How to spot satire on the Internet

Becoming a master satirist is like becoming a master criminal. And most everything I learned about crime, I learned from Hunter S. Thompson:

“When you bring an act into this town, you want to bring it in heavy. Don’t waste any time with cheap shucks and misdemeanors. Go straight for the jugular.”

If you’re going to commit crimes and get away with them like Thompson does in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, make each one so audacious that people are too flabbergasted to spot you sneaking away.

That’s why a real satirist is like Thompson’s archetypal criminal. They commit such bold literary assassinations and robberies that people are knocked flat before they see their assailant.

The first time I encountered real satire, it was Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal. That piece made me feel sick when I read it. I felt like I was going to pass out. I almost did. It’s such a scathing, flummoxing, satirical commentary on the state of Ireland when Swift wrote it.

But what does satire look and sound like in our day? One might cite websites like The Onion to answer the question. Others might reference lesser-known online satirists causing confusion and misinforming on the Internet and social media.

One of the most entertaining examples I’ve encountered lately was a satirical piece written about the fake murder of the operator who botched the Olympic Ring mechanics during the opening ceremonies at Sochi. Many readers interpreted the article as real news when first released, and consequently, real news sites had to mop up the viral satirical mess.

What an example like this teaches is that many people are still learning how to spot satire on the Internet. In the process, there are moments when satire hits, and moments when it misses. At others, it’s a mixture of both (when people have to designate in their status post that this article is funny, and it’s fake).

So if you’re writing satire and sharing it with people in our time, you need to go for the jugular and keep a straight face. Don’t cave, even when you’re dragged into the interrogation room and grilled. Because a good satirist always keeps a straight face.

And if you want to know how to spot a satirical piece when it’s committing a literary crime, do what a seasoned detective does when he’s on a crackerjack case. Approach everything you encounter with healthy curiosity and suspicion. Put your good eye to the magnifying glass and investigate every detail. Because the satirical devil is always in the details.

Flickr photo (cc) by maartmeester