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Poe's Law

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Poe's Law states:[1]

Without a clear indication of the author's intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.

It is an observation that it's difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between parodies of fundamentalism or other absurd beliefs and their genuine proponents, since they both seem equally insane. For example, some conservatives consider noted homophobe Fred Phelps to have been so over-the-top that they argue he was a "deep cover liberal" trying to discredit more mainstream homophobes. This conspiracy theory of sorts is either supported or refuted, depending on your point of view, by the fact that he ran for office in five Kansas Democratic primary elections. He never won.[2]

Poe's law applies not only to the absurdity of beliefs, but also to the absurdity of the arguments that are used on behalf of those beliefs. Arguments on behalf of young-Earth creationism and theodicy are especially known for their absurdity. The quintessential Poe's law argument is an argument on behalf of theodicy, which goes: "Who are we/you [mere humans] to question the motives of the almighty?". The absurd simple and obvious non-sequitur and circular logic therein (that God is good because he is the god) gives one the impression that that argument is intended as a humorous parody of Christians, but in fact that argument was made by a few actual insane Christians.

It is important to note that: linking a claim to Poe's Law is not the same as suggesting that said claim is in fact any type of parody at all. On the contrary, linking to Poe's Law just means that you could not tell if said claim was parody, or indeed sincerely held crankiness — assuming the original claimant didn't decide to also supply a clear indication of intent. When one is presented with a claim that is so over-the-top as to either be a brilliant parody or reflect a genuinely outrageous extremist belief, Poe's Law has been invoked.

History[edit]

Poe's Law was formulated by Nathan Poe in August 2005.[3] The law emerged at the Creation & Evolution forum on the website Christianforums.com.[4] 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.

Earlier sightings[edit]

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;[5]
If you submit a satiric item without this [smiley, i.e. ":-)" or 😀] symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.
Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.

Examples[edit]

An example of Poe's law in action is the following Amazon.com review (voted "Most helpful", no less) of Ray Comfort's book You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, but You Can't Make Him Think.[7] Although the argument in said review is not particularly absurd as far as young-Earth creationist arguments go (in contrast to, say, the extreme absurdity of the Crocoduck argument), the sexual humor therein indicates that it was most likely written by a parodist.

Expansion of the concept[edit]

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 had been 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:
  1. The original idea that at least one person will mistake parody postings for sincere beliefs.
  2. That nobody will be able to distinguish many instances of parody posts from the real thing.
  3. That anyone not already in the grip of fundamentalist ideas will mistake sincere expressions of fundamentalism for parody.[Note 1]

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.

A Poe[edit]

"Poe" as a noun has been coined from Poe's Law. 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.

Poe's Corollary[edit]

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 submitted to the Urban Dictionary in July 2008.[8] This corollary comes into play especially when the rational person has already learned and experienced Poe's Law, predisposing them to think that any ridiculous belief is probably a parody.

Rule 34 applied to Poe's law[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Rule 34

Poe's law can apply to sexual fetishism as well as parody. For instance, some people are attracted to Nazis, or aroused by dressing up and acting like a Nazi themselves. Such individuals are not actually neo-Nazis, but easily mistaken for them. If the similarity was not close enough, then the Nazi-imitation wouldn't be as effective for the fetishist. Sometimes, the same group may include both true-believers in fascism and those who only wear jackboots to get their jollies; there was an all-gay neo-Nazi group in the 1970s whose leader appeared to be sincere, but the group primarily recruited from among the leather subculture (for whom Nazi uniforms would have an obvious sexual appeal).

Another example is Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD), whose adherents use Bible verses to justify wife-beating, but there is also a page for CDD on FetLife, making the true motive of the participants uncertain.

The late conservative activist David Yeagley was known for the particularly florid denunciations of homosexuality he wrote on his website. A number of his critics claimed that he was a closeted gay man himself and that for him, homophobia was a kink; one suggested that he was actually masturbating when he wrote those articles. Similar claims have been made about anti-gay pastors in general, and Fred Phelps in particular. "Poe's 34th Law" implies that it is very difficult if not impossible to know the difference.

