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We are awash in words and images that sound and look like real news, but are not. This article considers certain kinds of fake news as a genre of digital folklore and attempts to sort out the differences among fake news hoaxes, pranks, satires, and parodies. It offers examples of each and tries to show how fake news functions as folk political commentary or folk media criticism. Copyright
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Caveat Lector : Fake News as Folklore
Russell Frank
Journal of American Folklore, Volume 128, Number 509, Summer 2015, pp.
315-332 (Article)
Published by American Folklore Society
For additional information about this article
Access provided by Penn State Univ Libraries (22 Sep 2017 17:44 GMT)
Journal of American Folklore 128(509):315–332
Copyright © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
R F
Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore
We are awash in words and images that sound and look like real news, but are
not. is article considers certain kinds of fake news as a genre of digital folklore
and attempts to sort out the dierences among fake news hoaxes, pranks, satires,
and parodies. It oers examples of each and tries to show how fake news functions
as folk political commentary or folk media criticism.
  : News, joke cycles, political satire,
digital media
Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coee. It stains
and it won’t go away.
  ,       these days from the Internet rather than
from a printed newspaper or a television broadcast. In the spring of 2013, I read stories
on the Web with these headlines:
• IsraeltoDismantleSettlements,RecognizePalestinianState
• UnitedStatestoDestroyAllNuclearWarheads
• SarahPalinCallsforInvasionofCzechRepublic
• RepublicanBillDemandsImmigrants‘Americanize’eirNames
Not one of these stories was true. ey sounded good, though. at is, they were
written in conformity with journalistic style. In some cases, the stories also looked
good. at is, the design of the webpage either imitated the style of legitimate news
sites or was a nearly exact replica of a particular legitimate news site.
Such material is commonly referred to as fake news. I am going to argue that some
fake news is folklore. It would then follow that the folkloric fake news that is created
on and transmitted via computers—which is most of it—is a genre of digital folklore.
But before I attempt to distinguish the fake news that is folklore from other kinds of
fake news, I want to delineate the broader category of fake news, whether folkloric
or not.
  is Associate Professor of Communications, Pennsylvania State University, University Park
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316 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
Journalism ethicists use the term “fake news” to refer to promotional material dis-
guised as news.1 e kind of fake news I am concerned with here can be more broadly
dened as intentionally false reports. e intentional dimension of fake news is critical
to our denition because on occasion news organizations inadvertently deliver false
reports, either because they are taken in by a hoax or they obtain information oered
in good faith that proves to be erroneous.
But which kinds of fake news can be considered folklore? I am not asking whether
texts and images created and transmitted on computers can be folklore because,
thanks to a growing body of work devoted to the expressive traditions of virtual com-
munities2 (including this very issue of Journal of American Folklore), that question,
I believe, has largely been settled. e examination of photocopied texts and images
prompted Alan Dundes to regard the mailing or faxing of such material as comparable
to face- to- face communication in providing “solidarity and group identity” (Dundes
and Pagter 1975:223), and to consider parody “one of the richest veins in American
folk humor” (Dundes and Pagter 1975:239).
News parody, however, has long been a staple of popular culture as well, from at
Was the Week at Was in the 1960s, Rowan and Martins Laugh- In and Monty Python’s
Flying Circus in the 1960s and 1970s, to e Daily Show, e Colbert Report, and
“Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live. On the print side, there is the “Borowitz
Report” (in the New Yorker) and the Onion, among others. As long as fake news is
produced for broadcast or mass circulation, it seems too professional, too individu-
alized, or too monetized for the folkloric domain of the homemade, the informal,
the amateur, the anonymous, and the shared. ose dierences are harder to discern
when the same content is posted online and compared to professional- looking con-
tent posted by amateurs. Writing about 9/11 lore, Hathaway (2005:51) observed that
the material “demonstrates how mass media and folklore are becoming ever more
closely aligned, and how the overlapping boundaries between them oer challenges
to folklorists.” e same can be said of fake news stories.
It may be helpful, in this regard, to think of the Web has having evolved along two
separate though frequently intersecting tracks: the professional and the amateur—in
Howard’s (2005) words, the institutional and the vernacular. is is not a matter of
dierences in skill level or social standing between one person and another, neces-
sarily, but of the way any of us might shi from professional to amateur depending
on whom we are communicating with and for what purpose. Even Jon Stewart, the
host of e Daily Show, can be “folk” in his private communications with friends.
With so many of us using our computers for both work and play, “formal distinc-
tions between ocial and informal communication [are] more and more dicult to
discern,” as Ellis (2002) noted.
Another way to think of the “folk” sector of cyberspace is as a communication
underground that runs parallel to and often comments on the “above- ground”
communication of the mass media—an instance of folklore functioning, in Dorst’s
words, as the “counter- hegemonic rejection of the media construction of the world”
(1990:185). Complicating matters is that an Onion story or Borowitz report can morph
into a folk story when it detaches from its point of origin and circulates as a sup-
posedly true tale. en, too, there is no way to know, without asking them, whether
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 317
lesser- known purveyors of fake stories are hobbyists or professionals, or whether their
labors of love also bring in a little money.
As digital folklore, fake news is a story generated in a non- professional social context
that uses the style of news either to parody that style, satirize issues and personali-
ties in the news, or perpetrate a hoax or prank. Not all fake news is folklore, and not
all the fake news that is folklore is digital folklore. Recall, for example, the much-
photocopied fake news story about the discovery of “administratium,” an element
possessing 1 neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons, and 111 assistant vice
neutrons, and found in greatest concentrations in governments, large corporations,
and universities.
Fake news is worth paying attention to and thinking about for a number of reasons.
First, it is interesting that the computer has become as much of a toy as it is a business
machine. Producing and consuming netlore is one of the ways we play while at our
computers. Second, it is interesting that some of our play takes the form of fake news:
it suggests a complicated relationship with the news. Parodies allow us to challenge
the authority of the news media as a cultural institution. Satires allow us to challenge
the authority of the newsmakers. Both forms of humorous fake news bespeak our
sophistication as news consumers. Our susceptibility to news hoaxes, on the other
hand, reminds us of just how authoritative that news “voice” continues to be, even
amid an unceasing stream of complaints about inaccuracy, sensationalism, conicts
of interest, and bias.
ere is no shortage of websites that are devoted to or include fake news stories.
e website, which functions as an online clearinghouse of satirical
websites, lists 56 “partner” sites and 5 “friends” (
html). I visited most of them. A few are defunct. A few are devoted to other kinds of
satire than fake news. Several are dormant, not having been updated in at least a year.
