What do we do about people who don't get the joke?


If you've been online for any length of time, you'll have come across this phenomenon. A story is shared which is obviously humorous. Inevitably, some people treat it seriously.

Screenshot from Facebook. The shared story headline is "Jared Kushner Calls Kim Jong-un “Totally Unqualified Person” Who Got Job Only Through Nepotism". There are comments from people who think this is a genuine news story.

I remember being a child and reading the satirical magazine "Private Eye" - I was young and couldn't easily differentiate between the news reporting and the humour. That lead to nothing more than internal embarrassment when I suddenly realised my mistake.

Today's audiences have it slightly easier. While you may never have heard of the "Borowitz Report", clicking through to the article makes it painfully obvious that this is from the funny-pages, don't you think?

A headline from a website. The title clearly says satire, and the URL contains the word humor

Facebook doesn't make this particularly easy. There's no obvious marker to make it clear this is satire. Indeed, it looks like any other news story from a reputable publication. And that's part of the joy in humour. It should be believable enough.

But, gentle reader, not everyone is as clever as you or I. Whether it is forwarded chain emails, sensational retweets, or inane comments under Facebook posts - the world is awash with people who just don't get the joke.

(There's also the undignified spectacle of people posting deliberately inflammatory articles, knowing it will agitate their audience, then claiming the "obvious satire" defence when challenged. But I'll leave that for a different post.)

So what should we do? Should the Borowitz Report make sure all its headlines end with "(Joke!!)"? Should Facebook make humour and satire articles appear in a different colour? Should Twitter prevent people from commenting until they've read the article? Should we just ban humour because some people are unable to tell satire from reality?

Or should we just patiently explain the joke again and again and again?

Media literacy as a form of privilege

Social Media delights in giving us bite-sized chunks. The headline and an image - and then on to the next thing. Those of us with the luxury to spend our time deciphering an article, and conquering the shibboleth in-jokes, find it insufferable that others don't understand the nuance.

The Internet doesn't come with a laugh-track. Perhaps it should? Sure, canned laughter ruined MAS*H - but I think we can all agree that's a price worth paying

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3 thoughts on “What do we do about people who don't get the joke?

  1. Sometimes the only valid response is humour; you either laugh or cry. When you hear about a politician doing something so dammed stupid, for instance, the only way it makes any sense is with satire.

    And when people don't get the satire, I think you're better off just hoping the penny will drop, it takes too much effort to explain everything.

    Of course, today is a special day for some "news", it is, after all April Fool's Day... 😉

  2. Sometimes the only valid response is humour; you either laugh or cry. When you hear about a politician doing something so dammed stupid, for instance, the only way it makes any sense is with satire.

    And when people don't get the satire, I think you're better off just hoping the penny will drop, it takes too much effort to explain everything.

    Of course, today is a special day for some "news", it is, after all April Fool's Day... 😉

    And yes, perhaps hook line and sinker for me too.... just noticed your hash tag.

  3. And there are some that are hopeful that their satire is misconstrued as truth. Unfortunate that so many get their news from memes on Facebook, for example. No easy answers, here. Hope it doesn't come to color-coding tweets and posts....

    In defense of Borowitz, the articles (albeit, not the headlines) DO state they are satire, for example:
    Satire from The Borowitz Report
    N.R.A. Proposes Having Second Armed Teacher in Every Classroom to Stop First Armed Teacher from Misfiring

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