Too many people think satirical news is real



In a news cycle full of clownish characters and outrageous rhetoric, it’s no wonder satire isn’t fully registering with a lot of readers.
The Onion

R. Kelly Garrett, The Ohio State University; Robert Bond, The Ohio State University, and Shannon Poulsen, The Ohio State University

In July, the website Snopes published a piece fact-checking a story posted on The Babylon Bee, a popular satirical news site with a conservative bent.

Conservative columnist David French criticized Snopes for debunking what was, in his view, “obvious satire. Obvious.” A few days later, Fox News ran a segment featuring The Bee’s incredulous CEO.

But does everyone recognize satire as readily as French seems to?

Our team of communication researchers has spent years studying misinformation, satire and social media. Over the last several months, we’ve surveyed Americans’ beliefs about dozens of high-profile political issues. We identified news stories – both true and false – that were being shared widely on social media.

We discovered that many of the false stories weren’t the kind that were trying to intentionally deceive their readers; they actually came from satirical sites, and many people seemed to believe them.

Fool me once

People have long mistaken satire for real news.

On his popular satirical news show “The Colbert Report,” comedian Stephen Colbert assumed the character of a conservative cable news pundit. However, researchers found that conservatives regularly misinterpreted Colbert’s performance to be a sincere expression of his political beliefs.

The Onion, a popular satirical news website, is misunderstood so often that there’s a large online community dedicated to ridiculing those who have been fooled.

But now more than ever, Americans are worried about their ability to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t and think made-up news is a significant problem facing the country.

Sometimes satire is easy to spot, like when The Babylon Bee reported that President Donald Trump had appointed Joe Biden to head up the Transportation Security Administration based on “Biden’s skill getting inappropriately close to people and making unwanted physical advances.” But other headlines are more difficult to assess.

For example, the claim that John Bolton described an attack on two Saudi oil tankers as “an attack on all Americans” might sound plausible until you’re told that the story appeared in The Onion.

The truth is, understanding online political satire isn’t easy. Many satirical websites mimic the tone and appearance of news sites. You have to be familiar with the political issue being satirized. You have to understand what normal political rhetoric looks like, and you have to recognize exaggeration. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to mistake a satirical message for a literal one.

Do you know it when you see it?

Our study on misinformation and social media lasted six months. Every two weeks, we identified 10 of the most shared fake political stories on social media, which included satirical stories. Others were fake news reports meant to deliberately mislead readers.

We then asked a representative group of over 800 Americans to tell us if they believed claims based on those trending stories. By the end of the study, we had measured respondents’ beliefs about 120 widely shared falsehoods.

Satirical articles like those found on The Babylon Bee frequently showed up in our survey. In fact, stories published by The Bee were among the most shared factually inaccurate content in almost every survey we conducted. On one survey, The Babylon Bee had articles relating to five different falsehoods.

For each claim, we asked people to tell us whether it was true or false and how confident they were in their belief. Then we computed the proportion of Democrats and of Republicans who described these statements as “definitely true.”

If we zero in on The Babylon Bee, a few patterns stand out.

Members of both parties failed to recognize that The Babylon Bee is satire, but Republicans were considerably more likely to do so. Of the 23 falsehoods that came from The Bee, eight were confidently believed by at least 15% of Republican respondents. One of the most widely believed falsehoods was based on a series of made-up quotes attributed to Rep. Ilhan Omar. A satirical article that suggested that Sen. Bernie Sanders had criticized the billionaire who paid off Morehouse College graduates’ student debt was another falsehood that Republicans fell for.

Our surveys also featured nine falsehoods that emerged from The Onion. Here, Democrats were more often fooled, though they weren’t quite as credulous. Nonetheless, almost 1 in 8 Democrats was certain that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway had questioned the value of the rule of law.

It’s no surprise that, depending on the headline, satire might be more likely to deceive members of one political party over another. Individuals’ political worldviews consistently color their perceptions of facts. Still, Americans’ inability to agree on what is true and what is false is a problem for democracy.

Flagging satire

The larger question, though, is what we should do about this problem.

In other recent work, we compared the effectiveness of different ways of flagging inaccurate social media content.

We tested a couple of different methods. One involved including a warning that fact-checkers had determined the inaccuracy of a post. Another had a message indicating that the content was from a satirical site.

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.

Facebook tested this feature itself a few years ago, and Google News has started to label some satirical content.

The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report – a satirical column written by Andy Borowtiz – is labeled ‘satire’ when it appears in Google News searches.
Google News Screenshot

This suggests that clearly labeling satirical content as satire can help social media users navigate a complex and sometimes confusing news environment.

Despite French’s criticism of Snopes for fact-checking The Babylon Bee, he ends his essay by noting that “Snopes can serve a useful purpose. And there’s a space for it to remind readers that satire is satire.”