A Google search for the term “fake news” also led me to a guide to “Faux News: 10
Best Websites for Fake News and Satire” at (http://www.makeuseof
.com/tag/faking- it- 8- of- the- best- spoof- news- websites/), most of which were linked to
from the Humorfeed site. e appetite for fake news has also spawned websites that
are programmed to automatically generate fake news, sites that are devoted to news
about fake news, and even sites that oer fake news about fake news. I found my way
to fake news generators via’s “Top 3 Fake News Prank Story Genera-
tors” ( e
three are,, and A Google search for “fake
news generators” turned up ve additional sites.3
Organizing this material into categories and sub- categories is tricky because the
intentions of the producers can only be inferred and the experiences of the recipients
will vary: a story intended as satire may become a hoax if enough people believe it.
A somewhat clearer organizing principle, therefore, is by type of website:
• eGenerators: Sites that provide the tools for users to generate their own fake news
• eCloners: Sites that launch hoaxes by copying the design of the home page of a
legitimate news organization.
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318 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
• eWishfulinkers: Sites that oer satire with the avowed purpose of inspiring politi-
cal action.
• eCitizenSatirists: Sites that oer satire for satire’s sake—and clearly identify them-
selves as such.
• eEnablers: Legitimate sites that inadvertently provide a platform for hoaxers.
e appearance of folklore in the news has long been of interest to folklorists.4 Here,
we have the appearance of the news in folklore.
e Generators
If you want to create a fake news story, you have at least four options:
1. If you have the writing skills, you can simply write a fake story, place it in the body of
an e- mail, post it on your own blog, or contribute it to a receptive website and claim
that it comes from a reliable source. If you write it adroitly enough, and if the content
is plausible enough, you might get some readers to believe it.
2. If you have the design skills, you can create a story that looks like it comes from a
newspaper or a legitimate news site, even if it doesn’t sound like it.
3. If you have the writing skills, and want to create a story that looks like it comes from a
newspaper, but lack the design skills, you can feed your words to a fake news genera-
tor and get something that not only sounds like a newspaper story, but looks like one.
4. If you have neither the writing nor the design skills, you can feed information to a
story generator and obtain a story that both looks and sounds like a newspaper story.
In this section, I will explore options 3 and 4, the material that can be obtained via
the use of a story generator. e sites that require the user to write the story are like
karaoke machines. Just as the instrumentation will sound good regardless of the
quality of the singing, these sites will yield stories that will look good regardless of
the quality of the writing. calls itself a “newspaper clipping generator.” All
the user has to do is ll in the name of a newspaper, real or ctitious, and the date and
the headline. en enter your story in the text box, and hit the “Generate!” button.
A similar site bears the unlikely name Its motto: “Don’t
Like the News? Create Your Own!” Here, one writes a headline, enters the story in a
text box, and clicks on “Write.” e story appears on the front page of a paper called
Star (“Your hometown newspaper 49 years”). For illustrative purposes at a meeting
of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research in 2009, I produced
a silly little story (see g. 1).
One would think that the creator of a site that both writes and designs the story
for you would have the journalistic skills to produce a convincing news story. Not so.
Consider, which oers this explanation of what it does:
“‘Fake news’ is a prank script written for the sole purpose of confusing, embarrassing,
and angering your friends. Simply ll out the forum5 below and it will create a fake
news story of your choice. Our site will then e- mail your friend telling them that ‘a
friend of theirs’ found a news article and referred it to them. It then gives them the
link to the fake story, which will look 100% authentic.
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 319
e user then lls in the name, gender, e- mail address, city, and state of the “vic-
tim,” along with a fake quote. en you select a story from only three possibilities:
“Stripper on the Loose!,” “Pumpkin Farmer!,” or “Hat Robber!” I chose “Stripper on
the Loose!” and, with permission, entered the name of the editor of this special issue
of Journal of American Folklore, with the (excerpted) result shown in gure 2.
As news writing, this is pretty weak material. Amateurish touches include “from
right here” in the “lede” (lead paragraph); the ocer’s use of the suspect’s rst and
middle name rather than his last name; the use of profanity; “had this to say”; and the
repeated use of the suspect’s full name and of “Madison, Wisconsin.” Still, the prose
is probably serviceable enough for a gag.
Even clumsier is the site Aer entering the rst and last names of the
person you want featured in the story, you may choose a story in which the person in
question is one of the following: “A Jerk, A Transvestite, Ugly, Caught Naked, A Pimp,
A Pornstar, Clearly Obese, A n00b [sic], A Homosexual, A Lesbian, Scared Of Sheep,
A Swinger, Gorgeous, Loaded, Super Cool, A Bed Wetter, An Alcoholic, or Lives A
Double Life, Has Super Powers, or Wears Dirty Underwear.” A disclaimer follows:
ank you for using our fake news generator where you can create your very own
fake news story, to trick your friends, family members and even enemies into think-
ing the fake news story is 100% real. Remember to keep checking back as we will
add more news stories so you can share extra breaking news with friends, family
members and even your enemies.
Figure 1. “Legend Scholars
Invade Harrisburg”
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320 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
Once again I entered our hapless editor’s name and selected “Has Super Powers,
with this result:
Robert Glenn Howard Has Super Powers
Today FUWT Can Ocially Reveal Robert Glenn Howard has super powers, which
we have sene with our own eyes.
Robert revealed exclusively to FUWT Today “I am super hero, and im going to
use this super power to the full potential. I believe im the best super hero there is
and im undefeatable now” is was a large comment for Robert Glenn Howard to
say since their super power is to detect people with the same super power.
e punctuation and spelling errors are egregious, and the wording bears very little
resemblance to an actual news story. Obviously it’s hard to imagine that anyone other
than a child would think the story was “100% real.
