Essay:How to spot a parody
Pretty much everyone reading RationalWiki should be familiar with Poe's Law, but for the sake of completeness let's recap. 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.
It's an internet adage that suggests that no matter how obvious the parody, someone will think it is real - but it's also true the other way around and for the really batshit crazy, someone out there will be sure that they must be having a laugh. How can one tell the difference reliably?
 Be skeptical
Consider the two possible outcomes of being wrong on Poe's Law type judgment.
- You see a real thing and laugh at it as a parody.
- You see a parody and get all antsy about it being real.
It's pretty clear that there is one of those that is better than the other. In the former case, thinking something is parody when it is real just underlines how batcrap crazy it is. You can be forgiven, who knew a man really wanted to make his own Bible translation to edit out Liberal Bias? Exactly. In the other case, mistaking a parody for real makes you look like a gullible fool. For the most part, many of the major parodies are known; Objective: Ministries and Landover Baptist Church to name two, but there are a host of others. Mistaking these as real makes you look like a tool, so presume parody as your default skeptical position.
This isn't just a face-saving exercise, though. It's also a broad application of Hanlon's Razor, which states that something is more likely to be attributed to a cock-up or incompetence than to outright malice - or Occam's Razor, which states that the simplest solution is probably the most likely. So certain opinions that may seem extreme are best explained by stupidity in the absence of other evidence. This doesn't help entirely, however, as both parodists and genuine Kool-Aid drinkers are prone to stupidity depending on how you view it. A parodist making jokes that aren't funny is stupid, a parodist perpetuating a straw man is, if you care to view it that way, malicious. Someone genuinely asking "how come there are still monkeys?" is stupid, or at least ignorant, while Fred Phelps is very much malicious. Still, the idea of a heuristic to act as a starting point, or to help when there really is doubt and no other evidence available, is useful. In this case we can consider Poe's Razor, which says something is more likely to be attributed to parody than reality.
Equally important is that those failing to notice parody may well be guilty of forming a straw man opposition - indeed, the point of parody is to do exactly this. Though a fledgling skeptic may think it's excellent and hilarious that creationists are so wacky that Edward Current can be mistaken for real, it's actually the other way around. Current can be funny, and out there, but isn't a real creationist or religious apologist. To presume that he is, however, is to misunderstand legitimate creationist opinion. For another example, did you know it's quite difficult to find anyone using the term evilution who is a genuine creationist? (Creatard, on the other hand, is very much in use by the pro-evolution side) This is just a straw man fallacy and the very reason why being able to spot parody is an essential skill.
However, this section is describing simple due diligence and skepticism, which should be the mainstay of any skeptic. It's a good starting point, and good to err on the side of caution if you're unsure but it's even more important to gather additional evidence to back up a position. If something is telling you that it's parody, though, it's a little voice worth listening to. You might not know why, yet, but there'll be a reason.
 Check the source
The anonymity of the internet adds a whole host of complications to a Poe's Law judgment. There is relatively little stopping me from finding a suitable proxy, starting another RationalWiki account, and flooding the place with some fairly malicious shit in attempt to be a parodist. There is nothing that could realistically be done to link it back to me as a user or real person - at least, not without considerable effort far beyond what such a task is worth.
Always check where a statement has come from if you're unsure before mouthing off your decision - again, this is just simple due diligence, but it's an easy step to miss and one of the very easiest ways of figuring out if something is parody. More often than not, the source will tell you immediately. Perhaps it came from a well-known parody site, or perhaps it came from a politician. Linking a statement back to someone with a real-world name and a real-world reputation on the line is pretty much one of the top tests to indicate something is real, but where this cannot be found there are a few other things a source can tell you.
Indications that something is real:
- Sourced to a politician - or someone connected to a campaign.
- Sourced to a real Church with real contact infomation.
- Sourced to an interview with a legitimate news organisation.
- Mainstream political associations - as opposed to vaguely claiming to be apolitical or independent.
Indications that something isn't real:
- No source possible.
- Sourced to an independent website or social networking group with zero outside reputation.
- Sourced to 4Chan or The Onion (duh).
- You can't track it down to a real name.
