ExplainersFeaturedMedia Literacy

The thin line between fact and humour: How satire contents mislead online users

When online  users from all around the world first came   across this  headline “Hollywood Actors Pledge Never To Take A Role Where They Have To Pretend To Be Someone Else”. The reactions were diverse comments that neither show doubts towards the headline nor disbelief. “Finally, Hollywood actors will start living the real life and face reality.” A user on Quora shared, amongst   a plethora of other similar comments. 

However, not too long after reading the whole detailed story, some users realised it was nothing close to reality but was  in fact a mere ‘satire’ written to trigger laughter. Realising what it was, another user raised a question “are all actors not paid to play roles and pretend to be someone else, even receive awards for doing it well?  Isn’t it why they are called ‘actors’ in the first place?” You could see that the questions  triggered an effective change on how others first perceived the story, yet even after  that, others held the story as truth, as actual journalistic reporting. 

Such headlines are not deliberately designed to mislead people, they are in fact under a recognised genre known as ‘Satire’ and it could be considered as a form of art. 

Satire is a genre of literature usually written with humour to ridicule or make fun of vices in the society.  While its genealogy could be traced to drama and acting, satire has transited into a form of media that is published on websites similar to proper news stories. 

Nonetheless, the distinction it shares with a news story is that while the former is based upon actual reality to  inform the society, a satire is deliberately written to provoke the ills in the society with a flair of humour that is  not necessarily based upon actual reality.  So, like the dawn of the new media, satires are now published on websites and  presented in multimedia forms such as cartoons, text, video, and audio to its audiences.  

Satire content: a new form of misinformation 

However, in a world where people are  increasingly receiving information via their social feeds, there has been confusion between actual news websites and  satirical websites. Satire news content is now confused with credible news, individuals, governments, politicians, and even mainstream media are fooled by satire, as in some cases is mistaken for actual reality. 

As a result, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a report  titled: ‘Journalism, Fake news and disinformation’ categorised  satire as a form of misinformation.  According to UNESCO misinformation comprises: 

“Satire and parody, click-bait headlines, and the misleading use of captions, visuals or statistics, as well as the genuine content that is shared out of context, imposter content (when a journalist’s name or a newsroom logo is used by people with no connections to them), and manipulated and fabricated content.”

While this statement might have helped fact-checkers to place satire, it doesn’t solve the problem of people falling victim to its contents or even sharing it as an actual news story.  In a study carried out by The Conversation, (a media research based organization) on over 800 Americans, over 75% of the respondents held satire websites as credible sources. This finding not only paints the relaxed place satire is now quickly taking in journalism; it also raises the question, if satire should be excused at such a time when misinformation is prevalent and daunting. 

How Satire Mislead Many Nigerians

In April, the Nigerian House of Representatives fell for a viral claim suggesting that over 7,200 human penises were seized from a Nigerian cargo ship by Chinese authorities. The story, which turned out to have originated from a satire website, not only fooled the House into believing it was an actual news story but even pushed them to hold a session and resolve to investigate what they saw as an ‘illicit export of 7,200 human penises to China.’ 

The satire story was widely believed to be an actual news story, as it was widely shared across different social media platforms. A good example was when Femi-Fani Kayode, A former Nigerian Minister of Aviation, who had obviously fallen victim to the story, shared it on his twitter timeline. The result was massive, as most of his followers believed the story and held it as an actual occurrence. 

Femi-Fani Kayode’s tweet on the satire story

Even though multiple fact checks later confirmed the story was a satire, the impact it  already had on those who came across it was massive. Analysis carried out by DUBAWA showed that the story was republished across 31 news websites; attracted over 5,000 interactions on Twitter; over 10, 000 interactions  on Facebook  and was uploaded on YouTube by 10 different channels with a cumulative total views and comments of 26, 786.

Social media media reach of a satire story

Chris Ogo Indibuisi, who appeared to have also believed the story,  commented on one of the many posts made on it on Facebook:

“When I first saw the headline, what came to my mind was the fact that when people go to mortuaries to take the corpse of their deceased, they take the corpse already dressed and ready for burial. Who actually checks to know that everything is in order? Morealso, we can’t rule out the sourcing of human organs from different sources aside from dead people. Because in Africa where things are not documented and transparency level is very low anything can happen.”

Also Meshach Pogoson, another user, added wrote: 

“This is a disaster in our country Nigeria. What are we looking for that this business is going on without the knowledge of our security apparatus.”

Other comments that ensued also gave credence to the post as a genuine news story.  Many users shared the story believing it was an actual news story,  even when it was debunked as satirical. 

