Posted: November 7th, 2023
Satire in Shaping the Public Sphere
Satire in Shaping the Public Sphere
You may laugh about it, but perhaps the satirical statement it is more than a joke. Throughout the emergence of the news and entertainment industries, some individuals have continuously dared to mock the conventions of everyday life. The satirists use wit and humor to unmask and address significant social issues, especially the incompetence of political leaders. The Humor Theory posits that humor is perceived as a safety valve that releases excess energies or grievances that might otherwise develop into aggressive or sexual responses. The theory underlines the basis of satire in literature, news, and even popular television shows. Using Animal Farm, The Onion Newspaper, and Yes, Minister, this report will highlight how satire exaggerates a problem to show its real size and urgency, aggravating the audience while educating them. One can even proceed to argue that satire is a form of political reflection performed within a specific social context. Even though most people consider satirical content as light entertainment, it is a subtle form of political criticism that protects people’s freedom of expression while educating and rallying the masses to political action.
Satire in Evoking Public Anger
Studies show a significant relationship between exposure to satirical content and public anger. Webber et al. (2020) discuss how satirists love to use dark humor to make the audience angry to engage them. For instance, George Orwell’s The Animal Farm highlights the level at which government agencies can vary in practice and principle. The author uses satire where he portrays the horse and donkey as hard-working, while the pigs are lazily sitting while reaping all the rewards. The portrayal exhibits criticism of the federal or electoral system. The reader of the book is bound to be angry with the pigs, and their representation of current political leaders. Given the narrative is an allegory of the Russian Revolution, the book influences the reader’s perception of communism. The irritated emotional response to exposure to satire stems from the unflattering and aggressive tones of satirists (Webber et al. 2020). The underlying argument is dark and sarcastic humor is well-positioned to stir negative emotional responses from people.
The Onion newspaper is another classic example of how satire is used to make people angry to induce social changes. Satirists in the news organization do not bother much with journalistic conventions and focus more on content delivery. For instance, in 2011, Louisiana Republic Congressman John Fleming ranted on his Facebook page about The Onion’s lack of professionalism in its article about planned parenthood (Haynes, 2018). While Trump’s administration had marketed the parenting program as one that saves thousands of young lives, The Onion sarcastically reported it was a way to terminate unborn lives more efficiently. Such an approach is bound to induce anger in the reader, irrespective of which side they support. Supporters of Fleming would be angry with the inaccurate portrayal of the parenting program, while anti-abortionists would be infuriated by it. Both scenarios result in the reader getting angry and more engaged with the topic under discussion.
Anger and Public Participation
Emotions play an essential role in the democratic process. The negative feelings associated with exposure to satire will motivate individuals to break out of the cold and engage in public debate (Burgers & Brugman, 2021). The British political sitcom Yes, Minister was a consistent source of public conversation on British politics throughout the 80s. Each episode had a particular political topic for the people to cover. For instance, in episode 73, when an opinion poll shows that voters prefer bringing back the national service, Sir Humphrey proposes that they have another commission produce a different answer (Payne, 2016). The episode demonstrated how easily people in public office could manipulate electoral polls. As a result, there was a review of the British ballot system weeks after the episode. The government response shows exposure to humor will incentivize public debate because it stimulates information acquisition and recognition. However, it is unclear whether satirical news results in less detailed or factual knowledge than traditional news. The motivating factor in satire might be dependent on the nature of the humorous content.
Political awareness is a prerequisite for effective public participation in the electoral process. In addition to incentivizing public debate, satire also increases political alertness among the public. Psychological research outlines a relationship between heightened political consciousness and political attitude (Webber et al. 2020). The intelligence theory discusses human reward-seeking behavior. As per the theory, exposure to information will trigger an emotional response that motivates the search for more knowledge. The concept explains why viewers of satirical political content are more likely to approach political figures. Webber et al. (2021) state that anger is the most consistent emotion motivating political participation. Therefore, people exposed to satire are more likely to participate in politics to address their anger and increase their political consciousness. There is an indirect effect in the exposure to political satire on political participation mediated by anger and the need for more information. Increased access to satirical content will result in a change in political attitudes and viewpoints.
With anger as a mediating factor, satire enhances political awareness not only by impacting information-seeking behavior but also by improving the learning process. According to Young (2017), sarcastic comedy is one of the best ways for beginners to get acquainted with politics. Audiences of political humor often have above-average political knowledge because of the easy-to-understand and recall content. However, the direct impact of the exposure to information depends on the quality of the satirical content (Young, 2017). For instance, Animal Farm is praised as timeless because of its use of allegory. The juxtaposition of human reality with animal life made the book more informative and relatable. A greater understanding of the complexities of contemporary politics improves a person or group’s ability to effect positive change (Young, 2017). Viewers of satirical content will feel more knowledgeable, important, and confident in their ability to contribute to particular issues. As a result, they are more likely to debate, vote, and contact political figures.
