Can satire survive in the era of fake news?
The role of the satirist has traditionally been to hold power to account, to seek to challenge authority through caustic observation and outright mockery. History is littered with examples of tyrants who have sought to suppress satirical writings and performances because, as Hannah Arendt once observed, the most effective means to undermine authority is laughter. But in this internet era, satire is increasingly misinterpreted as ‘fake news’, and the role of the satirist has been called into question.
Some argue that the emergence of populist alternatives to establishment politics has polarised debate, giving voice to the most extreme forms of nationalism on the one hand, and victim-centred identity politics on the other. In addition, the proliferation of social media has provided new platforms for previously unheard voices to join the public debate. With so many self-satirising positions now infiltrating the mainstream, satirists are often finding their work taken at face value. Explicitly comedic websites such as The Onion have even been included in official lists of ‘fake news’, on the grounds that they can be misconstrued as authentic. Mainstream news outlets have been fooled by satirical stories. For example, a claim made by a satirical site that 250,000 Syrian refugees were to be housed on a Navajo reservation was repeated by Fox News and even Donald Trump.
With recent events seemingly more incredible than fiction, how can satire achieve its traditional objective of holding a mirror up to the world and seeking to improve it through ridicule? How can satire exist in a stifling climate of political correctness, in which comedians avoid asking the difficult questions for fear of public censure? Will the ‘fake news’ era irreparably damage the satirist’s ability to effect any kind of societal change?