Poe’s Law

‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Arthur C. Clarke  – Profiles of the Future, 1973

‘ Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing. ‘

Nathan Poe – Creation & Evolution forum // Christianforums.com , 2005 – Poe’s Law

In 1992 Tim Robbins directed his first feature ‘Bob Roberts’ – a political comedy following the campaign of a fictional senatorial hopeful. The character is a folk singer with political aspirations who cynically exploits his fame for political gain. Tim Robbins (and his brother) recorded several songs for the soundtrack aping the style of, amongst others, Bob Dylan with titles such as ‘The Times They are a Changin’ Back’.

Robbins, being an accomplished musician, made sure that these songs were truthful to the morally dubious character of Roberts without being outright parodies of the ultra-conservative southern folk singer stereotype (the film never explicitly states if Roberts is Democrat or Republican) or even it could be argued, any element of parody at all. Because of the songs’ inability to be distinguished from the real thing out of context, Robbins decided to never release a soundtrack to his movie; fearing that they could be used in ways directly opposite to their intent.

Tim Robbin’s was well aware of the effects of Poe’s Law before it had been given that catchy sobriquet, that snappy tweet friendly shorthand of what is a multi-faceted and  complicated concept.

The law was originally coined by Nathan Poe in response to ‘trolls’ on Christianforums.com, people who would deliberately post outlandish opinions just to get a rise from genuine visitors to the site. He observed that no matter how extreme or fanciful a concept somebody posited, without clear acknowledgement of its own disingenuous joke it would always be read as if genuine. Originally applied to traditional fundamentalist viewpoints, Poe’s Law works with any number of heartfelt subjects that fuel obsession in people.

This leads to a couple of interesting variations.

We all have prejudices whether innate or socially constructed and this can lead us to take things at face value. Sometimes I forget that, as an Englishman, some parts of religious America are as foreign to me as polytheistic areas of Hindu Asia. Yet because superficial similarities of shared race and language differences are heightened I’m more prone to mock the Bible belt than I am to ridicule someone who honestly believes in a blue elephant headed god because of those very prejudices .

Which leads us to The Landover Baptist Church Forum.

It took me a long while to workout that this was indeed a fake forum, yet one that was populated in part by users ignorant of its true purpose; both believers and otherwise. It is a perfect case study in Poe’s law as it demonstrates the two essential elements:

  1. People opposed to viewpoint not getting the irony.
  2. People who are sympathetic to the viewpoint not getting the irony.

The LBC forum is a near perfect parody of fundamentalist Christian beliefs which also, whether by design or by accident, highlight non believers attitudes towards people of faith. Take this “Down’s Syndrome is a lifestyle choice” thread –   – quite obviously a joke, but it evokes responses of indignant rage and incredulous accusations. Anyone on that forum agreeing with that particular original post I can only assume is in on the joke but the site is littered with many taking sides with the outrageous claims or even backing them up with further scripture .

While clearly set up to parody fundamentalism, the LBC forum brings out a kind of knee-jerk response from a lot of liberal users, Christian or otherwise, who are more than willing to accept that there are genuine lunatics out there who really believe that Down’s Syndrome is a choice . Both parties expose themselves to ridicule, and yet the forum was initially set up to spotlight the inherent insanity of fundamentalism. It ultimately shows that we’re all as biased and an uninformed as the next person. People’s readiness to take offense at something says more about them than those who they believe they oppose.

The perpetrator of the deceit is like the arsonist – that most easily captured of criminals – who must be present to observe the effects of their crime for it to have meaning. If no-one knows it’s a joke, then it didn’t happen and it just got lost in the white noise of on-line unfiltered thoughts. Even a Poe’m (yeah I just coined that, deal with it) as beautifully staged and internally self affirming as LBC still has tell-tale sign of fraud; it must, or it would just be the very thing it tries to expose. Something that Tim Robbin’s songs could easily have become.

The problem isn’t when a Poe’m is misinterpreted as the real thing but more if the genuine article is considered to be fraudulent; the flip side of Poe’s law is also as likely. The Moon landings have often been bound up in conspiracies saying that they were faked, and the Holocaust of WW2 is often denied – both examples that are so unlikely that, as with the reactions to fundamentalist points of view, they are  immediately met with skepticism.

A long-held belief shared by us at the DMReporter is that ‘no joke is funnier’ – that is to say the more deadpan and straight-faced you are, the more conceptually perfect the joke is. This is why the first Naked Gun movie is better than it’s sequels – the character of Frank Drebin never realises that he’s in a comedy, but by the third in the franchise he’s a gurning buffoon deliberately playing up the laughs.

We’ve long abandoned the premise that we are in any way a legitimate news source or in any way affiliated with the Daily Mail. One reason for this is that there are only so many templates for that format we can use to mock the Mail, the other was that the sheer number of people not ‘in’ on the joke began to mean that what ever underlying point we were making would often go unheeded. It’s also sometimes hard to compete.

Satire eventually defangs itself as it becomes to more and more similar to the real thing. Case in point is the movie Forrest Gump. Is this a tale of a disadvantaged young man with learning difficulties who overcomes the bad box of chocolates that life gave him to triumph in the face of adversity and become the embodiment of the American dream? Or is it a cracked reflection of the lost hopes of a nation that repeatedly tries to deny the horrors of its own being? Is America made flesh as a retarded cripple or a good ol’ boy and true hero? I still haven’t worked out what the film maker’s intentions are; if truly a satire then it’s the most perversely insidious misinterpreted example of the form.

Lines can still be blurred even more – recently we tweeted a fake headline during the final minutes leading up to the verdict of the sensationalised Amanda Knox trial. We used a reliable comedy format of posting both possible outcomes, one for guilty and one for innocent, and then asking that tweeters to only read the appropriate one as and when.

Twenty minutes later the real Daily Mail jumped the gun and put up a story saying that Amanda Knox had been found guilty when she clearly hadn’t. Their article had interviews with people commenting on the verdict which could only have been fabricated. We’d anticipated that they would have pre-written both outcomes rather than have reported the events – but not to the degree that they did. No matter how hard we try to make it obvious that we’re primarily just trying to make people laugh and maybe take a swipe at a right-wing institution, the reality of the situation keeps catching up with the parody.

Even with a knowing wink, it is impossible to distinguish parody from the real thing.

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