for laughs – not to intentionally deceive readers, or to promote misinformation for ideological reasons, or to generate advertising revenue.

When a fake news site based in Russia sends out a story like “WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to Isis … Then drops another bombshell”, they are doing it to deliberately deceive – and they’re counting on the fact that many will see the headline and scroll past it before the lack of credibility registers.

The managing editor of the Onion, Marnie Shure, says that if an Onion article is taken as fact, then it has failed.

“The thing I like to emphasise is this: we work far too hard crafting our jokes for them to be taken as fact,” she tells Guardian Australia ahead of a trip to Sydney for the Antidote ideas festival.

“If someone doesn’t recognise the joke we’re making, then that’s a whole lot of labour lost. We aim never to trick people but rather to train them to see the world as we see it. In a world infested by ‘fake news’, the intention [and subsequent execution] is everything.”

Alex PoucherThe Onion
(@TheOnion)

‘My Work Here Is Done,’ Smiles Contented Bannon Before Bursting Into Millions Of Spores https://t.co/W4mqzxmPOx pic.twitter.com/Gon0oUxG5n


August 18, 2017

Shure, who has spent almost her entire career at the Onion in various roles, says the concept of fake news and society’s response to it is ever evolving – and since the 2016 US election, that evolution has accelerated.

“The 2016 election illuminated that, while we absolutely intend for our publication to be considered a joke and to be recognised as such, there are countless outlets that were outright attempting to deceive their audiences with entirely fabricated stories,” she says.

“Facebook sought to crack down on the latter but we have been inextricably tied to those outlets’ intentional deceptions. It makes it more important than ever for us to only publish what we can stand behind with our full support.”

Alex Poucher



Staff of the Onion at work. Photograph: The Onion

Facebook’s struggle to contain fake news was under the spotlight this week in Sydney, when the social media network’s executives appeared before a Senate inquiry to explain what they were doing to prevent the spread of fake news.

Facebook says it is responding to the threat of fake news by analysing the behaviour of the sites and cutting off their lifeblood – advertising revenue – but politicians remain unimpressed by the progress so far.

It’s not just fake news that has muddied the waters for the Onion. The election of Trump has given writers of satire additional challenges. When the president of the United States is tweeting nonsense and the White House has become a circus, is there still room for the Onion?

News stories coming out of this administration are so outlandish they are more likely than ever to attract the well-worn Twitter hashtag #NotTheOnion than ever before.

Kansas City Crank
(@kccrank)

White racists demonstrate their superiority with a party decoration inspired by Polynesian culture. #Charlottesville #nottheonion pic.twitter.com/EjeTBNe5sj


August 12, 2017

Alex PoucherNick Covington
(@CovingtonAHS)

You’re a time traveler: try explaining to someone in the year 2000 that this picture is #NotTheOnion pic.twitter.com/hGy6xDBPRs


August 21, 2017

“What we do becomes even more essential when its targets are this clownish,” Shure answers. “I’d argue that the world right now is farcical, not satirical. The satire comes in when you can speak truth to that reigning circus sideshow. Our maxim is ‘afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted’. That’s certainly not something that anyone in the Trump administration is attempting to do.”

Atara
(@VelvetSeaWader)

When every article and tweet of the day assumes a #NotTheOnion hashtag, your country MIGHT be fucked.


August 16, 2017

Shure’s writers, who are more likely to have a comedy background than a journalistic one, have had to find “creative ways to write around him”, she says.

“In addition to commenting on him, it’s important to comment on the fact that Trump does not exist in a vacuum.

“He is surrounded by family members and cabinet members and constituents, all of whom are facilitating the current political landscape in some way. So we aim to have a mix of coverage that leaves no one blameless.”

Marnie Shure is speaking at Antidote, held at the Sydney Opera House on 2-3 September.

Click to view the original article on The Guardian.

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