On this point, we couldn’t agree more.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a link providing additional details about the study’s methodology.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]The Conversation

R. Kelly Garrett, Professor of Communication, The Ohio State University; Robert Bond, Associate Professor of Communication, The Ohio State University, and Shannon Poulsen, PhD Student in Communication, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Frankenstein: the real experiments that inspired the fictional science



File 20181025 71032 1uut1t2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Giovanni Aldini’s experiments with a human corpse.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Iwan Morus, Aberystwyth University

On January 17 1803, a young man named George Forster was hanged for murder at Newgate prison in London. After his execution, as often happened, his body was carried ceremoniously across the city to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it would be publicly dissected. What actually happened was rather more shocking than simple dissection though. Forster was going to be electrified.

The experiments were to be carried out by the Italian natural philosopher Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered “animal electricity” in 1780, and for whom the field of galvanism is named. With Forster on the slab before him, Aldini and his assistants started to experiment. The Times newspaper reported:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.

It looked to some spectators “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”

By the time Aldini was experimenting on Forster the idea that there was some peculiarly intimate relationship between electricity and the processes of life was at least a century old. Isaac Newton speculated along such lines in the early 1700s. In 1730, the English astronomer and dyer Stephen Gray demonstrated the principle of electrical conductivity. Gray suspended an orphan boy on silk cords in mid air, and placed a positively charged tube near the boy’s feet, creating a negative charge in them. Due to his electrical isolation, this created a positive charge in the child’s other extremities, causing a nearby dish of gold leaf to be attracted to his fingers.

In France in 1746 Jean Antoine Nollet entertained the court at Versailles by causing a company of 180 royal guardsmen to jump simultaneously when the charge from a Leyden jar (an electrical storage device) passed through their bodies.

It was to defend his uncle’s theories against the attacks of opponents such as Alessandro Volta that Aldini carried out his experiments on Forster. Volta claimed that “animal” electricity was produced by the contact of metals rather than being a property of living tissue, but there were several other natural philosophers who took up Galvani’s ideas with enthusiasm. Alexander von Humboldt experimented with batteries made entirely from animal tissue. Johannes Ritter even carried out electrical experiments on himself to explore how electricity affected the sensations.

Actor Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, 1935.
Wikimedia

The idea that electricity really was the stuff of life and that it might be used to bring back the dead was certainly a familiar one in the kinds of circles in which the young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – the author of Frankenstein – moved. The English poet, and family friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the connections between electricity and life. Writing to his friend the chemist Humphry Davy after hearing that he was giving lectures at the Royal Institution in London, he told him how his “motive muscles tingled and contracted at the news, as if you had bared them and were zincifying the life-mocking fibres”. Percy Bysshe Shelley himself – who would become Wollstonecraft’s husband in 1816 – was another enthusiast for galvanic experimentation.

Vital knowledge

Aldini’s experiments with the dead attracted considerable attention. Some commentators poked fun at the idea that electricity could restore life, laughing at the thought that Aldini could “make dead people cut droll capers”. Others took the idea very seriously. Lecturer Charles Wilkinson, who assisted Aldini in his experiments, argued that galvanism was “an energising principle, which forms the line of distinction between matter and spirit, constituting in the great chain of the creation, the intervening link between corporeal substance and the essence of vitality”.

In 1814 the English surgeon John Abernethy made much the same sort of claim in the annual Hunterian lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons. His lecture sparked a violent debate with fellow surgeon William Lawrence. Abernethy claimed that electricity was (or was like) the vital force while Lawrence denied that there was any need to invoke a vital force at all to explain the processes of life. Both Mary and Percy Shelley certainly knew about this debate – Lawrence was their doctor.

By the time Frankenstein was published in 1818, its readers would have been familiar with the notion that life could be created or restored with electricity. Just a few months after the book appeared, the Scottish chemist Andrew Ure carried out his own electrical experiments on the body of Matthew Clydesdale, who had been executed for murder. When the dead man was electrified, Ure wrote, “every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face”.

Ure reported that the experiments were so gruesome that “several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment, and one gentleman fainted”. It is tempting to speculate about the degree to which Ure had Mary Shelley’s recent novel in mind as he carried out his experiments. His own account of them was certainly quite deliberately written to highlight their more lurid elements.

Frankenstein might look like fantasy to modern eyes, but to its author and original readers there was nothing fantastic about it. Just as everyone knows about artificial intelligence now, so Shelley’s readers knew about the possibilities of electrical life. And just as artificial intelligence (AI) invokes a range of responses and arguments now, so did the prospect of electrical life – and Shelley’s novel – then.

The science behind Frankenstein reminds us that current debates have a long history – and that in many ways the terms of our debates now are determined by it. It was during the 19th century that people started thinking about the future as a different country, made out of science and technology. Novels such as Frankenstein, in which authors made their future out of the ingredients of their present, were an important element in that new way of thinking about tomorrow.

Thinking about the science that made Frankenstein seem so real in 1818 might help us consider more carefully the ways we think now about the possibilities – and the dangers – of our present futures.The Conversation

Iwan Morus, Professor of History, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How reading fiction can help students understand the real world


Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, University of California, Los Angeles

The real world is often overwhelmingly complicated. Literature can help. This is true at universities too: courses in comparative literature offer students new insights into their chosen disciplines by unlocking new, varied perspectives.