Figure 2. “Stripper on
the Loose” (newspaper
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 321
ese prank stories can be considered a subtype of the parody fake news story. It
parodies the style of a news story not to mock the news media or to create an incon-
gruity by tting non- news content into news form, but to play a joke on the “victim.
Despite Freakycowbot’s claim that its oerings are designed to confuse, embarrass,
and anger, neither the victim nor the victim’s friends are likely to be fooled, which
means that the victim isn’t really a victim at all, but is being honored with a gag gi.
e Cloners
Like the sites in the previous section, the Fake CNN News Generator enabled users
to create phony stories. Unlike those sites, and in common with the sites I will dis-
cuss below, the Fake CNN stories would then appear on a webpage that was indeed a
dead ringer for CNN’s site. e CNN clone was created in 2003 by a 16- year- old. Not
surprisingly, some of the stories—about the death of musician Dave Matthews, and
multiple versions of where celebrity twins Mary- Kate and Ashley Olsen had suppos-
edly decided to go to college—were picked up by other outlets. According to Wired.
com, several schools issued denials in response to inquiries from reporters about the
twins’ decision, and the Dave Matthews Bands website assured fans that the group’s
front man was still very much alive (Kahney 2003). Harmless? Not if you’re a die-
hard Dave Matthews fan. Or if you’re CNN: the fun lasted for a week before the cable
news giant threatened legal action. e Wired story noted that the fake CNN site also
generated stories about the deaths of Jennifer Lopez, Jay Z, 50 Cent, and Nick Carter.
Other copycat sites have telltale signs that they’re bogus, assuming a visitor takes
the time to look for them. Not the Los Angeles Times, for example, uses the same font
as the Los Angeles Times, the only dierences being the word “Not” that appears in
much smaller type above the name “Los Angeles Times,” and the ridiculousness of the
content. e home page is shown in gure 3.
Figure 3. “Not the
Los Angeles Times
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322 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
And here are some headlines:
• KingTutCancelsWorldTourtoLeadEgyptOutofCrisis
• CaliforniaSellsSanDiegotoEraseDecit
• GilletteDebutstheMachete,aCombo11-bladeRazorandGardeningTool
• WhiteHouseOrdersCelebritiestoStopDyinginrees
• SpellingBeeChampStrippedofTitleAerAdmittingSteroidUse
And so on. e stories are nearly awless. One example:
Kada says he won’t resign unless protesters gure out correct spelling of his name
Libyan strongman Moammar Kada tightened his grip on power today, saying
he would step down only if protesters guessed the correct spelling of his name.
“Oh man, we’re doomed,” one rebel said. “Is it Moammar or Muamar? Gada or
Qadda? Even Watson the IBM computer doesn’t know.
News media outlets use dozens of dierent spellings. And Libya’s ocial govern-
ment website also seems confused, referring to the dictator variously as Muammar
al- Gatha, Moamar Qadda, Mallomar Kandinsky and Miami Quidditch.
“He’s like Rumpelstiltskin,” one diplomat said. “e protesters keep demanding his
resignation, but they get the name wrong, so he stays. It also gets him out of parking
e Wishful inkers
Another set of clone news sites may be distinguished by their idealism from the ones
mentioned in the previous section. Instead of mocking the status quo by making
leaders and events even more ridiculous than they already are, their stories envision
a world that has come to its senses, one where decisions are not driven primarily by
greed, power lust, or zealotry. One of these sites attempts to derive a faux legitimacy
not by mirroring the graphic style of CBS News but by appropriating the name itself.
e URL is At the home page, we learn that the name stands
for Completely BS Breaking News. But the ippancy of the name is belied by the
yearning underpinning some of the stories. Sample headlines and ledes:
Israel to Dismantle Settlements, Recognize Palestinian State
JERUSALEM (CBSBN)—In a hastily called press conference, the Prime Minister of
Israel has announced that the Jewish State will start dismantling all settlements in
the West Bank and East Jerusalem immediately, and that it is ready to recognize the
Palestine as a sovereign country.
United States to Destroy All Nuclear Warheads
WASHINGTON, D.C. (CBSBN)—In a surprise announcement during a press confer-
ence at the White House, President Obama announced that the United States would
unilaterally destroy its entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Site founder Nick Oba calls these “Why not” stories that “address a senseless status
quo, which could be rectied with just one decision by someone in power. A few
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 323
phone calls from one person would be enough to transform any of these stories from
satire into real news.” e site also features Pseudo News Stories, which Oba denes
as “prank stories [that] are outlandish enough to be interesting, yet somehow carry a
ring of truth.” Among them are disaster stories, “the idea,” Oba says, “being to directly
feed people’s morbid desire to see a big, gory disaster to relieve boredom at the oce,
and thereby to illustrate the sensationalism both the media and the media- consuming
public thrive on nowadays” ( began to draw attention when, aer publishing a story
that the Marshall Islands had legalized cocaine, the president of the Marshall Islands
threatened to sue. And CBS Corp. sent a cease- and- desist demand that Oba said he
intended to “ght tooth and nail.
Another utopian project was the fake New York Times issued in print and on the
Web by a group of political pranksters. e print edition had 14 pages of what the
creators called “best case scenario” stories. e goal, according to artist Steve Lam-
bert, was “to celebrate what we wanted, rather than criticize what we didn’t” (http://
e lead story (see g. 4) was “IRAQ WAR ENDS.” Other wishful headlines included
“Maximum Wage Law Passes Congress,” “USA Patriot Act Repealed,” and “All Public
Universities to Be Free.” e ledes on some of the stories on the front page will give
a good idea of how well- executed this project was:
• OperationIraqiFreedomandOperationEnduringFreedomwerebroughttoanuncer-
emonious close today with a quiet announcement by the Department of Defense that
troops would be home within weeks.
• Aerlongandoenbitterdebate,Congresshaspassedlegislation,ercelyfoughtforby
labor and progressive groups, that will limit top salaries to een times the minimum
Figure 4.“Fake New York Times” (
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324 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
• CongresshasvotedtoplaceExxonMobil,ChevronTexaco,andothermajoroilcompa-
nies under public stewardship, with the bulk of the companies’ prots put in a public
trust administered by the United Nations and used for alternative energy research and
development in order to solve the global climate crisis.
