Area Man Knows All About Fake News

Bodybuilder reading the Paper Upside Down
Harold W Nall Jr / Getty Images

Funny fake news is fake. But what’s news?

When readers are unfamiliar with the old-school characters and local news stories that satirical newspapers send up, humor sites that specialize in fake news headlines aren’t reading as funny. Now social media algorithms are treating them like any other fake news source and throttling their traffic.

In “Dying Laughing” at The RingerAlison Herman and Victor Luckerson examine how fake news crackdowns are hurting satirical news sites, along with so many lost points of shared reference that make their humor work:

For The Onion in particular, divorcing an article from its context can prove troublesome. The outlet began as a satirical newspaper, and still hews to the stylistic conventions of old-school journalism as a mainstay of its dry, faux-factual house style. In an era when fewer people than ever read newspapers, that’s a problem. “The reference point is becoming lost for some people,” Nackers acknowledges.

And in an era when fewer people are aware of a site as a persona rather than the other side of the occasional Facebook link, decades-long in jokes can get lost, too. “We’ve been doing Area Man stuff for the entire existence of The Onion,” Nackers observes, but recently he’s encountered more and more readers who don’t understand that the banality of The Onion’s observational humor is the point — probably because they’re not regular readers. “It’s the classic local news story, but instead of it being about something more important, it’s just about some mundane thing in life that happens. Some people get it, but the other half is like, ‘So they’re just doing real articles now?’”

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