Once more, it’s time to remind everyone that you should never take anything you see online — a screenshot, a picture, a piece of text — at face value. Today’s lesson comes to us via @pixelatedboat, better known as cartoonist Ben Ward, better known as the man who gifted us with the ubiquitous term “milkshake duck.” In response to the many circulating excerpts of Michael Wolff’s spicy new book about the Trump presidency, Fire and Fury, Ward posted a screenshot of his own.
Of course, Ward’s was fake.
In Ward’s screenshot, he includes information on how President Trump bemoaned the lack of a “gorilla channel,” and how aides subsequently scrambled to rig something together for the temperamental commander in chief.
The passage is written well enough to pass as a page in an actual book, if you ignore the ludicrous narrative. The problem with our current administration is that the circus described in Ward’s version is not so far off from rumors of piss tapes, reports of a president who eats McDonalds for fear of being poisoned, and public outrageous antics that run from ridiculous nicknames to taunting world leaders about nuclear war. We also know Trump spends a lot of time watching and reacting to TV. With such actual, publicly observable misbehavior happening every day, it’s easier to see why some people would take the gorilla story as real — especially people already inclined to believe the worst of Trump.
Ward himself has recognized his Trump tweet as a problem, both tweeting “tfw you parody a guy making up shit about Trump but people believe it so you become part of the problem” and changing his Twitter username to “the gorilla channel thing is a joke.”
How, then, to tell this was all one big goof? Well, consider the source. The pixelatedboat handle has tweeted political parody before. Following the release of Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened, Ward tweeted a parody excerpt in which Clinton adopts a cowboy persona, complains about “varmints” and “rustlers,” and commits murder to better appeal to the common man. Ward is also responsible for the “tiny train world” debacle, a parody of George Orwell’s 1984 that made it into The Guardian.
Ward has had some memorable hits, but his jokes aren’t the only ones that credulous readers have accepted and circulated as real news. Think of the Paul Ryan / Papa Roach gag, a fake screenshot that claimed Ryan’s car drove away blaring “Last Resort” after a loss. Fake screenshots are a humorous staple of Twitter, whether people are making fun of politics or that awful orc movie on Netflix. But users stumble into trouble when a tweet from an unknown user surfs into their timeline, or they’re missing context for the joke. Humor has a learned element, where a person’s dry sensibilities or specific tone won’t translate if you aren’t already aware of it.
As confusion grows about the veracity of Ward’s tweet, some commenters have wagged their fingers in the face of would-be jokesters claiming there’s just no room for parody in a world that’s so eager to buy into fake news if it seems to discredit someone they already hate. Agree to disagree, because parodies can be extremely funny and insightful. Ward’s tweet is hilarious, if you recognize it for what it is. But it’s also a crucial reminder. “Think before you share” was a reasonable New Year’s resolution from The Verge in 2017. It goes for every other year, too. Check the source before you deem any piece of dubious or explosive info as true or false. It’ll save us all a headache.