Volunteers distributed 80,000 copies of the paper, and the website received 300,000
visitors, and CNN, MSNBC,, and none other than the New York Times
itself provided news coverage of the stunt. Lambert said their goal “was not to have
anyone feel ‘tricked’ or the butt of a joke, but to be welcomed in to an inside joke
that could be shared with friends” (
edition/). Not everyone got it, however. Consider this comment:
I saw this on someone’s desk today. My heart soared. en I realized it was a cruel
prank. My heart fell.
Stop breaking my heart! People are dying. Our hope is for war to end. is does
nothing to hasten peace. You are wasting precious time and energy that could be
devoted to worthy causes, not sophomoric pranks. ough laughter is good medicine,
your brand of “humor” is a poisoned pill.
A third site is the Daily Currant, which bills itself as an “online satirical newspaper,
the mission of which is “to ridicule the timid ignorance which obstructs our prog-
ress, and promote intelligence—which presses forward.” Notwithstanding the earnest
purpose, the stories are more playful than the ones in the fake New York Times. Some
headlines, ledes, and reactions from readers who believed the story, or almost did:
Bestiality Surges Hours Aer New Zealand Legalizes Gay Marriage
Lede: Authorities in New Zealand are struggling to contain a burdgeoning epidemic
of beastiality unleashed by its recent legalization of gay marriage. According to po-
lice in cities across the country, thousands of people descended on sheep farms and
began sexually penetrating the animals almost instantly aer parliament voted for
marriage equality yesterday
Readercomment: is had me going for a minute. (
Wal- Mart CEO ‘Shocked’ By Low Wages, Oers 25% Raise
Lede:In response to ongoing strikes at its US stores, retail giant Wal- Mart announced
today an immediate 25% raise for all its 1.4 million American employees. CEO
Michael T. Duke said he was ‘unaware’ his employees had been so poorly paid and
aer reading the demands of the strikers he vowed to x the situation immediately.
Readercomment: is must be a joke. eir is no way he is saying this. (http://ers-25-raise/)
Republican Bill Demands Immigrants ‘Americanize’ eir Names
Lede: Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced a bill today
requiring that all illegal immigrants in the United States “Americanize” their names.
According the legislation draed by Rep. Steve King (R- Iowa) only immigrants who
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 325
agree to take English surnames like “Smith” and “Anderson” will be allowed to apply
for citizenship under any future comprehensive immigration reform.
Readercomment:is is without a doubt the stupidest thing that the Republicans
could have come up with. Why, oh why, can’t the people in Congress focus on some-
thing worthwhile that will actually help the country???????????????? (http://dailycurrant
Sarah Palin Calls for Invasion of Czech Republic
Lede: Sarah Palin called for the invasion of the Czech Republic today in response
to the recent terrorist attacks in Boston. In an interview with Fox News, the former
governor of Alaska said that although federal investigators have yet to complete their
work, the time for action is now. “We don’t know everything about these suspects
yet,” Palin told Fox and Friends this morning, referring to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar
Tsarnaev, who allegedly carried out the Boston Marathon attacks. “But we know they
were Muslims from the Czech Republic.
Readercomment:Pleeaaase . . . 1 st chechenya not czech republic . . . Have you
ever been into czech republic? Did you analized the criminal rate in the usa com-
pared to the rate in czech? And why just invade a country because there was 2
ignorant and violent people. . . . Why not invade uk . . . Or china . . . Or portugal . . .
Or spain. . . . Gosh woman . . . U are dangerous and ignorant! (http://dailycurrant
Another sign of the cleverness of the Daily Currant’s stories is that feels
called upon to debunk them (I found seven instances of Snopes “red- lighting” a Daily
Currant story). e site’s stories are prime examples of how satire calls attention to
absurd real- world situations via scenarios that are only slightly more absurd. Given
some of Sarah Palin’s past pronouncements, it would not be surprising if she were to
have confused Chechnya with the Czech Republic and called for an irresponsible and
disproportionate response to the bombing of the Boston Marathon. e New Zealand
story realizes some of the most hysterical slippery- slope arguments against gay mar-
riage. e only logical explanation for Walmart’s grossly exploitive compensation
practices is that the head of the company could not possibly be aware of them. e
immigration bill story aims to expose the unstated prejudice underpinning Republican
attitudes toward immigrants.
Citizen Satirists
Most of the dozens of fake news sites I visited are overtly satirical. Several have slogans
along the lines of the New York Timess “All the News at’s Fit to Print.” A few of the
sites parody that very slogan:
• eDailyRash:AlltheNewsat’sUnttoPrint
• DeadPanNews:AlltheNewsat’sFittoSatirize.Orfabricate.
• HumorTimes:AlltheNewsat’sSafetoLetYouRead.
• MuskratNews:AlltheNewsatsFitto...Hey,IsatDuckweed?
And so on.
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326 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
Other sites make their satirical bent abundantly clear in their tagline, or in a usually
facetious “About” or Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section. First, the taglines:
• EnduringVision:BringingtheWorldSatireandLoveSince1927
• NewsMutiny:SatirefortheWise.NewsfortheDumb.
• BongoNews:Satire.Parody.Jokes.
• eSkunk:TastelessAmericanSatirefortheIll-Informed
• ConfusionRoad:SatirethatFitsYourLifestyle
• eChicagoDope:NeverTrue.AlwaysAccurate.
• Deadbrain:News·Satire·Spoof·Parody·Humor·ParisHilton
• NationalNitwit:Unusualnewsofredoubtableveracityfromthelandofthefreeand
home of the depraved—we both document and contribute to the decline in American
• Satirewire:News.Ish.
• Recoil:NewsSatireYouCanTrust
• eWiredPress—SatireNews:Yoursourceforsatirenewsandmediocrejournalism
• NewsBiscuit:eNewsBeforeItHappens.
• FakeNewsDaily:eNewsisNotHere.
• WashingtonPox:Ifyoudon’tlikethenews,gooutandmakesomeofyourown.