How can those studying political science truly grasp the terror of living under a dictator? Perhaps by reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a magnificent historical novel about the tyrannical Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Students who read it are unlikely to forget the dizzying Cold War political intrigues that led the US to first support Trujillo and then implement sanctions against him.

In area studies, students must learn about the politics of postcolonial government. Chinua Achebe’s 1966 novel, A Man of the People, explores how rapidly post-independence revolutionary zeal can turn venal as the corrupt, greedy postcolonial elite seizes the reins of power from the coloniser only to further strangle the majority.

I would suggest that teaching these and other subjects – history, economics, sociology, geography and many others – can only be enhanced by including novels, short stories and artistic feature films. Students will also benefit from learning the methods of critical reading that are inherent to literary study. In this article I will explore why this is the case, focusing largely on the important but contested field of international development studies.

Why development is about more than economics

International development studies cries out for a literary component precisely because it is such an ideological and normative subject. “Development” is itself a term that should demand ideological evaluation. It is more than economics. This is made clear by the UN’s Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals. These reiterate that “development” also focuses on cultural change, such as gender equity through empowering women and girls.

But the syllabus of almost any international development studies course contains a heavy dose of development economists: Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs. Or, if the professor is slightly more left-leaning, there will be works by anthropologists like James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar or brilliant political science professor Timothy Mitchell. Why only these? This is an area in which books in the humanities and arts are pertinent, yet one never sees a postcolonial novel on these syllabi.

It is frankly criminal. Development was constituted as a field of study and area of practice during the years of decolonisation after World War II. This was the very same time period which spawned the birth of what is today called postcolonial literature. But international development studies courses seldom broach the fundamental question of what is truly meant by development. Developing to what? For whose benefit? Under whose aegis? This question, however, is interrogated in a vast body of excellent fiction.

I have prescribed Nuruddin Farah’s 1993 novel, Gifts – inspired by Marcel Mauss’ classic ethnography The Gift – to my students. When development aid from powerful countries is donated to impoverished 1980s Somalia, a fine line is walked by both the West which “gives” and the Somalis who “receive.” The book is a long meditation on the tightrope act that teeters between donation and domination. Certainly my students learned more about how it really feels to be the recipient of donor aid from this novel than any of our social science readings, which were mostly written from the donors’ point of view.

Exploring different points of view

This isn’t to suggest that such novels are stand-ins for “native informants”, who are perceived to be experts about a culture, race or place simply because they belong to it. Quite the contrary. They should be read as literature, which literary critics like Mikhail Bakhtin describe as a jumble of competing viewpoints depending on language that always struggles to convey actual truth.

Point of view might be an easier concept for students to grasp at first than Bakhtin’s theory. It is a basic narrative technique that is explored in Literary Criticism 101 because it can change the way a story is told or perceived. In the rich 2006 film Bamako the people of Mali put the World Bank on trial to determine why their poisoned “gift” of development aid has left the country with such a debilitating debt burden.

From the World Bank’s perspective, development might mean one thing but for those “beneficiaries,” it means something quite different. Art has the power to convey that point of view with visceral impact. Isn’t this essential for international development students who aim to help the “other” to “develop”?

Room for myriad insights

The end state of “development,” which is implied but hardly ever explicitly theorised in international development studies, is “modernity” and becoming “modern”. This is a subject on which literature and literary theory can offer myriad insights.

Zakes Mda’s wonderful 2005 novel Heart of Redness depicts the tale of a contemporary village in post-apartheid South Africa. Here, two groups of villagers hold radically different positions on what development means to them. Does it mean street lamps and a casino resort that will bring tourists? Or maintaining a more “traditional,” environmentally-sustainable lifestyle albeit with some “modern” amenities? The villagers’ differing positions are also informed by their different views on their history of colonisation.

History is, of course, essential for understanding any subject. For this reason I’ve not restricted myself to postcolonial literature only in teaching my classes. Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, is an excellent novel for introducing the study of British imperialism which is a prerequisite for understanding our contemporary global cultural economy.

Pushing for positive change

In our globalising world, the stakes could not be higher. Many of our students will end up making policy, allocating aid, driving the global economy. They will change the world. Literature and humanistic thinking enable them to change it for the better.

The Conversation

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Fublright-Nehru Scholar, Research Associate, Centre for Indian Studies, Wits University, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Quidditch


If you’re into Harry Potter – and there are plenty who are, clearly – the article linked to below may be of great interest to you. Quidditch has become a real sport – perhaps you would like to play?

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/18/quidditch-harry-potter-sport-jk-rowling

Real Pressing Issues for Readers


The link below is to an article that looks beyond the seemingly endless debate of traditional books versus digital ebooks, to other pressing issues facing readers.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/mar/31/paper-vs-digital-reading-debate-ebooks-tim-waterstone

Article: The Real William Shakespeare?


The link below is to an article that reports on new research that sheds new light on the life of William Shakespeare. 

For more visit:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/william-shakespeare/9963602/Shakespeare-was-a-tax-evading-food-hoarder-study-claims.html