Poe's Law states:
“”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.
Poe's Law is an axiom suggesting that it's difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between parodies of religious or other fundamentalism and its genuine proponents, since they both seem equally insane. For example, some conservatives consider noted homophobe Fred Phelps to be so over-the-top that they argue he's a "deep cover liberal" trying to discredit more mainstream homophobes.
Poe's Law was originally formulated by Nathan Poe in August 2005. The law emerged at the Creation & Evolution forum on the website Christianforums.com. Like most such places, it had seen a large number of creationist parody postings. These were usually followed by at least one user starting a flame war (a series of angry and offensive personal attacks) thinking it was a serious post and taking it at face value. Nathan Poe summarized this pattern in his original formulation of the law:
“”Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake it for the genuine article.
The law caught on and has since slowly leaked out as an Internet meme. Over time it has been extended to include not just creationist parody but any parody of extreme ideology, whether religious, secular, or totally bonkers.
Although Nathan Poe's version is the one that has become canon, there are two earlier sightings of the same idea floating around Usenet from "back in the day".
- Jerry Schwarz in 1983 stated If you submit a satiric item without this (smiley) symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.
- Alan Morgan in 2001 stated Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook. (Note Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law.)
Expansion of the concept
Originally the law only made the claim that someone will mistake a parody of fundamentalism for the real thing — that if someone made a sarcastic comment stating that evolution was a hoax because "birds don't give birth to monkeys," then there was a high probability that at least one person would miss the joke and explain (in all seriousness) how the poster was an idiot. (The equally ridiculous Crocoduck was originally intended seriously.) However, the usage of the law has grown, and now the term "Poe" is applied to almost any parody on the internet. Essentially, Poe's Law has developed to include three similar but distinct concepts:
- The original idea that at least one person will mistake parody postings for sincere beliefs.
- That nobody will be able to distinguish many instances of parody posts from the real thing.
- That anyone not already in the grip of fundamentalist ideas will mistake sincere expressions of fundamentalism for parody.
For example, not only can Poe's Law apply to extreme fundamentalism, but it can also apply to extreme liberalism, extreme charitableness, extreme fanboyism, extreme environmentalism, or even extreme love. The most likely reason for this expansion is the tendency for people to "call Poe's Law" (see below under "Reception and usage") on any fundamentalist rant even before someone has responded negatively. After a while, when many sincere posts were called "Poe's Law", or when every parody got labeled "Poe's Law", the concept naturally expanded.
The actual canonical definition has not changed to encompass the expanded usage, and a true Poe's Law fundamentalist could object to its usage beyond the original concept. On the other hand, the objection itself could be parody.
"Poe" as a noun has become almost as ubiquitous as Poe's Law itself. In this context, a Poe refers to either a person, post or news story that could cause Poe's Law to be invoked. In most cases, this is specifically in the sense of posts and people who are taken as legitimate, but are probably parody. Hence a typical phrase would be "it's a Poe, guys, don't be so stupid" when a link to Landover Baptist Church or ChristWire is posted. A similar use is "I hope this is a Poe" to refer to the desperate hope that humanity isn't quite as stupid as what someone has just read.
“”It is impossible for an act of Fundamentalism to be made that someone won't mistake for a parody.
The main corollary of Poe's Law refers to the opposite phenomenon, where a fundamentalist sounds so unbelievable that rational people will honestly think the fundamentalist is presenting a parody of his beliefs. Such a thing isn't entirely unprecedented — Ray Comfort now uses his "banana argument" as a comedy routine that pokes fun at intelligent design (claiming that it had always been satirical). Poe's Corollary was first submitted to the Urban Dictionary in July 2008. This corollary comes into play especially when the rational person has already learned and experienced Poe's Law, predisposing them to think that any extreme view is probably parody.
The Poe Paradox is a further corollary to Poe's Law that results from an unhealthy level of paranoia. It states that:
“”In any fundamentalist group, a paradox exists where any new person (or idea) sufficiently fundamentalist to be accepted by the group is likely to be so ridiculous that they risk being rejected as a parodist (or parody).
"Any new member of the CP project who's not as conservative as them is liable to be chucked out. However, any new member who is as conservative as them is in serious danger of being called a parodist, and chucked out. Is this the first living example of a Poe Paradox?"
"Real life" demonstrations
LeMarre, Landreville, and Beam, investigators at The Ohio State University School of Communication, found evidence supporting Poe's Law in a study published in 2009. They measured the relative political conservatism and liberalism of 332 individuals. The study participants then viewed clips from The Colbert Report, a television show that is a parody of conservative news commentary shows such as The O'Reilly Factor and broadcast on the Comedy Central cable network. The researchers found that the relatively conservative people in their study reported that the star of the show, Stephen Colbert, was actually showing disregard for liberals and covertly expressing his true conservative attitude about the matter at hand. Liberals viewing the show tended to view the work as a sincere parody and not view Mr. Colbert as presenting his true political views. Curiously, the liberal and conservative viewers in the study found Mr. Colbert similarly humorous (no statistically significant difference). While not a direct or intentional test of Poe's Law, the results fit well with the predictions it makes.
Although not specifically about fundamentalism or extreme views, parody and satirical articles have frequently been mistaken for real things. This perhaps proves that even with the winking smiley things can be misinterpreted. The most notable cases of this are due to America's Finest News Source, The Onion - that its production values rival CNN probably don't help, of course. The blog Literally Unbelievable documents several cases of Onion stories being taken as true on Facebook, but sometimes it goes beyond social networking.
- In 2012, Iran's Fars News Agency took the Onion's "Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama" story and reported it almost as a word-for-word copy. The Onion highlighted this by editing their own version to include the line "For more on this story: Please visit our Iranian subsidiary organization, Fars."
- Fox Nation, a subsidiary of Fox News, posted a story stating that Barack Obama had written a 75,000 word email ranting about America, originally sourced to The Onion. Just to highlight how stupid this is, 75,000 words is about the length of a mid-sized novel and would have taken months of full-time work to craft.
- The 2011 article "Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex" took in many people in the blogosphere, whose paranoia over the evils of abortion lead them to believe it was genuine. Republican Congressman John Fleming was suckered in by it.
Reception and usage
The use of the term is most common in the skeptical and science-based communities on Web 2.0. Many blogs, forums and wikis will often refer to the law when dealing with cranks of any stripe. It is most commonly used after a fundamentalist rant has been posted on a topic and people will rush to be the first to respond with "I call Poe's Law." Superior bragging rights can be earned by calling it first. It is also commonly used when linking to highly questionable rants by prefacing them with "Poe's Law strikes again" or just simply "Poe's Law."
Outside of Web 2.0 the law is far less known and probably rarely used. Wikipedia's article on Poe's Law has been deleted twice, but is listed on the list of eponymous laws following mention in an article in The Telegraph. As of January 2011, the article was recreated for a third time, this time without being deleted so far.
- Where the line between opinion and satire becomes blurred
- The Irony of Satire - Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report
- TV Tropes page about Poe's Law
- A sterling example of the art form
- ↑ "Poe's Law" in the Urban Dictionary
- ↑ Nathan Poe's original post is here.
- ↑ Creation & Evolution
- ↑ On net.announce
- ↑ On talk.origins
- ↑ "Poe's Corollary" in the Urban Dictionary
- ↑ On TWIGO:CP
- ↑ (LaMarre, Landreville & Beam, 2009)
- ↑ Which is itself a parody of an actual news organisation.(Warning: Poe's Law in action!)
- ↑ 2nd AFD discussion for Poe's Law
- ↑ There is such a thing as bad satire