Sometimes checking for a source can be difficult. The FSTDT Facebook page, for example, scrubs the names out of screenshots to make the individuals more difficult to identify, and sometimes they're buried under Facebook profiles that aren't public. The trust, therefore, is that the people who have submitted the screenshot have done the homework for you. This also isn't the be-all and end-all either, while the source will give an obvious answer, say, 90% of the time, these simple rules of thumb wouldn't help distinguish Family Radio and Objective:Ministries - but those things, I'll cover in a moment.
Context is everything, and while finding the source can prove one way or another there are some other hints that can lie around. Effectively, you want to see if someone has just gone quote mining. There are two things to check, the overall surrounding context, and then the full quote itself.
A full quote is far more useful than a single line. For instance, a single line espousing a really stupid opinion can't really tell you anything, so Poe's Razor would say to err on the side of "it's fake". However, if this line is actually a throwaway fragment within a larger, more serious post, you might consider it to be real and the Poe-provoking comment is the result of fairly standard ignorance. Parodists will tend to keep their over-the-top attitude fairly consistently; there's simply no need for them to back down to a more realistic level as that would defy the point of the straw man they're trying to create. So, a comment about how only God can take hydrogen and oxygen and turn it into water (we'll have to wait for Jesus to turn it into wine) might sound like someone having a joke at the expense of chemistry graduates everywhere - but embedded in a more ordinary anti-evolution screed, it begins to look a little more genuine and the result of old fashioned lack of knowledge.
For the surrounding context, consider a famous example of a letter to the editor that claims to disprove evolution. This one can actually be traced back to real set of letters published in an actual magazine, but was actually part of a series of parodies and comedy letters that were advertised for. Obviously, this one made the grade as pretty funny. The thing is, whoever took the picture and uploaded it intentionally cut out the letter to get rid of the surrounding ones. Why would they do that? To disguise the fact that the other letters are also clear parody! If the letter was otherwise genuine, and published in good faith, there would be no need for this. This particular letter, however, can be left as an exercise for the reader.
You need to question not just what you see, but what might be being hidden from you. This is the same with checking the veracity of all scams and urban legends: figure out what they are hiding from you, and you're most of the way there to the right answer. Are there names attached, the titles of actual ministers and their churches? Have things been blanked out, have things been cut out? If something, like a name and organisation, is conspicuously absent it is absent for a reason. And it's not always to protect anonymity.
 Style over substance
While the above is just exercising basic skepticism and doing your research, the real meat in spotting a parody is to check not what they say, but how they say it. The style is more important than the substance. For this, I'll cover a couple of worked examples. Let's compare and contrast Objective: Ministries with Family Radio. We know the answer, so lets see how we can work this out.
When I say "style", I don't mean quality. Let's face it, both Family Radio and Objective's sites look like shite, as if they've been dragged kicking and screaming from the dark depths of mid-90s GeoCities on 28k dial-up, in the days where computer screens projected their contents onto the user's face and teenagers could hack government supercomputers. So, let's look a bit closer.
The basics are about the same, the feature similar layouts, and very similar content. The opening splurge on the Objective page is fairly standard evangelical stuff.
“”Welcome to OBJECTIVE: Ministries! We offer a range of Christian educational and activist campaigns -- or OBJECTIVES as we like to call them. A list of our OBJECTIVES can be found to the left. To learn what's going on at our site, click the Site News tab above. You can return to this page at any time by clicking either our masthead or the Front Page tab on the left of any of our sub-pages.
Family radio doesn't have an opening blurb like that, but does paste its front page in Bible quotes... but in comic fucking sans... this is a hard one. We're going to have to dig a bit deeper than that. On the contact page for Family Radio we get this, again, like the Objective blurb it's fairly standard evangelical stuff.
“”Family Radio is thoroughly committed to the Person and salvation work of Jesus Christ as revealed in God's divine, infallible word, the Bible. We are a Christian nonprofit, nondenominational, educational organization dedicated to obeying our Lord's command to preach the Gospel to every creature ( Mark 16:15 ). Family Radio's board of directors and staff, are thoroughly persuaded, by our obedience to God's word, that He has established this ministry for the sole purpose of using all its energy and resources...