The alt-right uses homoerotic imagery and sexually explicit rhetoric derived from pornography (such as the term "cuck"). Because of Poe's 34th Law, it's hard to tell whether or not they get boners from writing that stuff.

Poe Paradox[edit]

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).

The term was first used by RationalWiki editor and now respected blogger The Lay Scientist to describe an apparent paradox in the management of editing rights at Conservapedia;[9]

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[edit]

Experimental[edit]

Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen D. Landreville and Michael A. Beam, investigators at the Ohio State University School of Communication, found evidence supporting Poe's Law in a study published in 2009.[10] 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 to not view Mr. Colbert as presenting his true political opinions. 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.

The Onion[edit]

See the main article on this topic: The Onion

Although not specifically about fundamentalism or extreme opinions, parody and satirical articles have frequently been mistaken for real things. This perhaps proves that even with the winking smiley Wink.gif things can be misinterpreted. The most notable cases of this are due to The Onion's production values rivaling those of CNN. The blog documents numerous cases of The Onion stories being taken as true on Facebook, but sometimes it goes beyond social networking.[11]

  • 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."
  • Also in 2012, North Korea's Central News Agency found The Onion's article naming Kim Jong Un the sexiest man alive. China, largest newspaper group, the People's Daily, circulated the article as truth. The Onion also updated the article, adding to the end, "For more coverage on The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive 2012, Kim Jong-Un, please visit our friends at the People's Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc. Exemplary reportage, comrades."
  • Fox Nation, a subsidiary of Fox News,[Note 2] posted a story stating that Barack Obama had written a 75,000 word email ranting about America, sourced to The Onion. As a reference point for comparison, 75,000 words is about the length of a mid-sized novel such as The Catcher in the Rye or Lolita.
  • A 2001 The Onion article titled "Harry Potter Sparks Rise in Satanism Among Children" was copied into an internet circular (tellingly, with the more obviously parodist elements removed) and sent to numerous fundamentalist Christians.
  • The 2011 article "Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex" took in many people in the blogosphere, whose paranoia over the evils of abortion led them to believe it was genuine. Congressman John Fleming (R-LA) was suckered in by it.
  • In 2015, shortly after the mass FIFA arrests, the Onion ran an article entitled "FIFA Frantically Announces 2015 Summer World Cup In United States," mocking FIFA for attempting to placate the USA and not get all of their top officials arrested. Trinidadian former CONCACAF Vice President Jack Warner noted in a web video that the USA was only doing this as retribution for the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, but cited this article as his source. He went on to compare himself to Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.[12]
  • Shortly after being made Trump's White House Press Secretary and near the date of the "Alternative Facts" gaffe, Sean Spicer retweeted an Onion video about himself, appearing to take it 100% seriously. The Onion's tweet said "@SeanSpicer's role in the Trump Administration will be to provide the American public with robust and clearly articulated misinformation." The internet noticed.[13] Paging Dr. Freud?

The Beaverton[edit]

The Beaverton is essentially a Canadian The Onion,[14] and is also scheduled to become a TV series.[15]

This is That[edit]

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio parody news show This is That mimics the style of actual CBC radio news shows.[16]

The intent of the satire is to mock the beliefs of the ignorant, the overly politically correct, to invent new absurd moral panics, and so on. A major appeal of the show is playback of opinionated call-ins, which consists mostly of people who actually believe the stories, reacting to them.[17] So many embarrassed callers protested that they were fooled that the show is now required by the CBC to mark its articles as "[SATIRE]" in order to warn the very stupid.

America turning 2014 years old[edit]

The Huffington Post reported that some people on Twitter were ready to celebrate "America's Birthday" on January 1st, instead of a new year. After posting such, the users in question began receiving floods of hateful comments and a fair share of death threats. Once said users noticed such influx of hate towards them, they started clarifying that it was a joke.

One of the quoted users emailed The Huffington Post, lamenting that "You used my tweet about "America turning 2014" without having the decency to ask me whether or not I was kidding. Now, I have people telling me to drop dead, to blow my brains out".[18] The site did update the news and blurred the handles of the users in question.

