It is vital at the start to remind ourselves that satire offers an important perspective on those in power. Forget civics lessons. At an early age, we should sit every child down with a pencil and a sheet of paper and teach them how to draw our leaders in suitably savage detail. Satire really is that central to who we are as a people and humour remains a bulwark again the authoritarian instincts that some politicians hide behind the supposed virtues of moral seriousness and concern for the ‘national interest’.
Yet, even as we cherish it, we should also recognise that all is not well with satire as we find it in 2016. Satire is being co-opted by those that make it febrile, often deceptive, and largely indifferent to the miserable effect it sometimes has on society. This past week, Alison Jackson released a new set of photographs in which she uses a Donald Trump lookalike to portray the president-elect in a variety of compromising positions. (The picture above was staged by Jackson.) They are examples of satire playing that very postmodern game in which our notions of authenticity are thrown into doubt. Rather than revealing deeper truths about our politicians, this satire feeds us false realities.
Jackson is, of course, following in a long tradition of visual satire which has always been about reshaping reality. Yet the art form has been fairly limited for centuries by the craft of the artist. Nobody would ever mistake a cartoon by Gillray for reality. Yet, today, Photoshop allows artists to produce results that are almost imperceptible from real photos. Jackson goes even further by posing actors to convey a sense of actual realty.
From traditional cartooning, through Photoshop, to Jackson’s tableaus, each method exchanges some level of abstraction for a notional realism. Donald Trump linking arms with members of the Klu Klux Klan would not make for a particularly clever cartoon. Presented as vérité, however, it becomes profoundly unsettling because, in the first instance of viewing, the image appears real. Even when we’re aware of the picture’s origin, we still hold a contradiction in our minds: that the picture is fake but we enjoy it as if it were a window onto reality.
This, arguably, moves the picture past satire and beyond social or political commentary. We are now in the murky business of affirming prejudices, where photographic evidence interacts with our belief systems in a way more convincing than any cartoon.
Not that the dangers are usually presented in this way. The Guardian last week reported Jackson’s pictures with an emphasis on free speech. ‘Alison Jackson says “litigious” president could have chilling effect on artistic freedom as she publishes book featuring Trump lookalike’ ran the strapline. Yet the defence seemed quite odd given The Guardian’s vocal criticism of fake news and the role it played in the American election and, before it, the Brexit debate. Fake news is acceptable, the paper seemed to say, so long as it’s done in a liberal cause.
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The attitude is one that’s recognisably prevalent and one I would contest that we all share to some degree. Back when fake news was novel, it seemed like it was the future of satire. Most of us interested in the news became consumers (or even producers) of anti-news, whether it was via The Onion, The Daily Mash, or through social media. What none of us could anticipate was the emergence of a clickbait culture, whereby websites lure visitors to stories with eye catching headlines, thereby generating ad revenue with every click.
Articles with the most compelling headlines generate the greatest readership. Companies such as Outbrain and Taboola now dominate the internet with their characteristic blocks of ‘From the Web’ content that are sometimes indistinguishable from real news. ‘You won’t believe what Susan Boyle looks like now’ they proclaim below a picture of a supermodel. Intrigued, you click and generate 10 or 20 more clicks as you page through a slideshow of celebrities ‘then and now’. At some point, you discover that Susan Boyle looks exactly how you expected Susan Boyle to look and you realise it was a scam and swear that you’ll never be tricked again. Until, that is, you see the headline about Harrison Ford’s ‘son’ with a picture of a guy with a skull face tattoo. (That too was a lie. I know because I clicked…)
That many of these deceptions are described as ‘satire’ is the challenge that true satirists must now face. Satire is being used to obscure the true intentions of demagogues, hucksters, and straightforward anarchists. Here then, we have the point at which the two ambitions collide, leaving it impossible to know where we are meant to draw the line. Is fake news as presented at The Onion more acceptable than fake news presented on Breitbart News?
At a superficial level, it would be right to argue that it is. Yet that is reliant on the skill of the satirist to present their work in a way that makes the double bind obvious: of being outlandish and funny yet realistic enough to be almost real. Not every writer has that knack or even intends for their mischief to be recognisable. Milo Yiannopoulos has spent the past few weeks maintaining that much of his work is meant as satire. Speaking to Cathy Newman on Channel 4 news, Yiannopoulos claimed that ‘we do something that’s quite rare in journalism these days: we publish satire, we publish provocation, we publish all kinds of journalism that traditionally would be left wing.’ The conversation quickly descended into argument when it was became obvious that Newman was (rightly) confused as to which of Yiannopoulos’ articles were merely ‘provocation’ and which were forwarding the agenda of the alt-right.
Despite Yiannopoulos’s claims, he is no satirist. True satirists have no reason to disguise their tomfoolery. Chris Morris’s BrassEye (in many ways a prototype of the genre) was successful because it was blatant. The imperious Onion, however, often falls into the trap of looking too much like a real source of news. The Latin tag on its front page (‘Tu stultus es’) is not enough given than most causal visitors would not know that it means ‘you are a fool’. There is, after all, a good reason why The Onion has been cited on numerous occasions as ‘real news’ and we now have less reasons to be amused as we had before.
It would be simple to say that we should simply be more aware and, on the part of satirists, more obvious. The current media debate won’t see the end of fake news. Rather, we have only experienced the first and second waves of technological innovation. Recently, Adobe Systems revealed their newest technology, called ‘VoCo’, which they describe as ‘Photoshop for audio’. At the moment, the software needs a library of person’s phonemes (the distinct units of sound that we make when we speak) but, no doubt, there will come a time when the system will allow a user to record a voice saying one thing and then type up a new script which the computer could produce with realistic and recognisable intonations. Imagine that power in the hand of a satirist. Politicians of the future will no longer need to worry about what they say because everything they could say will be said for them.
That same future will see elections influenced by websites containing entirely fake realities of candidates giving speeches they never gave and confessing things they’d never confess. It makes the current debate so vital. We should prepare ourselves for what is to come by recognising the compromises we have already been making in the name of satire. If we have learned this year that there really is nothing easier in the world than fooling somebody, then our challenge now is to find a new way of telling people the truth.