Now, the part about it going on to consume all the world's energy and resources looks like it could be borderline parody, but look again. The page has an overall serious tone. There's comic sans, but no actual jollity on the site. At all. Anywhere. The site is so dry that even the Great Pagliacci would slit his own wrists reading it. Meanwhile, compare the statement-of-faith page on Objective and you see - in big, bright and bold colours - a family tree taking the piss out of the Trinity. Look closer and see "alien messiahs" in there among other more subtle jokes like "Balaam's Ass". Clearly, we're looking at a joker. Even if the rest of what the article says is straight up we're seeing slight pieces of its execution slip into fun and jolly territory. And of course, let's not forget the LOLJesus constantly staring at us from the sidebar. Compare all this back with Family Radio and you see that real fundamentalists have no room to act frivolously with their faith.
 Look deep
The trouble with satire is that sometimes reality gets so damn weird that you simply have to state reality in clear and plain terms and it becomes funny. See any Onion article about Glenn Beck or the Tea Party in the last few years if you want proof of that - Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be is almost a straight-up description of the US right-wing at the moment. So sometimes it's enough to simply repeat a real position and have it be used as parody. Does this defeat the point of parody? Probably, but it still happens, and indeed the great thing about satire is that, technically, it doesn't have to be funny. This means you might have to do some digging around.
For this, the best example is ChristWire - which maintains that it's real even in the face of being "outed" by the New York Times. It simply accused the Times of outright lying in order to discredit the site, which is also very in character. It really is quite a work of genius. Anyway, to pick up on what ChristWire is saying as parody you really need to go deep into the site, really fucking deep. Some of it is such straight up evangelism and right-wing rhetoric that it may as well be repeated right out of Fox News. But under that skin, you can find some tidbits of insanity - you just have to look.
“”I am writing to Disney from my new robot droid cellar when I c0mplete this upload and I am also writing a letter to Miley Cyrus, to see if we cannot adopt this poor young child and protect her from exploitation. This is the face of a poor young girl being forced to do unnatural things only a wife is meant to do.
Remember, real fundamentalist evangelists and most of the right-wing have no wiggle room to joke about their beliefs and opinions. A single instance is usually enough to peel back the veneer of seriousness to reveal the face of a comedian. But it's also worth checking the other style-over-substance aspects of ChristWire too. Check the profile images of the main authors, for example. Now compare that with Conservative News and Views and WND - both stony faced and serious throughout. No undue superlatives, no jokes, no self-deprecation or self-mocking. A real site will seriously convince you that these people do believe what they're saying - a parody will make you think that you don't believe what they're saying.
 Doe-eyed maniac
For another worked example, I want to include the Tamtampamela video. For those unaware of it, here you go:
I wasn't particularly taken in by this first time around as many were - though it is in bad taste. But I was tempted into believing it was real when I read that someone did some digging and found out that she really went to a Christian college and had "come clean" as a troll to cover her ass once she realised that she had said something too stupid to excuse. While I was initially excited to see what (to the best of my knowledge) would be the world's first case of the Poe Double Bluff in action, that quickly faded when further research showed that it to be a case of mistaken identity. The character from the Christian college was actually an identity that she apparently stole and was using online, which I suppose goes to show that the dedication of a parodist isn't too reliable as an indicator either. Always make the trick seem more trouble than it's worth, just ask Kotomi Tanaka about that one.
Anyway, I shouldn't have been surprised by that result, as it didn't quite gel with my initial assessment of the video and such a revelation would have overturned what I consider to be a (comparatively) well-tuned Poe-dar. Consider real evangelists, look them up on YouTube or on real religious apologetics websites - if you can avoid the parodists - and you'll find they come in two types, that are almost totally mutually exclusive:
- Vengeful-God, Terrible-God, hellfire and wrath types, shouting from a pulpit about how sinners will burn and the righteous will be saved.
- Loving-God, Awesome-God, let's suck God's dick types, looking all sweet and innocent and when confronted with a bottle of Kool-Aid with "DRINK ME" pasted on it, will start guzzling immediately.
