How I Became A Dupe, And Why I Blame Canada

Culture

I make fun of people who take satire literally. I enjoy websites like Literally Unbelievable, and chortle in a superior fashion when ideological or social opponents fall for satire. When right-wing sites sloppily repeated clear satire about a nutty liberal college professor I criticized them and used it as an opportunity to repeat one of my favorite aphorisms:

Someone once said — and I wish I could figure out who it was — that all satire is a shared joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person — the dupe — who takes the text at face value.

Of course, sometimes the dupe is not hypothetical.

So of course I (albeit briefly) fell for satire yesterday. I was the non-hypothetical dupe. It's Canada's fault.

The satire came courtesy of a parody site called Modern Women Digest. It ran a thoroughly gross and obnoxious piece called "Top Five Reasons Why I'm Glad Paul Walker Is Dead," collected thousands of angry, obscene, and threatening comments, and then ran a story about how the fictitious author ("Adora Bull") was in hiding and on suicide watch because of the reaction. Canada's National Post picked it up and ran the story as truth: that a blogger had written a list of reasons to be happy about Walker's death and was now in hiding because of threats. The National Post has scrubbed the story, but not before I preserved it for posterity. The Vancouver Sun also ran the story as true; as of this morning it is still up, though I have preserved it in case they memory-hole it.

The story is entirely made up. That is to say: Adora Bull is made up, the "five reasons" post was trolling, and while the angry comments are real (and attracting them was no doubt the purpose of the trolling), the story about the fictitious blogger being in hiding is fabricated. The National Post and Vancouver Sun fell for it entirely. And I believed the Canadians. Caanaaadaaaaaaa!!!!

I became a dupe when a friend posted the National Post story on Facebook. I read it, committed an error of judgment by taking it at face value because a "mainstream newspaper" had reported it, and tweeted it to make a point about how one should not troll unless one is prepared to pay the price for trolling. Afterwards I started reading the underlying stories on the Modern Women Digest site. The tone and language of a follow-up story about "Adora Bull's" car being vandalized made me suspicious, so I Googled Modern Women Digest and saw that it's satirical. In mitigation, I figured out that I had been conned within 20 minutes. In aggravation, that just shows I could have figured it out myself before repeating the story.

So: here are the errors in judgment I committed:

1. I gave the story automatic credence because it was published in a "mainstream" newspaper like the National Post.
2. I gave the story automatic credence because a friend posted it on Facebook as truth.
3. I gave the story automatic credence because it confirmed a narrative I believe in — in this case, the narrative "some people like to talk smack but don't like the natural and probable social consequences of talking smack."
4. I didn't investigate because I wanted quickly to tweet a one-liner about the story and link it ("Don't be a troll if you can't pay the toll"). First!

Boom. Dupe.

There are many lessons we can draw from the story. One is about the nastiness of the original five-reasons piece about a person's death. Whether or not it was meant as satire, it reflects badly on the person who wrote it, as my co-blogger Patrick has pointed out. Another lesson is about how we allow things on the internet to outrage us, even when outraging us may be the product someone is selling. In other words, we're easily trolled. Illustrating that may or may not have been part of the point of the scam. Finally, a sobering lesson: you can't believe something just because a friend tells you or because it runs in a "mainstream" newspaper.

Conduct yourselves accordingly.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

55 Comments

55 Comments

  1. JP  •  Dec 6, 2013 @8:49 am

    Oh, great. Thanks for the earworm!

    Blame Canada!

  2. SassQueen  •  Dec 6, 2013 @8:53 am

    Everything is Canada's fault.

  3. Kirk Taylor  •  Dec 6, 2013 @8:53 am

    How many times do we have to learn this lesson (the answer is seven for me, so far)?

    I have become the Hoax Nazi on Facebook, and hate when I get hoaxed, for the very reasons you cite.

    My usual plan google the keywords from the story plus the word hoax – almost always works.

    Not sure how this applies to retweeting – I am a habitual retweeter.