In a similar vein, many of the sites have concocted bogus etiological tales and sta
biographies. In keeping with its retro design and archaic language, the Watley Review
traces its origins to the editor’s grandfather, who started the newspaper while cross-
ing the Atlantic on a steamship. A supposed staer at the Watley Review, Ernest
Wardwell, “has four academic degrees, ve outstanding warrants, and two curiously
shaped moles” (.html). Dale MacFarland, founder
of the Specious Report, “was tragically killed in a cucumber accident” (http://www
As for the stories themselves, consider how this piece on Ross Rants (“Fair and
Unbalanced”) about chemical weapons in Syria serves as folk commentary on the
news. First, the back story.
President Obama boxed himself in when he declared that if Syrian President Assad
used chemical weapons on rebels he would cross a “red line” that would warrant some
kind of intervention from the world community. In April 2013 there were reports
that that line had been crossed. At a news conference, President Obama backpedaled.
e story in Ross Rants (“Fair and Unbalanced”):
Obama Warns Assad Not to Use Chemical or Biological Weapons on More
an 10,000 People at a Time on a Friday Between the Hours of 10PM and
12AM During a Full Moon Between May and June
Responding to critics, President Obama took a strong stand against Syrian dictator
Bashar al- Assad, warning him that he “better not gas more than 10,000 of his own
people on a Friday between the hours of 10PM and 12AM during a full moon between
May and June.” If he does, Obama warned, there “will be—might be—possibly could
be consequences.” (
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 327
I would like to end this section with a story from Confusion Road that satirizes the
press itself.
Broad Generalizations Usually Wrong, Study Shows
Sweeping generalizations commonly reported in the news media, on subjects
ranging from science to health to politics, are usually misguided and can even be
dangerous, a new study shows. (
is story oers a window into the skepticism and scorn directed toward contem-
porary journalism that motivates so much fake news. Fittingly, the story deliberately
undercuts itself by relying, as so many news stories do, on “a new study.” e story
hints at an unholy alliance between journalists and academics to promulgate bogus
ideas about the world. Another story on the Confusion Road site pokes fun at the
proliferation of dubious trend stories. “ese types of news items will oen use vague
expressions like ‘more and more’ or ‘increasingly’ to disguise their lack of actual data
quantifying the supposed increase.” e source who calls attention to the “trend
trend” is, of course, the ctitious spokesman for a non- existent journalism watchdog
organization (
And en ere Are the Dirty Tricksters
Hoaxers are mischief- makers or, in the language of the Watergate scandal, dirty trick-
sters. At worst, their purpose is to defame by spreading a false, but believable story
designed to embarrass or implicate a prominent individual or institution. A milder
hoax is simply designed to get people to believe a harmless ction. e only people
likely to be embarrassed by such a story are the believers rather than the dramatis
personae. Sometimes, though, belief in a story is enough to cause harm. An example
would be the phony Associated Press Tweet in April 2013 that a bomb had exploded
at the White House, injuring President Obama. e president wasn’t hurt by the story,
but during the brief period before the story was debunked, the Dow Jones Industrial
Average dropped more than 140 points.
A website devoted to user- submitted news that seems tailor- made for hoaxers is
sponsored by CNN. e rationale for the iReport site is that there is usually a lag
between a newsworthy occurrence and journalists nding out about it, gathering
information about it, and presenting it in a conventional news format. iReport allows
witnesses to newsworthy events to post the news as it happens—which means it is
posted now and fact- checked later. e unvetted posts are labeled by CNN as such, and
false or inaccurate reports are removed—eventually—but the network acknowledges
the danger: “Sometimes people post deliberately untrue stories on iReport—about
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328 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
celebrity deaths, for example. Hoaxes are one of the risks of user- generated content and
at CNN we take them very seriously. Fortunately, they have been few and far between
on iReport. e number of real, important and excellent iReports is far greater than
deliberately untrue stories” (
I do not nd it comforting that the number of true iReports far exceeds the number
of hoaxes. Mark Twain’s famous formulation applies: “A lie can make it halfway around
the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.” Sure enough, a story about the
arrest of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on child molestation charges appeared
on iReport in 2011 and gained enough currency to be thought in need of debunking
by (
.shtml). Even then, staunch conspiracy theorists clung to the story: obviously the story
“went away” only because Zuckerberg had the power to make it do so. “Story gone,
wrote one visitor to the website Godlike Productions, devoted to “UFOs, conspiracy
theorists and lunatic fringe.” “Didn’t realize he had that much power already.” Another
visitor wrote: “Story WAS up,,, now it is GONE,,, WTF,,,Oh yea,,, censorship at work.
Savvier visitors mocked these credulous posts: “it’s user submitted you fucking idiots.
that BLOG has no source. Mainstream would be all over this otherwise” (http://www
As Duy, Page, and Young (2012) point out, even “Mainstream” debunking might
not be enough to quash a juicy story that one is predisposed to believe. If one’s dis-
trust of the “lamestream media” is great enough, such debunking only conrms the
story in question. is so- called backre eect (Nyhan and Reier 2010) extends to
folklore’s very own, which has been accused of debunking with a liberal
bias. In the funhouse mirror world of the Web, that leads to a site like
fact- checking Snopes—and nding that Snopes is indeed a reliable source on the truth
of rumors, legends, and fake news (
Clearly, the “Not Vetted for CNN” label does not stop readers from seizing on a juicy
morsel of news and sending it to everyone they know.
Alarmingly, CNN says it is “condent in and excited about the future of participa-
tory journalism” (
ireport-works). But as premature reports of the death of Penn State football coach Joe
Paterno in 2012 and the deliberately false reports of the White House bombing show,
Twitter and Facebook, the primary tools of participatory journalism, are dominated
by a post- now, correct- later ethos, and all too oen, even mainstream news organiza-
tions have succumbed to the pressure to get the news out before their competitors.
us, the Paterno story, originally tweeted by an editor at a website run by Penn State
students, was picked up by CBS News and the Hungton Post. At this writing, to my
knowledge, iReport is the only instance of a legitimate news organization abetting
hoaxers, albeit inadvertently.
is is a confusing time to be a news consumer. e proliferation of blogs and websites
devoted to news makes it dicult to distinguish between fact and rumor, between
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 329
fact and opinion, and between fact and ction. An obvious solution would be to stick
with the so- called legacy media—institutions like the New York Times or National
Public Radio or CBS News that have a track record of reliable reporting. But those news
organizations have credibility problems of their own. Fabrication scandals, notably
the revelations in 2003 that New York Times reporter Jayson Blair had been making
up stories out of whole cloth, seriously eroded public condence in the mainstream
news media. So did the Timess and Washington Posts uncritical parroting, that same
year, of Bush administration claims—later proven false—that Saddam Hussein pos-
sessed weapons of mass destruction.
ose failures gave rise, in turn, to a number of websites and blogs specically
devoted to combing through the mainstream media for errors and for evidence that
those organizations had either become too nancially and ideologically tethered to
the status quo to challenge the powers that be (from a le- leaning perspective) or
too blinded by liberal bias to give a fair hearing to conservative viewpoints (from a
right- leaning perspective).
