Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore

Article excerpt

Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coffee. it stains and it won't go away.

-thebittercup.com

LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I GET MOST OF MY NEWS these days from the internet rather than from a printed newspaper or a television broadcast. in the spring of 2013, i read stories on the Web with these headlines:

* Israel to Dismantle Settlements, Recognize Palestinian State

* United States to Destroy All Nuclear Warheads

* Sarah Palin Calls for Invasion of Czech Republic

* Republican Bill Demands Immigrants 'Americanize' Their Names

Not one of these stories was true. They sounded good, though. That is, they were written in conformity with journalistic style. in some cases, the stories also looked good. That is, the design of the webpage either imitated the style of legitimate news sites or was a nearly exact replica of a particular legitimate news site.

Such material is commonly referred to as fake news. i am going to argue that some fake news is folklore. it would then follow that the folkloric fake news that is created on and transmitted via computers-which is most of it-is a genre of digital folklore. but before i attempt to distinguish the fake news that is folklore from other kinds of fake news, i want to delineate the broader category of fake news, whether folkloric or not.

Journalism ethicists use the term "fake news" to refer to promotional material disguised as news.1 The kind of fake news i am concerned with here can be more broadly defined as intentionally false reports. The intentional dimension of fake news is critical to our definition because on occasion news organizations inadvertently deliver false reports, either because they are taken in by a hoax or they obtain information offered in good faith that proves to be erroneous.

But which kinds of fake news can be considered folklore? i am not asking whether texts and images created and transmitted on computers can be folklore because, thanks to a growing body of work devoted to the expressive traditions of virtual communities2 (including this very issue of Journal of American Folklore), that question, i believe, has largely been settled. The examination of photocopied texts and images prompted Alan Dundes to regard the mailing or faxing of such material as comparable to face-to-face communication in providing "solidarity and group identity" (Dundes and Pagter 1975:223), and to consider parody "one of the richest veins in American folk humor" (Dundes and Pagter 1975:239).

News parody, however, has long been a staple of popular culture as well, from That Was the Week That Was in the 1960s, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and Monty Python's Flying Circus in the 1960s and 1970s, to The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and "Weekend update" on Saturday Night Live. on the print side, there is the "borowitz report" (in the New Yorker) and the Onion, among others. As long as fake news is produced for broadcast or mass circulation, it seems too professional, too individualized, or too monetized for the folkloric domain of the homemade, the informal, the amateur, the anonymous, and the shared. Those differences are harder to discern when the same content is posted online and compared to professional-looking content posted by amateurs. Writing about 9/11 lore, hathaway (2005:51) observed that the material "demonstrates how mass media and folklore are becoming ever more closely aligned, and how the overlapping boundaries between them offer challenges to folklorists." The same can be said of fake news stories.

It may be helpful, in this regard, to think of the Web has having evolved along two separate though frequently intersecting tracks: the professional and the amateur-in howard's (2005) words, the institutional and the vernacular. This is not a matter of differences in skill level or social standing between one person and another, necessarily, but of the way any of us might shift from professional to amateur depending on whom we are communicating with and for what purpose. …

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