  4. Via Angus  •  Dec 6, 2013 @8:58 am

    She is not a bull. I am a bull. She is a man cow.

  5. Dion starfire  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:00 am

    @JP As soon as I got to the "blame Canada" part of the headline that music started rolling in my head, too.

    @Ken Where's our Prenda coverage you promised? Nothing says holiday spirit like watching a lawyer-turned-criminal metaphorically getting his teeth kicked in.

  6. Crusty the Ex-Clown  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:02 am

    Blame it on NAFTA. Heck, we've been importing cheap Canadian weather every winter for years. And when I ask the weathermen to please provide some (equally cheap) Mexican weather for a change, they simply stare at me as if I'm stupid. Brrrrr, it's cold!

  7. Scott  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:08 am

    Did the name not tip anybody off? Especially writing for a woman's magazine? That's trolling satire itself.

  8. Lizard  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:09 am

    No, Ken. You're supposed to:
    a)Deny that it's a hoax. Say "It's being investigated" or "Some people claim it's a hoax", or "Some parts of this may be partially incorrect.", or, the best, "The source of the story is now being forced to retract it. This is almost certainly due to a coverrup. They don't want you to know the truth!" (I've seen such arguments made with what passes for sincerity; I'm sure you have, too.)

    b)Point out that even if, somehow, it's NOT true, that it's "true enough". (This is kind of neutral, as good satire usually is close to truth.)

    c)Complain that the "so-called satirists" failed to require you to sign a notarized form indicating your acknowledgment that this was satire before exposing you to it.

    d)Say you were "set up" and targeted for deception to make you look bad, possibly by ponies.

    e)Threaten to sue the "mainstream" papers for not doing their job and thus causing you public humiliation and butthurt in the first degree.

    A simple "mea culpa" and "here's how the truth algorithm failed" is not how things are done on the Internet.

  9. CJK Fossman  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:16 am

    You guys keep mixing Canada and ponies in the same thread and the Internet is going to explode.

    Cut it ou

  10. David  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:18 am

    Your definition of "satire" is more suitable to "parody". Hence your use of phrases such as "The satire came courtesy of a parody site…."

  11. ZarroTsu  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:27 am

    I apologize on Canada's behalf.

    I shall preform sepukku with my Chinese maple-syrup zweihander for this atrocity.

  12. Klover  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:28 am

    Ken,

    Just wanted to say as a lurker on your site and rare poster that this is exactly why I keep coming back. Nothing shows the character of the person more than how they respond when shown or determined to be incorrect.

    Appreciate your well thought out critique and for not doing the things Lizard listed :)

    Cheers!

  13. ElSuerte  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:36 am

    Man, why couldn't you have posted this last week when I could have used it in my heuristic's paper for my psychology class.

    I think it's interesting that the first three faults in your thinking are strikingly similar to some of the initial ways to assess a sources credibility.

  14. jimmythefly  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:49 am

    #3, confirmation bias, is the one that usually gets me into trouble.

  15. Marzipan  •  Dec 6, 2013 @9:59 am

    David, I wonder what a more suitable definition of "satire" might be, as I thought Ken's aphorism was on target. From my perspective, parody requires:

    1) an original work of which a humorous derivative is made that either
    2a) appropriates the original work to create a different meaning or
    2b) critiques or mocks the original intent of the original work but
    3) doesn't require anyone to take the parody itself seriously.

    It seems like satire requires that some subset of people to take the derivative work seriously on its own merits. For instance, though most people should understand the political subtexts and commentary inherent in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal or George Orwell's Animal Farm, there are some who simply take the tales at face value and come away either outraged at the derivative work or mildly amused.

    Then again, my definition of parody requires some kind of pre-existing work. Is your definition of parody one that doesn't require a prior work that still provides veiled criticism of contemporary attitudes, practices, or other such cultural phenomena? In that case, what attitudes or practices are being critiqued in the original work? The outpouring of affection for deceased celebrities?

  16. Jamie  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:01 am

    I blame Canada for all the Nelson Mandela-was-a-thug trolling out there.