The difference lies both in what they say and how they say it. The preachers are genuinely with the righteous anger or they're with the wrath - and the luvvy-duvvy kids are all about the Jesus-loves-you and God-is-love stuff. Both are vomit inducing, but rarely do the two ever cross - indeed, Ray Comfort's special brand of guilt tripping is as close as it comes, but that's not on the same scale as Tamtampamela's apparently massive clusterfuck of cognitive dissonance and doublethink by a long shot. She's there, on camera, talking about how Japan deserved to be hit with a tsunami, but you just simply don't get that sort of thing from pretty, young doe-eyed evangelist girls - you get that sort of shit from the fiery, shouty, nasty bastards in the pulpit. The style simply doesn't match the content, and it's that discrepancy that really indicates parody. Indeed, it's that mismatch of style and substance that I think is the point of the joke. She's taken what she thinks Christians believe (possibly due to reading some Pat Robertson quotes) and packaged it up in the happy-clappy Christian Union type smugness that she's familiar with.
Don't get me wrong, there is a very dark underbelly to many fundamentalist beliefs, but they're never as open about it as this. It's always hidden away, behind Bible quotes and subtly tucked in amongst their regular preaching (think Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron - or VenomFangX's opinions on homosexuality), not broadcast on YouTube in plain English like this.
 Weird views
Often you might come across something so far-out and so outright strange that you think that it is almost certainly a parody. Like something out of Time Cube or similar - things are just fucking weird. The difficulty in telling parody from the real thing lies in two reasons, though they're not mutually exclusive:
- There are genuine nutters out there. Gene Ray is almost certainly not right in the head, and we've had suspicions about Ken DeMeyer for a long time that may actually be well-founded.
- Some don't necessarily believe everything they say, but may use intentional exaggerations as part of their rhetoric or as their special sense of humour.
I think the second one is liable to cause a lot more confusion and might be overlooked. When someone suggests that Barack Obama is supporting the homosexual agenda by making soldiers wear pink uniforms and high heels, do they literally believe that? Or are they making an intentionally rhetorical point? Simply put, people aren't beyond lies and exaggerations when it comes to creating supporting arguments.
I suppose this particular point isn't about how to spot a parody so much as it is about how not to simply dismiss something as parody because it's so far out of the sanity ball-park. Spouting lies, fabrications and misinformation is all part of how some people operate in order to convince themselves that they're right. Other factors need to be taken into account. For instance, we know Gene Ray is legit on account of him giving talks, lectures and interviews on the subject and being pretty persistent with absolutely no indication that he's doing it for comedy - hell, he'd make a ton of cash touring his stuff as stand-up - and patently ridiculous comments about soldiers wearing high heels can be made amongst more serious sounding points. Parodists are unlikely to surround their outlandish messages with that sort of seriously vile and hateful material, preferring to let the "joke" stand on its own.
 Goals of parody
A lot of this has focused on the content of what people post and context, but what about themselves? We need to get into the mind of the wing nut and the parodist to really separate the two. What does your average rabid lunatic on the internet want to achieve with what they do, and what does a parodist hope to achieve?
The former is easy; they need to evangelise. They need to prove themselves right, and they need to do it in front of others that support them. This is easy to spot because you have to ask if they're surrounding themselves with agreeing, nodding head sycophants, while doing their utmost to avoid those who disagree - or at least, intentionally engaging them only long enough to declare victory. This is one of the main reasons we can tell that Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly and his ilk are genuine. They engage in a cycle of debate and withdrawal, just enough to show to their supporters they can argue their position, but not enough to actually engage with the issues properly. After all, most sincere people who are liable to be mislabelled as parodists will have very flimsy beliefs and so their activity will consist of enough debate to reaffirm their position, but not enough to truly challenge it.
A parodist's motives are far more wide-reaching. Boredom and "lulz" being one of the biggest spanners in the works as this means their behaviour may become unpredictable. Is the person you're debating running off? Or are they a parodist and you've satisfied their "lulz" cravings? It's a difficult call in that case.
