The internet is filled with people who fail to recognize jokes and satirical claims. Sometimes such satirical posts are intentionally deceptive, intended as clickbait to lure gullible internet users.
Other times, such posts are taken seriously because they don't carry clear disclaimers, and many internet users don't take the time to dive into where claims are coming from. Figuring out whether a post is real or a joke is especially challenging on social media. In November 2022, parody accounts proliferated when Twitter CEO Elon Musk announced that blue checkmarks would be given to anyone who paid a Twitter Blue subscription fee, resulting in confusion across the platform. It became even more difficult to differentiate legitimate accounts from spoof accounts, with some even changing their handles to spoof Musk himself.
Since then, Twitter Blue's subscription platform has attempted to lessen the confusion by noting which accounts were authenticated and verified under the old system and which accounts had a paid subscription. But that hasn't stopped satirical tweets from proliferating and often being passed off as real posts from legit accounts.
Indeed, we have entire categories of fact checks dedicated to content that is either "Labeled Satire" or "Originated as Satire."
Here are a number of tips that can help you identify satirical and parody posts:
Look Up the Source
Most websites posting satirical news identify themselves as such on their "About us" or "Disclaimer" pages. For example, the Babylon Bee website states that it is "the world's best satire site, totally inerrant in all its truth claims. We write satire about Christian stuff, political stuff, and everyday life." In that same vein, The Onion, which describes itself as "America's Finest News Source" on the masthead, also states on their "About" page, "The First Amendment protects satire as a form of free speech and expression. The Onion uses invented names in all of its stories, except in cases where public figures are being satirized."
That said, it's important to remember that when content from these sites is posted to social media, it is usually without a disclaimer of any kind, so readers unfamiliar with the sites' names and reputations may easily miss the joke. When in doubt, look up the source.
Snopes once covered a satirical piece claiming that U.S. President Joe Biden had an almost superhuman exercise regimen for an 80-year-old, posted on a Twitter account that describes itself as a "Political jokester." Twitter now requires satirical and comedy accounts to make that identification in their account names and bios: "The bio should clearly state that the account is not affiliated with the subject portrayed in the profile. Non-affiliation can be indicated by incorporating words such as, but not limited to, "parody," "fake," "fan," or "commentary.""
So look at the descriptions and bios of social media accounts. Do they identify themselves as comedians, satirists, jokesters, or parody accounts? If so, you likely have a satirical story on your hands.
Look Up News Coverage
If a story is so absurd and strange that it has not been covered by mainstream news outlets, then it is likely a satirical or parody story, if not an outright hoax. For example, one story we covered about Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg begging Musk to buy his company was clearly satire. If the story had been true, it would have been front-page news.
Notice Dramatic 'Clickbait' Headlines
Headlines are usually intended to grab your attention and get you to click on them, all the more so when the content is satirical. Headlines like "CEO of Disney arrested for human trafficking" are so dramatic and out of the ordinary that many internet users are compelled to click, falling into the trap. These are oftentimes satirical stories.
Check for 'Satire' Watermarks and/or Photoshopped Images
Many satirical articles rely on digitally edited images and use doctored photographs from other sources placed in a different context. One article from January 2023 claimed to show a police squad known as the "gas stove unit" posing around a gas stove that they supposedly confiscated. The original image was taken from a a 2018 photograph of Texas officers standing around a table after a drug bust. The joke meme was intended to mock the alleged seizure of gas stoves by Democrats for environmental reasons.
In our past coverage, we've found that self-labeled "satire" sites can also spread false information about public officials that can stir up death threats. We found that websites like TatersGonnaTate (part of a network called America's Last Line of Defense, or LLOD) were trafficking in "a brand of satire that plays on the fears of its (mostly) conservative targets." Another LLOD site, BustATroll, published a picture of Rep. Ilhan Omar in front of a backdrop of a skyline with smoke rising from one of the Twin Towers in New York City and declared that the Somali-born Muslim lawmaker had walked out of a 9/11 memorial service. The image had a barely discernible "satire" watermark that was blended into the background. Despite the disclaimer, the article resulted in dozens of hateful online posts and threats against the congressperson.
Read more about how to notice signs of misinformation in "Red Flags: How To Identify Suspicious Rumors."