    He spoke there once, yeah?

    Fucking Canada.

  17. David  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:07 am

    Marzipan,

    I think a parody requires only a prototypal style, not necessarily a specific work; pastiche requires a specific work, though its uses and connotations differ from those of satire and parody. (Of course, I'm not speaking here of the legal definitions in this domain.)

    Satire is a complex concept. In addition to the traditional Juvenalian/Horatiian distinction, there's a host of other models, including (perhaps most notably) Northrop Frye's riff in Anatomy of Criticism, where necessary (but perhaps insufficient) conditions included an object of ridicule and a moral stance over against it.

    Although it's easy to think of cases in which a satirical work was (or might have been) taken at face value (A Modest Proposal is the usual exemplar here), this phenom seems to be incidental to satire and to occur in satire only insofar as satire exhibits the traits of mimetic discursive modes such as … parody.

  18. adam  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:10 am

    The best quote by far from the 1100+ comments on that article is "Awwww shit, someone misspelled words on the Internet again."

    Seriously, half of the comments are lambasting someone (while simultaneously agreeing with them) for using "your" instead of "you're."

  19. Quiet Lurcker  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:14 am

    @Ken White –

    You are hereby notified that you have failed this instance of the Internet Turing Test.

    Your failure lay in:

    Failure to correctly identify an outlier in the available dataset as false information.

    Falsity in this instance can include but is not limited to willing or intentional error in research, error in reporting, or error in quoting.

    You are hereby required to report to the nearest authentication center within two (2) business days and surrender any and all objects, items, equipment, or other paraphernalia which does or may identify you as a human being. This ruling will be vacated at such time as you successfully demonstrate to appropriate authority that you can correctly identify outliers in approved datasets as incorrect information.

    By order of the Church of Bob;
    Internet Memes Department.

    I. M. Kdng,
    Inspector

  20. mud man  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:18 am

    Something about the propagation of political correctness, since I'm thinking about the preceding post on Harvey Silverglate.

  21. AlphaCentauri  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:22 am

    I tend to be careful if a) something is outrageous b) it makes someone I don't like look bad.

    In this case, where the blogger and the deceased guy are people I don't know much about, the general plot of the story is one that plays out frequently on the internet, and the source was not a whack-job or satire source, I would have fallen for it, too.

  22. Marzipan  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:33 am

    David,

    Thanks for the clarifications. I'd always interpreted pastiche as a form-mimetic work rather than a semantic-mimetic work, but I'll consider this more deeply. I've been taught and used a broader definition of pastiche that would allow for creating a work "in the style of" a particular artist without requiring a riff on any one exemplar work.

    As far as the Frye riff goes for a definition of satire, the "over" preposition implies (but does not entail) that there are some dupes who are "under" the true meaning of the work against which a moral stand is being taken. You've helped me understand how satire might generate literal readings from dupes but doesn't require them from that definition. Thanks!

  23. melk  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:42 am

    Hey, at least it isn't as bad as believing a story about soldiers stealing incubators.

  24. David  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:54 am

    @Marzipan, Frye (again!) glosses pastiche as potentially celebratory, which suggests a semantic aspect. Of course, broad and narrow flavors of pastiche may well be in play.

  25. Roger Strong  •  Dec 6, 2013 @10:59 am

    Canadian here. How is it that this hoax was figured out in 20 minutes, but people are still falling for that "Ted Cruz" comedian we sent down?

  26. malaclypse  •  Dec 6, 2013 @11:01 am

    it happens to the best of us, the real difference is what happens afterwards, when you discover you've onion'd yourself.

  27. Owen  •  Dec 6, 2013 @11:22 am

    David and Marizpan:

    I don't understand how you two know these things and are able to discuss them off the cuff as if it were common, dinner-party banter.

  28. MrSpkr  •  Dec 6, 2013 @11:45 am

    Satire and parody are becoming more and more widespread on the Internet. Fortunately, a little common sense (and pausing to ask yourself how plausible a given article really is) usually help you identify satire.