Exposure to satirical political content might dampen participation in a cynical and angry audience. Non-participation in particular political and social initiatives or ideologies can equally have positive implications for society. Consider the case of the Onion article on hyper-capitalism. The post encourages readers not to engage in harmful corporate practices at the expense of low-level employees. The same argument is reflected in the consumer culture and its role in increasing inequality. The report established that satire can result in a lack of trust and confidence in the government, individuals, and institutions. However, as Young (2017) pinpoints, research is yet to answer whether a lack of trust is a prerequisite for democracy. Some of the most politically engaged individuals do not trust the government. Engagement in politics can occur in the form of non-participation if it results in something better. For that reason, satire positively changes the public sphere by dampening participation in wrongful or misleading politics.
Anger creates a collective sense of responsibility that encourages people to vote. Voting is the primary form of political participation in the democratic process. With modern political humor criticizing politicians and government institutions, audiences are persuaded to demand more from leadership. The main proposition of political satire is that society deserves and can achieve better (Young, 2017). In the Animal Farm, Orwell criticizes the donkey for failing to speak up and standing up for wrongdoing despite having the rationality to see the truth. Donkeys and other animals in the working class are responsible for the continued greed, betrayal, inequality and corruption because of their silence (Erik, 2018). The author proposes that new leadership must take control to safeguard the animal’s freedoms and liberties. The same lesson applies in today’s society. Orwell’s criticism of the donkey is a message that people should review existing political orders and engage in their improvement.
Satire in Protecting the Freedom of Expression
Satire is a form of protected speech that safeguards individuals and institutions from censorship. The restrictions and requirements placed on satirical news and programs are less stringent compared to the ones for actual news (Baumgartner & Lockerbie, 2018). Satirists use this loophole to challenge civil agencies that display heavy political partisanship. Traditionally, direct criticism of politicians and public institutions would result in retaliation. Satire is a way to water down the impact of direct criticism to discourage retaliatory responses (Baumgartner & Lockerbie, 2018). For instance, the Onion article’s title use sarcasm to criticize Subway’s CEO without risking being sued by the Fast Food company. The title makes fun of capitalism and the unethical conduct of the manager in an interesting way. The approach reduces public anger, which negates the firm’s urge to sue. Journalists from authoritarian regimes should encourage audiences to engage in more political discourse using satire to search for truth.
Satire moves so fast and freely that it is difficult to curb its transfer. Animal Farm was one of the most heavily censored books in the United Kingdom from the 1940s to the 1980s. For the United Kingdom, the book was bad for its U.S.S.R ally, while for the Soviet Union, the anti-communist arguments were intolerable (Kemp, 2014). However, the United States was not one of the countries to ban the book. Thousands bought the book worldwide, familiarizing themselves with how it protested totalitarianism. With more and more social critics discussing the narrative, Britain became more aware of its suppression of freedom of expression. The book was finally published in London in 184 (Kemp, 2014). With TV programs such as The Daily Show and their associated Twitter platforms, satire is being transferred faster. The satirical political content often stirs public debate before politicians or law enforcement acknowledge there is an issue.
Satire safeguards the freedom of expression by providing means to tell untold stories that would otherwise be too controversial if told directly. Satirists, especially journalists, often find themselves at physical and emotional risk for holding governments of powerful individuals into account. On the other hand, marketing pressures in news organizations also threaten the freedom of expression by controlling what is conveyed to audiences. For instance, The Onion’s political satirist Bassem Youssef had to terminate his Egyptian show in 2014 following threats to his family and employees (Chernow, 2016). Youssef’s employer faced political pressure from the government to terminate the popular show. Journalism has many communication platforms, giving it many voices. Satire is one of the important voices, but it is not immediately recognizable. The subtle characteristic allows satirists to convey important news in a quick and witty manner while taking the arrogance out of politics. By improving access to hidden and untold stories, satire influences public perceptions and attitudes.
Countering misinformation and disinformation is another way satire reinforces the freedom of expression. Satire and misinformation contain similar characteristics that fuel how fast they spread online (Yeo & McKasy, 2021). However, unlike misinformation, satire does not have the intent to harm or mislead. Satire contains some degree of factual information that separates it from fake news. For instance, in episode 73 of Yes, Minister on the electoral process, the directors talk about a known incidence of ballot manipulation in the United Kingdom. Misinformation and disinformation continue to impede free expression, especially in independent journalism. Experimental science highlights that sarcasm and humor are antidotes to misinformation (Yeo & McKasy, 2021). The two comedic approaches trigger cognitive and emotional responses that negate the need to consume misinformation. The consumer of satirical content is less likely to navigate misleading information online because they are more immersed and satisfied with the content at hand.
