I recently had someone I trust report something political he had “read on the internet” that I was expected to find both stupid and outrageous. The anecdote played well into my biases and I found myself tempted to pile on to the anecdote, adding smug comments that confirmed how morally superior we both were. But something didn’t feel right about the story. My better self, or at least my more suspicious self, googled it and discovered that, indeed, my informant had taken as serious reporting what was actually a piece of satire.
These days, when in truth reports of actual events can read as satire, it is all to easy to stumble like this and writers are not immune. If we are writing fiction, we are accustomed to creating worlds that are extensions of our imaginations, so it is easy to add more detail, especially if it is wickedly witty. If we are writing non-fiction, well, it’s a cautionary tale. Careless thinking is how errors get repeated as footnotes in successive books or as viral memes on the internet. We are human. We like to repeat what we already think we know.
In movies the soundtrack turns ominous when the woman goes into the parking garage, so we all know the bad guy is in there. With all the chaos in the media – accusation of fake news, genuine fake news – we need a soundtrack that tips us off that something in what we are reading just doesn’t add up. Little signs strewn about the world of words would be helpful. Something like the British do to keep people from stumbling: Mind the Gap!