Comments made by some users on facebook, giving credence to the satire story on “smuggled penises from Nigeria”

Rita Ebuche, who shared the story on her Facebook timeline, refused to believe it was  a satire. In her opinion, the government is just hiding the truth. 

“When bad things happen the government has a way of calling it fake news. Abeg, look at the shooting at Lekki toll gate, everyone know wetin happun for there but government talk say na fake news. See this story is not satire, the government is hiding something, this actually happened.”

Rita’s response came after over ten fact checks were already conducted and proved the story was a satire,  yet her prior opinion about it was unwavering. This resultant behavior exhibited by Rita sinks in line with  a study conducted by Tandoc, Lim and Ling in 2018, where their findings proved that:

“Satire and parody sites can have a strong influence on a person’s belief system and may be more persuasive than people might think.”

Another research article by The Conversation, tilted “Too many people think satirical news is real” discovered that many of the false stories weren’t the kind that were trying to intentionally deceive their readers; they actually came from satirical sites, and many people seemed to believe them and hold on to it even after finding out it emerged from satire website.

A reinforcing reality to the above findings was when DUBAWA  also fact checked other satire based stories that had earlier misled the public into believing it was an actual news story. A good example was the  viral information on social media and other blogs that claimed  Elon Musk had said: “Nigerian ladies are the best” and vowed to marry one. The story was widely thought to be true. However, like the first, it was also a satire. 

Jeremiah Mela, who shared the story on a WhatsApp group admitted that he fell for the story thinking it was a genuine news story.

 “I was happy about the idea of Elon Musk finding Nigerian girls attractive. I saw it from another group and excited about it, I quickly shared it to other groups, hoping others would share in my ecstasy”.  He said.

Though three days after the fact check was published, Mr. Debo, the Publisher of the Satire website that shared the story, sent an email to clarify that Danfo Nation (the name of the satire site)  never intended to spread falsehood, but the did was already done.

“The Danfo Nation is a humor and satire web publication and all our contents are fiction. We categorically state this at the end of every published content. Unfortunately, some bloggers have been publishing it without the disclaimer, spreading false news. Our intention is not to spread fake news as you (Dubawa) claimed in your fact checking publication.” 

Mr. Debo, the Publisher, Danfo Nation

Contrary to Mr Debo’s views, Yila Joseph admitted that he regards Danfo Nation as a regular news website and has been reading its contents for sometime but has never taken time to read the disclaimer. 

“I have been reading Danfo Nation contents for a while now. In Fact, I have a notification for when they post new contents but I have never taken time to read the disclaimer.  For me, Danfo Nation is a regular news site and I am not aware of any satire websites.”

When DUBUWA conducted a quick survey on 35 random respondents over their awareness of satire websites, the results showed a  correlation with Mr Yila’s statement. While 68.8% (22) of the respondents  said NO, they are not aware of satire websites, only 31.3% (10)  indicated YES, they are aware of satire websites.Forms response chart. Question title: Are you aware of Satire websites?. Number of responses: 32 responses.

The same set of respondents were asked if they’ve come across the headline: “Chinese Authorities Seize Over 7,200 Human Penises On a Cargo Ship From Nigeria?” 50% (16) said yes, they have, while the other 50% said No they haven’t. This finding indicates that though most people are not aware of satire websites, alot of them still come across satire contents. 

Forms response chart. Question title: Have you come accros this headline: "Chinese Authorities Seize Over 7,200 Human Penises On a Cargo Ship From Nigeria?". Number of responses: 32 responses.

Although most of the respondents said they did not think the headline was true, others still held that it was.  This quick findings signals a fresh need for concern over the adequate means of managing satire contents. 

A possible solution to flagging up satire contents

Satire is no doubt a declared problem to actual journalism. When it continued to bore its flanks deep into fact-based reporting, it was certain that something needed to be done.  So, The Conversation  tested a couple of different methods of flagging up satire contents, such as  the warning fact-checkers issue to determine the inaccuracy of a post and a label that indicates a content was from a satirical site.

The resulting outcome was that labeling an article as “satire” was uniquely effective. Users were found to less likely  believe stories labeled as satire, were less likely to share them and also perceive the source as less credible. The warning was also valued by users.

This feature of labeling satire contents was equally tested by Facebook a few years ago and was further adopted by Google news to label some satirical contents. This feature suggests that clearly labeling satirical content as satire can help online users navigate a complex and sometimes confusing news environment.

Google Screenshots, with labels in brackets. Courtesy of The Conversation


As satire websites continue to argue their stands and the role they contribute to social critics, fact checkers will have to contend with the overwhelming vulnerability members of the society are prone to as a result of satire contents. Nonetheless, as the issue is gaining concerns all over the world, a final and resolute solution is not far off. 

Show More

Related Articles

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Back to top button