At the same time, ironically, the mainstream’s longstanding commitment to verica-
tion made it seem too slow and too wedded to old media habits to keep pace with the
instantaneousness of Tweets and Facebook postings. And when they do try to compete
with their nimbler Web counterparts, they become susceptible to being “punked.
Indeed, what motivates some hoaxers is the desire to expose slipshod verication prac-
tices when it comes to a hot story. e New York Times quotes Joey Skaggs, author of
a book called Pranks, who says he started doing hoaxes “to point out the inadequacies
and dangers of an irresponsible press” (Dery 1990). Daniel Barkeley, founder of the
Daily Currant, expresses dismay when mainstream news sources publish his stories
without verifying them (quoted in Zara 2013).
While some of the websites challenging the hegemony of the mainstream news
media evince a comparable degree of professionalism as the people they’re competing
with or monitoring, the ubiquity of computers with Internet access has also enabled a
legion of “citizen journalists” to report and comment on the news. at commentary
can address the news itself or the way the news is reported and can take the form of
a digitally altered photo (Frank 2006); a photo, advertisement, or movie poster with
captions and dialogue added; a still or animated cartoon; and parodies of songs, adver-
tisements, memoranda, press releases—and news stories. Most of these digital works
entail the creative use of recycled material, followed by the sharing of it on websites
or via e- mail. It can range from sophomoric to ingenious, from profane to pious, but
taken together, it is the vox populi par excellence, a way for all of us to express our
wit, our values, and our estimation of whether the world is or is not making sense.
ose attributes—creative use of recycled material in the service of sharing our ideas
about the state of the world—are what help a folklorist make the case for calling this
kind of computer- mediated communication folklore. Following Mechling (1997), we
may say it is folklore operating in the “civil sphere.” Following Juris (2005), we can
consider the exchange of fake news a kind of media activism or culture jamming.
Following Borden and Tew’s (2007) discussion of e Daily Show and e Colbert
Report as media criticism, we can call the fake news I have been discussing here folk
media criticism. No less than Jon Stewart and his ilk, the folk have come to function
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330 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
as “the h estate, that is, the watchdog of the (so- called) watchdog news media
(Reilly 2010:3).
Fake news stories range from benign to malicious, clever to insipid, polished to
inept. ey may parody the rhetoric and design of serious news; mock the incom-
petence, hypocrisy, or venality of people in the news; express a yearning for a saner
world; or, as a gag, turn a friend into a newsmaker. And they may be written to sound
like news stories, designed to look like news stories, or automatically generated to
look and/or sound like a news story once one has entered names and chosen a story
template. Not surprisingly, the most well- wrought fake news stories fool people. e
website tracks credulous Facebook responses to Onion
stories. e Daily Currant has a knack for getting serious news sites to fall for its
stories. Other serious news sites have then duly reported on that phenomenon, even
complaining that the proliferation of such clever fakes “could do actual damage to
political discourse and the media in general” (O’Neil 2013). Meanwhile, the phenom-
enon provides additional grist for debunking sites such as Snopes and Hoax Slayer.
So great is the popularity of fake news that the Oakland Unseen website reports
that it is now “much more protable than traditional print journalism” (http:// news- now- more- profitable
- than- real- news- poynter). e Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, is cited as
the source. But when I looked for the story at, I was unable to nd it, from
which I could only conclude that this was fake news about fake news.
1. See, for example, Farsetta and Price (2006).
2. Notable contributions to the still small body of scholarship of digital folklore include Dorst (1990);
Ellis (2002); Fernback (2003); Frank (2004, 2006, 2011); Kibby (2005); Howard (2005); Hathaway (2005);
Blank (2009); and Duy, Page, and Young (2012).
3. A list of sites visited follows the References Cited section of this paper.
4. See, for example, Brunvand (2001).
5. Here, as elsewhere in this essay, I have reproduced Web content as written—typos, misspellings,
and all.
References Cited
Blank, Trevor J., ed. 2009. Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World. Logan:
Utah State University Press.
Borden, Sandra L., and Chad Tew. 2007. e Role of Journalist and the Per formance of Journalism: Ethical
Lessons from ‘Fake’ News (Seriously). Journal of Mass Media Ethics 22(4):300–14.
Brunvand, Jan. 2001. Folklore in the News (and on the Net). Western Folklore 60(1):47–76.
Dery, Mark. 1990. e Merry Pranksters and the Art of the Hoax. New York Times, December 23. http://
Dorst, John. 1990. Tags and Burners, Cycles and Networks: Folklore in the Telectronic Age. Journal of
Folklore Research 27(3):179–90.
Duy, Margaret, Janis Teruggi Page, and Rachel Young. 2012. Obama as Anti- American: Visual Folk-
lore in Right- Wing Forwarded E- mails and Construction of Conservative Social Identity. Journal of
American Folklore 125(496):177–203.
Dundes, Alan, and Carl Pagter. 1975. Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded. Detroit, MI: Wayne State
University Press.
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Frank, Fake News as Folklore 331
Ellis, Bill. 2002. Making a Big Apple Crumble: e Role of Humor in Constructing a Global Response
to Disaster. New Directions in Folklore 6.
Farsetta, Diane, and Daniel Price. 2006. Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed. Center for Media
and Democracy, April 6.
Fernback, Jan. 2003. Legends on the Net: An Examination of Computer- Mediated Communication as a
Locus of Oral Culture. New Media and Society 5(1):29–45.
