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Satire gives Arabs a laugh during hard times
A headline from the Onion makes fun of an apparent lack of public concern about the Syrian conflict.
A headline from the Onion makes fun of an apparent lack of public concern about the Syrian conflict.
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BEIRUT: When news broke that Michelle Bachmann wanted to ban falafel from school lunches, a storm of outrage spread throughout the Arab world.

Fortunately – or unfortunately for extremists who happen to dislike falafel – the news was fake. There is a saying that only the truth is funny. Some fake news outlets “covering” the Arab world have managed to capture the truth of everyday ridiculousness that can’t always be found on real news outlets.

“Good satire is always close to the truth,” says Daniel Barkeley, founder of the satirical online news site the Daily Current that launched in April, and which made a name for itself in the Middle East when it ran a story about Bachmann wanting to ban falafel in school lunches, with many people and even some news outlets taking it as fact.

The article quotes the Minnesota congresswoman, known for her anti-Islamic rhetoric, as saying that “falafel is a gateway food ... It starts with falafel, then the kids move on to shawarma. After a while they say, ‘Hey, this tastes good, I wonder what else comes from Arabia?’

“Before you know it our children are listening to Muslim music, reading the Quran, and plotting attacks against the homeland.”

“If you find it funny that an American politician wants to ban falafel, you must admit that blaming Arab or Islamic culture for terrorism can be taken to absurd extremes. If you’re a conservative American or Israeli, you might never admit that otherwise,” says Barkeley.

Barkeley’s upbringing in the predominantly Arab city of Dearborn, Michigan, inspired him to do the piece, which immediately went viral, making it the site’s most-read piece – until their story on George W. Bush accidentally voting for Barack Obama.

Although consumption is proliferating through the use of social media, news satire is nearly as old as the industry itself.

In 1835 the New York Post wrote a hoax about inhabitants on the moon, and in the 1860s, Mark Twain routinely wrote satire in California, which eventually got him in trouble with public officials. Many mainstream newspapers publish satire on April Fools’ Day.

As entertaining as satire is, it also has a serious element of bringing up taboo subjects that might not be politically correct enough for the mainstream and public officials.

The best-known news satirist for doing this in recent years has been Jon Stewart from the Daily Show. His news clips of prominent people’s candid moments, as well as his aggressive interviews of politicians and economists, have earned him respect from mainstream journalists. In fact, according to a survey released in May by Fairleigh Dickinson University, Daily Show watchers are more informed about current affairs than Fox News viewers.

While the news is fiction, there’s typically a strong element of truth behind satire that resonates with people, particularly in the conflict-ridden Middle East where they provide some comic relief during hard times.

The U.S.-based Onion website sheds light on civilians in some of the darkest situations with headlines such as: “Alien World to Help out Syria Since this one refuses to,” “Eight-year-old Palestinian boy pleasantly surprised he hasn’t been killed yet,” “Palestinian family trapped under rubble thrilled to see Gaza trending,” and “Egyptian Populace To Hopefully Get Something Better Than Democracy Out of All This.”

Meanwhile, the Dubai-based Pan-Arabia Enquirer has gained a wide following in the region with its poking fun at the daily lives of frivolous Arabs and expats in the Middle East with stories like, “Middle East GDP to be ‘almost entirely reliant’ on cupcakes by 2020, say economists,” “New Saudi Smartphone app tracks movement of wives,” “Bewildered animal rights activist launches campaign against Yemeni cat chewing,” and “‘Bibi’ Netanyahu looking for new nickname to better suit aggressive international attitude.”

The absurd headlines haven’t stopped a number of people – and even news outlets – from taking them for fact. In April, the PAE ran the article, “Facebook unveils ‘Insha’Allah’ button for Arab market;” in July, “George Clooney to play Yasser Arafat in new 3D biopic;” and in September, “Dubai man reserves iPhone 5 for $200,000,” with a number of regional media outlets picking them up. And a short piece about the British model and children’s author in the PAE in May, “Katie Price to Sue Jordan over Name,” made headlines throughout Jordan.

Joining the celebration of falling for fake news is a website and Facebook page called “Literally Unbelievable,” which publishes strings of comments by gullible readers, who then laugh at what they thought was true.

But not everyone that’s duped is happy to laugh at themselves. By far the biggest fiasco of a fake story on the Middle East making the real news was when Iran’s Fars News Agency ran an article from the Onion under the headline, “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama” – not only because they plagiarized it word for word but also because after they were confronted with the fake news, they defended their decision to run it.

“I like him better,” said [the Onion’s fictional source] West Virginia resident Dale Swiderski, who, along with 77 percent of rural white voters, confirmed he would rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Ahmadinejad – who likely doesn’t drink or watch baseball – than spend time with Obama.

“He takes national defense seriously, and he’d never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does,” added Swiderski.

After getting a lot of laughs from around the world, Fars removed the article from their site with an apology note – but not without including an explanation for why they believed the story was plausible.

“Although it does not justify our mistake, we do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the U.S., a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the U.S. political system to President Barack Obama and American statesmen,” it wrote.

Not surprisingly, the Onion was flattered to see their story in the international spotlight.

“If anything, it exhibits the actual level of truth that our reporting provides,” said Bob Marshall, the Onion’s audience development manager.

He added jokingly, “That said, we are quite happy that FARS, our Iranian subsidiary, is getting the international attention that its political coverage deserves.”

For some, being tricked into believing a fake story is real is half the fun – especially when some people already view the real news as somewhat absurd.

“Real reporting has become so formatted: There are stylistic tropes that everyone uses, and the actual stories become stale. So when that style is taken and applied to something that’s pushed all the way to the absurd, it reveals something truthful,” says Lebanese blogger and publisher Nasri Atallah, who routinely shares fake news stories on Facebook, and finds amusement when friends take them as real.

“Plus, you have the luxury of being as un-PC as you want in fake news and it’s pushing those things to the extreme that brings a certain truth to the surface.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2012, on page 13.
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