4chan[edit]

See the main article on this topic: 4chan

Channer antisemitism is a dark case study of "ironic" bigotry and contrarianism, and where it eventually leads. It's not the same people now as it was then. The initial crowd of edgelords were just taking the piss. They've been outnumbered; bigots show up and eventually take over, because bigots can't understand irony.[19]

Disciples of the New Dawn[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Disciples of the New Dawn

Disciples of the New Dawn is ostensibly a Christian fundamentalist group, but is widely believed to be a parody. Its supposed founder is one "Patrick Oliver Embry", whose initials spell out POE, which would make this an example of a deliberate Poe.

UndergroundNewsReport[edit]

When I started this site, I had no idea that the stories would garner this much attention. While writing them, I was aiming for stories that no one would believe, but rather would be satirical in an age where disinformation is so prevalent. Just for fun, I decided to post some of the stories in Trump fan groups on Facebook to see the reactions. To my surprise, the Trump masses embraced my stories as fact, almost universally. It seemed that there wasn’t anything I could write that was too wild or outrageous to be believed by this particular audience.
—James McDaniel of UndergroundNewsReport

Despite its disclaimer that it is a satire site, it has enjoyed a big traffic and has seen top comments taking the articles seriously.[20][21] The site has amassed a big following of Trump supporters who believed the stories the site hosted and even some hosted serious YouTube videos on them. The thing is, even after the article admitted that their stories are false and test the gullibility of those who take the site's word for it, commenters still think they're telling the truth. The top comment even says that it "didn't fall for [the] FAKE STORIES" all while believing a fabricated story that Obama is gay.

Reception and usage[edit]

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 LawWikipedia's W.svg was deleted once[22] (but seems to have stuck the latest time around, with an academic reference[23]), but is listed on the list of eponymous lawsWikipedia's W.svg following mention in an article in The Telegraph. Poe's law is now also on the TV Tropes site.[24]

See also[edit]

FrenchWiki.png
Si vous voulez cet article en français, il peut être trouvé à Loi de Poe.

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. A possible corollary of this is that extremism and parody of extremism tend to evolutionarily converge.
  2. Which is itself a parody of an actual news organisation.(Warning: Poe's Law in action!)

References[edit]

  1. Aikin, Scott F. (January 23, 2009). "Poe's Law, Group Polarization, and the Epistemology of Online Religious Discourse". Social Science Research Network. SSRN 1332169
  2. Phelps ran in various Kansas Democratic Party primaries five times, but never won.Wikipedia's W.svg
  3. Nathan Poe's original post is here.
  4. Creation & Evolution
  5. On net.announce
  6. On talk.origins
  7. Review of You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics on Amazon.
  8. "Poe's Corollary" in the Urban Dictionary
  9. On TWIGO:CP
  10. The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report by Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen D. Landreville and Michael A. Beam (2009) The International Journal of Press/Politics Volume 14, Issue 2.
  11. Literally Unbelievable.
  12. Bleacher Report documents the entire deal.
  13. Sean Spicer Retweets Onion Video Saying He Provides 'Robust Misinformation': 'You Nailed It', New York Magazine.
  14. The Beaverton.
  15. The Beaverton TV series at imdb.com.
  16. This Is That at cbc.ca.
  17. Canadians react to Canada Post releasing nude stamp honouring Wreck Beach at cbc.ca.
  18. "Meet The People Who Think America Is 2014 Years Old". The Huffington Post. 12/30/2013.
  19. Jacob Siegel, "Dylann Roof, 4Chan, and the New Online Racism", The Daily Beast.
  20. Murdock, S. (March 11, 2017). A Satire Website Posted Fake News To Trump Supporters. Many Believed It. The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
  21. Underground News Report (March 3, 2017). BREAKING: Satire Makes Fools of Gullible Trump Supporters. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
  22. 2nd AFD discussion for Poe's LawWikipedia's W.svg
  23. See the Wikipedia article on Poe's law.
  24. TV Tropes, Poe's Law.
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