Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis.
But, as you’ll hear from our guests this week, it’s much more than that. Satire is a check on people in power and helps to engage the public around issues that might otherwise go unnoticed — both of which are essential for a healthy democracy.
But, are we reaching a place where the comedy has become the news? The success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and most recently John Oliver suggest that we might be heading in that direction. What about fake news? It’s all fun and games until you can’t tell the real news from the satire, and that’s concerning.
On the bright side, people who consume satire tend to be more well-informed about politics than those who do not, suggesting that one needs a solid foundation of what the news actually is in order to get the jokes that are being made about it.
Sophia, a Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State, writes regularly for Salon and recently appeared on StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Steve is a cartoonist at caricaturist who has drawn every president since Ronald Regan. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post just to name a few.
[7:02] What is the role of satire in a democracy?
Sophia: It doesn’t have that big of a role because it usually comes into the picture when things aren’t going that well. Satire emerges in moments of crisis. Today it is playing an extremely big role. Largely because the news media has shifted in how it informs the public.
[8:01] What about the nature of a crisis makes satire more popular and come out more in political conversations?
Sophia: Satire tends to come about when people are faulty or are doing stupid things. Satire is typically a contrarian position.
[8:42] What are creators of satire trying to accomplish?
Sophia: Satire is typically used to get the audience to think critically. The idea is to get people out of the binary option mindset. Many see the satirist as someone trying to tell them what to think. However, what they’re actually doing is trying to call out the way in which a conversation it being framed and recommend a change to that.
[10:05] What do we know about the types of people who consume satire?
Sophia: People who consume satire tend to be smarter. They also seem to be more creative on average. Part of the reason for this is the fact that satire depends on irony, which is art of playing with language. In terms of irony, the ability to hear a word and be able to comprehend that it has multiple meanings is a sign of an ability to be brighter and more creative.
[12:07] Is there a “my team, your team” dynamic in the application of satire to politics?
Sophia: It is suggested that we have a better ability to detect irony if it confirms our political positions.
[12:38] Where does the First Amendment fit into the creation and use of satire in politics?
Sophia: Following the ruling in the Falwell v. Hustler case, satirists were found to be protected under the First Amendment under a particular clause of creativity. This differs from what a newspaper might be able to get away with. A key component is how the creators frame their comment. A key in Huslter was the fact that the intent of the offensive comment was to make fun of the individual rather than attempt to make a factual claim regarding their actions.
[15:38] What other effects have you seen satire bring about?
Sophia: Satire does have “boundary heightening effects”. This is the idea that it is ok to make fun of certain groups depending on ones particular membership in that group. When you cross into different groups, this can anger members of that group, or supporters of a particular individual that those members support. Therefore, one downside to satire is that it can deepen certain political gaps.
17:20 Would one then be accurate in saying that satire increases political polerization?
Sophia: Yes, this will absolutely happen. Satire does have a blowback effect on those who think the system is working. This is because the purpose of satire is often to attack the current system and the norms in which a particular issue is addressed in. However, there is research that suggests that the use of satire can create political energy and momentum and a shared narrative.
[19:40] Have you done any research looking at how satire has evolved?
Sophia: While it has changed, I’m not sure I would use the word evolved because that suggests that it is getting better. In light of the changes we’ve seen, it might be nice if there was still a difference between the news and satire. One measurable change is how news gathering and satire have merged. Today, many people use satirical displays and shows as their first source of news. Memes are also shaping public narratives. This mergering of news and satire is one that isn’t going away. In fact, it is increasing.
[21:00] Do you have any thought on where political satire might go from here?
Sophia: One problem going forward will be the relationship between satire and “fake news” because satirical headlines, if not understood as satire, can become taken as hard reporting and as factual. For example, the top shared “fake news” of last year was a headline that read “Pope Francis Endorses Trump.” We’re in a situation now that things are being shared around for the reason of tricking the audience come dangerously close to looking like satire news headlines. Years ago John Stewart on the Daily Show was referred to as creating “fake news”, and that wasn’t an insult at the time.