    For example, I was able to very quickly identify as not only satire but, frankly, a rather hamfisted effort at satire lacking the sense of believability good satire requires.

  29. azazel1024  •  Dec 6, 2013 @12:44 pm

    "Conduct yourself accordingly"

    Wait…wait…WAIT! WHAT!?!

    Are you saying Prenda has just been trolling us all along? Are they doing legal satire writ grand?!?

    *Slow clap*

    Oh, no, probably not.

  30. Steven H.  •  Dec 6, 2013 @12:59 pm

    Adora Bull??

    She called herself "adorable", and noone twigged to that???

  31. Lizard  •  Dec 6, 2013 @1:10 pm

    Not everyone who habitually uses a pseudonym is a troll.

  32. CHH  •  Dec 6, 2013 @1:22 pm

    @Angus

    She is not a bull. I am a bull. She is a man cow.

    I love you, manbull.

  33. Resolute  •  Dec 6, 2013 @2:14 pm

    Ken, I don't think you really understand Twitter, because you handled this all wrong. Never admit that you sent a faulty tweet! All you have to say is "my account was hacked", and poof! It's not your fault! You didn't get suckered, some evil person sullied your good name before… uh… giving your account back.

    Also, I am surprised that this entry wasn't about something This is That did. Apparently we Canadians are satirical professionals.

  34. Jon  •  Dec 6, 2013 @2:34 pm

    I can understand why you thought it was a real story; the Fast & Furious franchise is terrible and it is reasonable to believe some people would be glad all involved died.

  35. Roger Strong  •  Dec 6, 2013 @3:10 pm

    Jon, the Fast & Furious franchise plays an important role. It keeps studio executives from insisting that Vin Diesel be placed in other movies for added star power.

    Sure, he might have nailed those speeches as Lincoln. But would you really have wanted to see him in Les Misérables? Anna Karenina? The Hobbit?

  36. Aaron  •  Dec 6, 2013 @3:32 pm

    @Dion Starfire

    @Ken Where's our Prenda coverage you promised? Nothing says holiday spirit like watching a lawyer-turned-criminal metaphorically getting his teeth kicked in.

    He didn't promise us anything. He said on twitter that he was having trouble deciding whether to finish cooking or to write a Prenda story.

    Just saying, we're not entitled to it, nor is he obligated to write it, however much we might like it.

  37. Marzipan  •  Dec 6, 2013 @4:23 pm

    David, it's true that pastiche usually reflects an affectionate attitude toward the subject of the pastiche. Nevertheless, the primary goal of pastiche seems to center around emulating an artist's form for appreciation, whereas parody subverts or critiques the artist's message. And thus do we run into the problems of strict definitions, even for terms of art.

    Owen, I suspect David's education on this goes deeper than mine, but I had good high school English teachers. I'm reading now the Northrup Frye essays David recommended. Apparently, they're available online; the treatment of satire's in the third essay.

  38. David  •  Dec 6, 2013 @5:52 pm

    Ok, you've moved me to dig up some old pastiches from the archive. They'll only be meaningful to folks familiar with the Thief gaming franchise.

  39. Canadian  •  Dec 6, 2013 @5:55 pm

    Consider the National Post and Sun franchises credible at your own risk. Heh.

  40. rmd  •  Dec 6, 2013 @5:56 pm

    @Lizard

    Not everyone who habitually uses a pseudonym is a troll.

    Yeah, that's what you want us to think, isn't it?

  41. Fasolt  •  Dec 6, 2013 @6:12 pm

    I believe Adora Bull is a nin-cow-poop. Perhaps even an im-bull-cile.

    With thanks to Bugs Bunny.

  42. Rob  •  Dec 6, 2013 @7:31 pm

    Canadian • Dec 6, 2013 @5:55 pm

    Consider the National Post and Sun franchises any media outlet credible at your own risk. Heh.

    FTFY.

  43. steve  •  Dec 6, 2013 @8:40 pm

    I think I made comment out this subject from your earlier post, something about ".. they wouldn't have let them print that unless it was correct …".

