Jan 6, 2018

Comedy causes confusion in the Trump era

Illustration: Axios Visuals

A longtime parody Twitter account, @pixelatedboat, tweeted a fake excerpt from Michael Wolff's controversial new book "Fire and Fury," that implied President Trump likes to watch a made-up "gorilla channel" on TV. The riff instantly triggered a wave of viral memes and comedic responses, many of which came from users who thought the excerpt was real.

Why it matters: The unprecedented state of news and journalism during the Trump era has made it difficult for social media users to distinguish comedy from actual news and reporting.

The perfectly-timed joked was a recipe for viral success and confusion. It captured President Trump's well-documented obsession with television and fervor for fighting, as well as the absurdity of some observations made in Wolff's book and the state of utter chaos engulfing the news media, which has sometimes resulted in bad news judgement.

Other instances of good humor turned viral this year show just how susceptible the public has become to falling for parody news on social media in an era where any absurdity seems possible.

  • After the GOP health care bill was defeated in March, a satirical addition to a New York Times story about Paul Ryan listening to Papa Roach circulated on Twitter, but so many people believed the photoshopped image, the author had to clarify to his followers it was just a joke.

The problem becomes worse when examples of poor journalism from established news organizations create a narrative that nothing or everything is "fake news," depending on which bias one wishes to affirm.

  • The Washington Post's David Weigel apologized for tweeting a photograph that did not accurately represent the number of people that attended a Florida rally in December.
  • ABC's Brian Ross was suspended (and just returned) from the network after airing an erroneous report about Michael Flynn's plea that caused the stock market to crash over 300 points.
  • CNN was forced to correct a story about the timing of when candidate Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. access hacked WikiLeaks documents before they were publicly available.

Already, right-wing media is using the incident to drive a deeper wedge between conservatives and "liberal" media, arguing affirmation bias against the Trump administration caused some journalists to believe the joke was real. "The more conspiratorial elements of the anti-Trump Twitter world were hardest hit," writes The Washington Free Beacon.

Go deeper