The Rise and Rise of Satirical News

Aside from a slew of tragic celebrity deaths, 2016’s legacy may well lie in the booming satirical news industry, much to the chagrin of the public figures who unwittingly find themselves under its spotlight. Masquerading as genuine mainstream news websites, satirical news platforms have become a fixture in the ever-evolving online news landscape and promise to reshape the way we conceptualise the relationship between news and political attitudes. 

Characterised by authentic headlines, caustic body text and satirical barbs, websites such as the Betoota Advocate, the Onion, the Shovel and the Chaser are dominating Australian Facebook and Instagram feeds and are increasingly finding their way into mainstream news bulletins.

The booming market for biting satirical news and social commentary represents more than a fleeting trend driven by cynical, keyboard savvy millennials. These platforms are well-organised, clearly branded and attract large followings of engaged readers.

Analysis by Streem realtime news intelligence found that the Betoota Advocate produced an average of three stories per day in January 2016. At their peak they published 10 stories in a single day, each one attracting substantial social engagement.

Online news volumes of the Betoota Advocate, January 2017. Analysis via Streem.

In recent months the mainstream media establishment has been forced to acknowledge the influence and popularity of these disruptive news sources. In November 2016, the Betoota Advocate attended Australian journalism’s prestigious night of nights – the Walkley Awards.

So is it likely that satire will be incorporated into the mainstream media establishment anytime soon? We can safely establish that satirical news is only likely to increase, but what does it mean for media monitors and their clients? Many are grappling with the challenge of identifying and deconstructing satirical news.

Photo: The Betoota Advocate

Satirical articles provide an insightful gauge into public sentiment. It’s vital for PR professionals and communications teams to monitor and manage these stories as they develop, because of their ability to generate intense interest and widespread repetitional damage for the politicians and public figures that come under their scrutiny.

The recent media storm triggered by Susan Ley’s political expenses scandal was peppered with biting headlines from satirical sources. “Ley Pauses Briefly During apology to buy must-have Canberra apartment”, proclaimed the Shovel.  The Betoota Advocate joined in with the headline: “‘Shhh’ Susan Ley says to party member who asks how she stays so tanned in Canberra”

Aside from obvious value in tracking crises, scandals and unrest within the political establishment, satire can also help media monitors to take stock of ongoing themes, social issues and trends in the media.

A study published in the Journal of Communication found that people select satirical news which aligns with their pre-existing attitudes, and that consuming satirical news reinforced these attitudes as much as watching mainstream news. 

“Satirical news has the same impact as serious news – it reinforces your political attitudes,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, author of the study and professor of communication at The Ohio State University. “It may be funny, but it has serious effects.”

The power of satirical news lies in its ability to subtly influence audiences and generate vast amounts of engagement. Media monitors can no longer afford to brush off satire as low-brow, trivial and insignificant, but must instead learn to read past the headlines and tap into the wider social relevance of these stories.

How long does it take for news to spread?

Analysis of Australian news reports shows a story spreads from one source to another in less than 4 minutes*. When a news story can spread across Online, TV or Radio in a matter of minutes, monitoring the media in realtime is more than convenient – it’s critical to the long-term success of a business or the reputation of a public figure.

Australia’s two 24-hour news channels and hundreds of large-scale online news sources mean that communications teams cannot afford to miss a beat when tracking media coverage. A misleading report that’s biased or missing key facts can leave the public misinformed and unreceptive; making it harder to control your message and correct the record.social_network_analysis_visualization

Analysis* of over 1 million Online and TV news reports in 2016 found a decreasing gap between the publication of a unique news story and the time taken for a competitor to repeat it. When it takes a matter of minutes for breaking news to spread, the public is being influenced with every passing minute.

But because the majority of media monitoring is delayed, delivered by email or omits stories, the job of responding becomes harder. Add to this the lack of a Mobile App to access media on the go, or Audience Trend Data to help you understand the impact an issue is having with the public, and you’re already behind the story. In a truly 24/7 news landscape it is impossible to ignore the spread of news, and potentially damaging to rely on anything other than realtime, keyword driven monitoring.

*Based on analysis conducted by Streem on 1,087,524 Online & TV reports between 2/2015-01/2016. Analysis measured the time taken for one media outlet to repeat a unique news story.

What is hoax news and why you should monitor it

If you’ve been browsing the web recently, you might be surprised to discover that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President, or that Halal certified Snack Packs have been funding terror organisations in the Middle East. Although these headlines may seem implausible to an informed reader, thousands of fake and hoax news stories circulate the internet daily, leaving readers confused, frustrated and dangerously misinformed.

A viral story published on satirical website WTOE5 News claimed that Pope Francis II had endorsed Donald Trump for President.

Facebook is the latest of many online companies to announce measures to curb the spread of false news reports. In December 2016, the company introduced a set of tools to make it easier for users to flag fake articles on their news feed as a hoax. If a story is identified as dubious, Facebook will flag it as ‘disputed by 3rd parties’ and it may appear lower in the news feed.

Although many social media platforms have begun to acknowledge the problems created by the proliferation of fake news on their platforms, most algorithms struggle to determine the authenticity of breaking news.

Fake news featured heavily in the coverage of the 2016 US presidential elections. A study by Ipsos Public Affairs revealed that in the 3 months preceding the election, 20 top-performing fake news stories on Facebook outperformed 20 top-performing factual stories from 19 major media outlets in terms of engagement. But the spread of fake news hasn’t just been limited to the US.

In Germany, rumours circulated denouncing German chancellor Angela Merkel as a member of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Australian readers also fell prey to misinformation when an incendiary fake news report linking terrorism to the halal certification industry gained coverage across genuine media outlets. Concerns over halal certification flourished on Facebook and were repeated by politicians despite a lack of evidence, eventually culminating in a Parliamentary inquiry.

A hoax news story about the humble Halal Snack Pack became the source of a federal parliamentary inquiry

Over half of Australia’s population is connected to the internet, and more than half of that number are active on Facebook. Misinformation, dubious claims, deceitful stories, trolling and clickbait have become a fixture on social media, and determining their authenticity can be frustrating and time-consuming for those responsible for compiling and distributing news.

Fake news is particularly prevalent on social media, which is problematic for government bodies, corporations and public figures because many of these sites masquerade as legitimate news distributors. Exposure to fake news is even more pronounced amongst younger demographics, who almost exclusively gather news from online sources such as Twitter, Reddit and Facebook.

“Pretty much everything conspires against truth [online],” wrote Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times in an article on fake online news. Despite the frustration voiced by misled citizens and aggrieved public figures, news aggregators have expressed discomfort at the idea of filtering fake news from the genuine product.

“We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves,” Facebook’s news feed vice-president Adam Mosseri said in a statement. So how can media monitors draw the line between rumour, scandal, satire and genuine breaking news? Below is a quick checklist to help you determine fact from fraud:

Fact Checking Dubious News

  1. Read beyond the headline and subtitle
  2. Check the authenticity of the news outlet
  3. Check the author
  4. Check the date and time
  5. Click through links and examine the sources used
  6. Cross reference quotations
  7. Check the authenticity of photos
  8. Are other legitimate news outlets reporting it?