    @shane
    "The infamous "they". Who they? :)"

  44. Canada  •  Dec 7, 2013 @3:50 am

    Dear Ken,

    We unreservedly apologise. Send crack. Running low.

  45. Ryan  •  Dec 7, 2013 @3:29 pm

    …and Ken, one of our dear American cousins, has just learned why you take a risk when you rely on the National Post or The Sun :)

    (To be fair to the Post, it has some pretty decent investigative reporting, but it's regular news tends to be heavy on the "scoop it first!" and light on the "make sure its accurate." And The Sun's variants are useful for filling recycling bins and that's about it).

  46. flip  •  Dec 8, 2013 @2:46 am

    – Utterly off topic

    I was wondering if there were any news or updates about the whole Takedown Lawyer/Craig Brittain thing. If anyone (or perhaps say if Ken feels like it) has an update please let me know.

    Thank you!

  47. scav  •  Dec 9, 2013 @3:30 am

    @Roger Strong

    Yes to all three, of course.

  48. QHS  •  Dec 9, 2013 @7:54 am

    @Roger Strong

    Canadian here. How is it that this hoax was figured out in 20 minutes, but people are still falling for that "Ted Cruz" comedian we sent down?

    You guys fell for Rob Ford, so we're even.

  49. Xoshe  •  Dec 9, 2013 @8:16 am

    Speaking of Canadian satire, I actually can't stand to listen to This is That on CBC, because they're too good at it. It's like the Onion, but taken a bit more seriously, and has the force of a legit public broadcaster behind it. I'm always stuck in an awkward position between believing and not, even though I know they're a satirist.

    Sure, they also make it clear (sometimes) that it's a joke, but I'm also PRETTY SURE that when they have listener reactions to their stories, they're real people responding, and not actors. But maybe that's part of the joke, too. I don't know! And that's why listening to their weekly show makes me really uncomfortable, and why I try to avoid it when I can.

  50. JP  •  Dec 9, 2013 @9:29 am

    @QHS

    @Roger Strong

    Canadian here. How is it that this hoax was figured out in 20 minutes, but people are still falling for that "Ted Cruz" comedian we sent down?

    You guys fell for Rob Ford, so we're even.

    DC fell for Marion Barry …. TWICE!!! What's that say about US? :-p

  51. Rich Rostrom  •  Dec 9, 2013 @1:26 pm

    There comes a point where a hoax or parody is sufficiently authentic that it ceases to be a hoax.

    In this case – someone actually posted an obnoxious riff on the death of Paul Walker under a pseudonym. The purported author actually received a flood of angry responses. The only hoax elements were the pseudonym used by the author and the claim that the author was in hiding. Also, perhaps, the claim that the responses included threats of personal harm.

    But really, how hoaxy is this? What is the false claim being sold here? If someone posted such a screed in his proper name, it would get the same responses. And it's entirely possible that the responses would include threats and that the author would have to hide for his safety.

    If I report cold weather in Winnipeg in December, how much of a hoax is that? Even if that week is unseasonably warm?

  52. QHS  •  Dec 9, 2013 @1:35 pm

    @JP
    DC isn't a real place.

  53. Thad  •  Dec 10, 2013 @2:42 pm

    (The occasional Thad)

    Has Canada now gone into hiding? I don't see it!

  54. Mike Schilling  •  Dec 28, 2013 @4:28 pm

    There are people who don't know that Atlas Shrugged was the winner of the long-form Bulwer-Lytton prize and think it's a serious novel. Dupes.

  55. Lyndon N  •  Jan 25, 2014 @12:07 am

    Re: This is That

    It's imperative to listen to the podcast. The radio work is pure genius. The web page is just filler material.

    I agree completely with Xoshe: sometimes it's so painful to listen to I want to turn it off. But it's like a bloody car wreck – you just can't look away.

    And in the interests of full disclosure, the first time I heard the show, they had me totally suckered. Right to the end when they ran the 'listener calls' segment and I slunk out of the room in shame ;-)