Apart from reducing the urge to consume falsified content, satire also increases the motivation to identify and challenge misinformation. The human ability to recognize misinformation is limited due to the overflow of information in the digital age (Yeo & McKasy, 2021). One of George Orwell’s problems with the donkeys in Animal Farm was their inability to identify when the pigs were manipulating their opinion. Even after noticing how fat and lazy the pigs were getting, the donkeys did not have the spirit to challenge authority. Science suggests that humor induces logic-based corrections by enhancing recall (Yeo & McKasy, 2021). Individuals are more likely to reflect severally on a piece of information that they find interesting or controversial. The report previously established that sarcasm, humor and satire all improve memory. Therefore, audiences are more likely to reflect on satirical news compared to actual news. Overall, humor will affect content and source evaluations, enhancing how people consider the credibility of online information.
Satirical political content is replacing traditional news, which could negatively affect political awareness and participation. People are consuming so much digital media to the point that shows such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report are becoming the main sources of news (Chernow, 2016). The increase in viewership is taking place despite the sarcastic programs being subject to less stringent requirements. Satirists do not have to comply with the tenets of professional journalism. Therefore, readers of satirical political content have no awareness of the credibility and integrity of sources. Judgment is based on the quality of humor, the comedian or the television agency behind the program (Chernow, 2016). Satire is supposed to complement factual news to protect society from misinformation. With current advancements in digital technologies, there is room to worry about the increasing proliferation of satirical political content as actual news.
Satire waters down important political issues, constraining their implementation and realization of subsequent benefits. When people make parodies of political figures or general political ideologies, they guide viewers away from the stances (Baumgartner & Lockerbie, 2018). For instance, when Yes, Minister criticizes the Prime Minister’s rule of Britain by highlighting how he has a nice car, house in London and place in the country, the show shifts the public’s attention from the presidency to the president. The leader’s portrayal as capitalistic is distasteful and can impact his ability to command parliament. Creators of satirical content have to balance constructive criticism and negligent portrayals to safeguard public institutions and their ability to provide public service.
Satirical content does not always provide comprehensive information to induce effective public debates. Sarcastic news often fails to offer enough context for viewers to hold discussions on the issues they expose (Yeo & McKasy, 2021). The comedic skits will make the viewer feel as if they are informed, yet they lack a background understanding. As a result, subsequent political discourse will contain factual errors and instances of people talking past one another. Such conditions discourage sharing ideas and render society ill-equipped to participate in political debate. Fans of political satire should be educated on post-viewership research to validate the accuracy of the satirical content. Collective research should always occur before the commencement of debates centered on issues raised by satirical news.
The global society is increasingly becoming aware of the importance of satirical political content in driving sustainable changes in public sentiment and action. Satire is scientifically proven to enhance recall and information-seeking behaviors in humans. With improved recollection and access to relevant information, audiences are more likely to engage in public discourse. Part of the motivation stems from the anger generated by the overall impressions of satirists. Anger acts as the basis for political criticism, transforming the attitudes and behaviors of average voters. The resultant implication is heightened participation in the electoral democratic process. Nevertheless, there is a need to enhance the quality of satirical content in terms of factual accuracy and source credibility. As comedians benefit from advancements in digital technologies in their transfer of political content, scholars will equally benefit from qualitative and quantitative approaches that ensure the integrity of satirical content. With the complexity of the digital environment implying the increased adoption of sarcasm and humor in political criticism, it is time society guaranteed political satire only translates into a better tomorrow.
Baumgartner, J. & Lockerbie, B. (2018). Maybe it is more than a joke: Satire, mobilization and political participation. Social Science Quarterly, 99(3), 1060-1074.
Burgers, C., & Brugman, B. C. (2021). How satirical news impacts affective responses, learning, and persuasion: a three-level random-effects meta-analysis. Communication Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/00936502211032100
Chernow, S. (2016, February 25). Poking fun and storytelling: How satire holds media and politicians to account. Ethical Journalism Network, https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/poking-fun-and-story-telling-how-satire-holds-media-and-politicians-to-account
Erik, J. (2018). ‘His fable, right or left: Orwell, Animal Farm, and the politics of critical reception.’ In Critical Insights on the Animal Farm. Salem Press.
Haynes, G. (2018, May 24). ‘An absolutely disgusting article: Is satire funnier when the targets do not get the joke?‘ The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/24/michael-cohen-the-onion-satire-news-mistake-reality
Kemp, G. (2014). Censorship moments: Reading texts in the history of censorship and freedom of expression. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Payne, S. (2016, August 26). Yes, Minister remains an unrivaled guide to British politics. The Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/fe329b28-69fa-11e6-a0b1-d87a9fea034f
Webber, J., Momen, M., Finley, J., Krefting, R., Willett, C., & Willett, J. (2020). The political force of the comedic. Contemporary Political Theory, 1–28. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-020-00451-z]’
Yeo, S. & McKasy, M. (2021). Emotion and humor as misinformation antidotes. PNAS, 118(15). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2002484118
Young, D. G. (2017). Theories and effects of political humor: Discounting cues, gateways and the impact of incongruities. In The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication. Oxford University Press.
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