Frank, Russell. 2004. When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Photoshopping: September 11 and the
Newslore of Vengeance and Victimization. New Media & Society 6(5):633–58.
——. 2006. Worth a ousand Words: e Photographic Urban Legend and the Illustrated Urban
Legend. Contemporary Legend 6:119–45.
——. 2011. Newslore. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Hathaway, Rosemary. 2005. “Life in the TV”: e Visual Nature of 9/11 Lore and Its Impact on Vernacular
Response. Journal of Folklore Research 42(1):33–56.
Howard, Robert Glenn. 2005. Toward a eory of the World Wide Web Vernacular: e Case for Pet
Cloning. Journal of Folklore Research 42(3):323–60.
Juris, Jerey S. 2005. e New Digital Media and Act ivist Networking within Anti- Corporate Globalization
Movements. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 597:189–208.
Kahney, Leander. 2003. Fake CNN Website Taken Oine., February 3. http://www.wired
Kibby, Marjorie D. 2005. Email Forwardables: Folklore in the Age of the Internet. New Media and Society
Mechling, Jay. 1997. Folklore and the Civil Sphere. Western Folklore 56(2):113–37.
Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reier. 2010. When Corrections Fail: e Persistence of Political Mispercep-
tions. Political Behavior 32(2):303–30.er2010.pdf.
O’Neil, Luke. 2013. No More Fake News! An Earnest Argument against Satire. New Republic, May 10.
Reilly, Ian. 2010. Satirical Fake News and the Politics of the Fih Estate. PhD diss., University of Guelph.h_estate.
Zara, Christopher. 2013. Daily Currant Editor: We’re Not Trying to Fool Anybody; Satirical News Site
Is “Not rilled” By Drudge Report’s Bloomberg Pizza Blunder. International Business Times, May 6.
Fake News Websites Visited
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332 Journal of American Folklore 128 (2015)
Debunking Sites Visited
Legitimate Site on Which Fake News Has Appeared
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... The term disinformation, especially when a government agency deliberately releases information to confuse the public, is different from misinformation caused by unintentional human error. A creator of disinformation had the intention of deceiving others in the first place (Frank, 2015). Accordingly, this study raises the following questions: ...
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... Satire or humorous content uses elements of humor to present the information to the audience. They often mimic typical mainstream journalism but heavily rely on humor to achieve wide audience and distribution (Rubin et al., 2015) and also are meant to be perceived as unrealistic (Frank, 2015). Some scholars, like Tandoc et al. (2018), argue that satire is not false information, and it is considered as fake news due to its format. ...
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... The internet has also proved to be a perfect channel for the dissemination of urban legends, with all the consequences that might entail. These legends, and the closely related genre of fake news, are stories of another kind (Frank 2015;Hill 2018). This is nothing new: one just needs to think about hoaxes (since the 19th century) (see for instance Miller 2015) and practices meant to fool someone into believing that something untrue is true, for instance. ...
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Las historias que contamos y nos cuentan, las imágenes que vemos y compartimos, las formas en que nos comunicamos, encuentran nuevos caminos y se expresan en nuevas formas de redes, otras ágoras (para tomar prestada la terminología de Foley) y a un ritmo más rápido. No obstante, conviene examinar en qué consiste la novedad de la narración contemporánea cuando conquista formas y entornos digitales. Del mismo modo, lo digital nos brinda nuevas herramientas y posibilidades de acceso a los datos, pero ¿cuánto se han transformado y cambiado realmente nuestras disciplinas, métodos, enfoques y conceptos? Y ¿cuánto hemos valorado la capacidad de adaptación de nuestras disciplinas para emprender el estudio de lo que ocurre en línea y en relación con lo digital? Desde este punto de vista, este trabajo presta especial atención a las huellas y la trazabilidad de nuestra actividad y de nuestros datos, para resaltar los flujos, la continuidad y los cambios en lo que hacemos y contamos. Basándome en ejemplos procedentes de una gran variedad de contextos, ilustro cómo nuestra búsqueda de renovación, novedad e innovación está fuertemente anclada, sujeta y depende de nuestros hábitos, costumbres y de la capacidad de observar el mundo que nos rodea. Además, sostengo que tanto en la investigación como en la narración de historias, el valor de lo antiguo es igual al valor de la novedad y la originalidad.
... News is a form of communication that appeals to an authoritative and infl uential voice to transmit a message of collective signifi cance. Public relations specialists and other experts in strategic communication rely on the news format to promote particular ideas and off er more legitimacy to their points (Russel, 2015). Fake news, however, has been used as an alternative to traditional advertising and electoral spots due to the need for a more persuasive voice to speak for the public by using a familiar and accessible medium. ...
This paper proposes a sociological research agenda for analysing the spreading mechanisms of misinformation in contemporary society. The contemporary fake news phenomenon is approached as an emergent outcome of inter-related technological, economic, socio-cultural and political factors that have made society vulnerable to misinformation. Those factors are understood as generators of various social dynamics rather than as direct causal determinants. In order to better acknowledge the conditions under which fake news is propagated and legitimated in digital society, news should be approached not only as a commodity that functions in a market-driven economy, but also as a social institution that regulates political discourse and public debate. Based on these considerations, the conclusions support the necessity of a more prominent sociological focus on media studies, which could build awareness of the performative role of language in the context of technologically mediated realities.
The rapid spread of problematic information since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of improper response to such information have caused increasing concerns in China. Mobile communication technologies have aggravated the information disorder. And the tension has also increased between the state, the market and civil society. Against this backdrop, this paper reviews the commonly used concept of problematic information and its typological pedigree, as well as the local concepts in China such as “rumour governance” and “public opinion response”. The governance experience of information disorder and pollution in different information ecologies could help seek a self-salvation road to building a common bottom line for all humankind in the reflexive modernity of information society.
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Exploring policing protest often becomes a part of research on political regime openness and law enforcement. The classical study of policing protest provides analytical framework and typologies for defining relations between political openness and the use of coercion policing. The main goal of my current research is to move from in-depth analysis of Russian political regime to explore Russian police environmental culture and professional knowledge formation. Conclusions are based on bibliometric analysis of the “extremism” research field to define influence of institutional science on police knowledge formation. Discourse analysis explores Russian police networked community for defining public issue agenda and main intentions towards actors of contentious politics. On the other hand, research notifies stereotypes on protest actions and activists. Initial results of research show narrow institutional science effect on the process of corporate knowledge formation. Classic distinction between «good» and «bad» demonstrators in Russia is largely based on the type of public claims (social/political), mobilization and contentious repertoire.