More easily, we can consider what they get out of it. Those posting single-joke columns for Landover Baptist, or Christwire are effectively publishing material. If people read it, then their motive is satisfied. It's when they come back to repeatedly defend their position, vehemently, that we can begin to suspect that they're the real deal. A parodist whose primary motive is just to publish the posts on a website has little to gain from sticking around to debate people leaving comments - with one apparent exception, the "I can assure you we're not parody" posts. That sort of thing is a dead give-away, put yourself in the mind of someone who is serious about their views being asked if they're parody. The question shouldn't make sense in that case, and the last response you'd think of would be to even acknowledge the accusation!
So, be sure to think about the goals and motives of a Poe. Does it make any sense for them to do this? What do they get out of it? There are far too many possible combinations of actions and motives to lis, but in many cases it should be clear which one makes more sense.
 Spotting photoshopping
This one is pretty difficult in some cases, and might be best left to the experts. The existence of church-sign generators on the internet pretty much rules out any and all of these things being genuine (One notable exception, but I don't think this one would be in doubt anyway). No matter how subtle or how apparently ironic, they're probably faked. That's not all, a sign proclaiming "behead those who say islam is violent" indeed was also photoshoped, but the original isn't much better.
Anyway, if you want to get good at spotting a good shopping job, read Photoshop Disasters to get a good feel for what is and isn't possible, and what it looks like when done well and awful. But here are a few hints:
- Check the letters - if some look suspiciously similar, they've probably been copy/pasted to rearrange the words.
- Check for cloning/blanking - the easiest way to erase is to copy the background. Thankfully, the human brain is an awesome pattern recognition device, and so this should be visible immediately.
- Check for shadows - the thing about light is that it should affect things equally. If there's a sun in the sky, shadows should all line up. If it's cloudy, the light should be all diffuse and even.
- Check for consistent focus - Even cheap cameras with simple lenses will have depth-of-field blurring. Things at different distances to the camera should have different focus and resolution. See this infamous shot of "John Kerry" with Jane Fonda - then think about DoF, and laugh.
Sometimes this is hard to spot, and you need to be sure of what you're looking for to make a good judgment about whether something is photoshopped together or not. But for the most part, it can be stinkingly and painfully obvious.
 Known associations
Learn the names of the genuine big-hitters and key players in the world of the bullshit merchant. If you start to stray outside of these few websites and individuals, the odds of you encountering a parodist start skyrocketing. Answers in Genesis, Fox News (and their pundits), WND, NaturalNews, the Teach the Controversy campaign and so on. This isn't to say that there are no genuine saps who don't work for these people, just that it's highly unlikely to find a parodist working for them, so any connection to a legit organisation indicates an endorsement of them. No one attempting to make a parody of intelligent design would advertise the academic freedom petition, so links out and shout-outs to these legit organisations, displayed prominently on a website are likely to be strong indicators of sincerity.
What sites link to what is important. Godhatesfags.com is the official site of the Westboro Baptist Church and has been for some time. So you can tell that Godhatestheworld.com is real because it's linked to as an offical sister site. Godhateshrimp.com isn't linked - and doesn't link back to Westboro either. The same can be said for Godhatesgoths.com. The real sites tend to keep to their own tight network.
However, there are a few stumbling blocks with using this as a litmus test. Someone being overly gushing of such sources may well be a parodist trying to send up their supporters - and they may even be linking to a site just to spread the lulz virally. This is where it can be hard to tell, so take any overly-gushing and too-complimentary mentions with a pinch of salt. Context does help - are they posting a right-wing site to a liberal blog, bigging it up as the Truth? Probably parody. Are they commenting on friendly blogs as a tip to spread the message? Probably real, as there's little sense in a parodist preaching to the converted - although there are numerous exceptions to this, such as those in the vein of Conservapedia parodists. Remember the style-over-substance test:
“”Hey guys, there's this TOTALLY trustworthy site called Conservapedia. CHECK IT OUT! It's awesome because it gets rid of all the stinkin LIBERAL BIAS that Wikipedia has!! Conservpedia has the TRUTH!
...is more likely to be parody than this:
“”For some things I choose Wikipedia, but for all the controversial stuff, I'd choose Conservapedia any day.
 In short
The way to check for parody is the same heuristic used to check for scams, but with one relevant difference: if it seems too funny to be true, it probably is.