The Implications of Propaganda in Reflecting and Redefining Reality Today technology touches nearly every aspect of our lives, affecting profoundly our activities and reshaping the information environment. The new digital era provides innumerable opportunities to create connections and share ideas and information and even build a new reality. The high-speed Internet has expanded circle of social connections and increased communication opportunities for the social, economic and cultural sectors as well as enhancing efficient access to information and cultural resources. Unfortunately, though, the same technologies can also serve to pollute our online „ecosystem”. They can be used to manipulate at a scale that was never possible. In this information-oversaturated world, fake news and propaganda have taken many forms and simultaneously contribute to undermine, reshape and redefine reality. Our study aims to reveal the way in which reality is redefined and reshaped in this communication context.
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This article demonstrates that a "Worldwide Web vernacular" has now emerged. The vanity or "home" page in general and the "pet vanity page" in particular exist as recognizable emic genres. The distinguishing features of these genres are in their personal content. However, as a result of the technologies that arose to satisfy growing commercial interests in Web-based communication during the 1990s, that content has come to be associated with particular formal features. These features are emically recognized as vernacular in the example of a professional Web designer who deploys this aesthetic in an effort to render his marketing of pet-cloning services more palatable to a marketplace of pet-lovers. By using these features rhetorically, this Web designer offers evidence that the vernacular gives voice to meaning not available from inside institutional norms and forms. Defining elements of this vernacular are located by comparing features of the commercial cloning Web pages with a sample of forty-two pet pages. This article finds that the vernacular is now recognizable on the World Wide Web precisely because the emergence of the "institutional" gave the vernacular its power to enact meaning.
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Email communication fosters an environment where messages have an inherent ‘truth value’ while at the same time senders have reduced inhibitions about the types of messages sent. When this is combined with a convenience and ease of communication and an ability to contact huge numbers of people simultaneously, email becomes a rapid and effective distribution mechanism for gossip, rumour and urban legends. Email has enabled not only the birth of new folklore, but also the revival of older stories with contemporary relevance and has facilitated their distribution on an unprecedented scale.
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This article examines how anti–corporate globalization activists have used new digital technologies to coordinate actions, build networks, practice media activism, and physically manifest their emerging political ideals. Since the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, and through subsequent mobilizations against multilateral institutions and forums in Prague, Quebec, Genoa, Barcelona, and Porto Alegre, activists have used e-mail lists, Web pages, and open editing software to organize and coordinate actions, share information, and produce documents, reflecting a general growth in digital collaboration. Indymedia has provided an online forum for posting audio, video, and text files, while activists have also created temporary media hubs to generate alternative information, experiment with new technologies, and exchange ideas and resources. Influenced by anarchism and peer-to-peer networking logics, anti–corpo-rate globalization activists have not only incorporated digital technologies as concrete tools, they have also used them to express alternative political imaginaries based on an emerging network ideal.
A pioneering examination of the folkloric qualities of the World Wide Web, e-mail, and related digital media. These stuidies show that folk culture, sustained by a new and evolving vernacular, has been a key, since the Internet's beginnings, to language, practice, and interaction online. Users of many sorts continue to develop the Internet as a significant medium for generating, transmitting, documenting, and preserving folklore. In a set of new, insightful essays, contributors Trevor J. Blank, Simon J. Bronner, Robert Dobler, Russell Frank, Gregory Hansen, Robert Glenn Howard, Lynne S. McNeill, Elizabeth Tucker, and William Westerman showcase ways the Internet both shapes and is shaped by folklore.
After the events of September 11, 2001, numerous folk responses appeared in narrative, customary, and material form. Much of the response was electronic, including exchanges on websites and listservs as well as myriad jokes, legends, and JPEG images that circulated among individual email correspondents. These responses share a common iconography that draws on the overwhelming visual impact of the events. This essay draws connections among these responses and explores the implications that the visual nature of the materials has on their meaning in cross-cultural contexts.
Building upon work that suggests an oral cultural dimension to cyberspace within real-time chat modes, this article supports that contention by examining traditional oral folklore as it exists within the textual context of the online environment. Specifically, this study is a formal analysis of online discussion groups devoted to the perpetuation and analysis of a particular type of oral folklore - urban legends - and the cultural significance of their existence in the online realm. As mediated human communication becomes more and more non-linear, decentralized, and rooted in multimedia, the distinction between orality and literacy becomes less evident and less important. The proliferation of urban legends online demonstrates the idea that cyberspace can serve as a locus for a primary oral culture and its attendant humanity and sociability in a simultaneously textual environment.
The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11 2001 inspired an outpouring of electronic folklore, particularly ‘photoshops’ (humorous digitally-altered photographs). This material is of two types. One, the newslore of vengeance, consists of fantasies of annihilation or humiliation aimed at Osama bin Laden or Afghanistan. The other, the newslore of victimization, expresses bewilderment at the role of fate or chance in who lived and died on that terrible day. This article analyzes the newslore of September 11 in light of Elliott Oring’s ‘unspeakability’ hypothesis: the material expresses emotions that were too raw to be covered in the news media and thus functions as both an outlet for those emotions and a protest against the decorousness of the press.
This paper investigates the group-building potential of forwarded e-mails through a visual analysis of negative images about President Barack Obama. We argue that these e-mails are a form of political digital folklore that may contribute to constructing participants' individual and group identities. Images amplify the impact and believability of the messages, especially when linked to familiar cultural references and experiences and may lead to increased political polarization and hostility. Copyright
After the events of September 11, 2001, numerous folk responses appeared in narrative, customary, and material form. Much of the response was electronic, including exchanges on websites and listservs as well as myriad jokes, legends, and JPEG images that circulated among individual email correspondents. These responses share a common iconography that draws on the overwhelming visual impact of the events. This essay draws connections among these responses and explores the implications that the visual nature of the materials has on their meaning in cross-cultural contexts.