National Agenda Director Lindsay Hoffman, Ph.D., welcomed the speaker and the audience to the 10th annual speaker series, and asked Dikkers about the difference between satire and the Internet’s favorite term, “fake news.” Dikkers clarified why the two often get mixed up. “It’s an accident of history,” he said. “A whole generation grew up only seeing satire in news parodies” as opposed to other genres of satirical content. He pointed out that satire has actually been around for centuries in the form of Greek plays, novels, movies, and so on.
So what is the difference between fake news and satire? According to Dikkers, satire is intended to humorously communicate the subtextual message of what is wrong with the world. Fake news, on the other hand, is used as a form of propaganda to shape the narrative of an event to favor one side. As both preponderated in current events and politics, the public began to confuse the two. This phenomenon has led to consequences when The Onion’s headlines are misinterpreted as fake news, or even, as they often are, as real news.
“I believe it’s the audience's responsibility to deal with their feelings. It’s not my problem,” Dikkers bluntly stated regarding the common misinterpretation of The Onion as real news. “It is my problem if the humor I created seems real,” he clarified. If the typical Internet user responds poorly after coming across an article, Dikkers sees the joke as a failure. In Dikkers’s opinion, “It’s not funny enough if people get angry.” Yet he argued that the failure to understand The Onion as a satirical medium falls on the readers’ shoulders. A simple fact-check or visit to the website’s "about page" reveals the true intentions of the publication.
In today’s world, however, The Onion’s outrageous headlines seem more and more realistic. Dikkers answered an audience question during the live event: Had he seen any real news headlines lately that seemed like they were straight from The Onion? His answer was an unwavering “yes.” Dikkers explained that many current news stories about the Trump administration mirror parodies The Onion produced years ago. A satirical article in Dikkers's 2015 book, Trump's America: Buy This Book and Mexico Will Pay for It, reported that President Trump had launched an anti presidential-discrimination league. Dikkers reflected on the irony that President Trump now expresses concerns about presidential discrimination. "Who would have thought that the President could turn himself into a victim of discrimination?" said Dikkers. “So many things we write in The Onion have come true. And even crazier than that, people believe they’re real before they become true.”
Dikkers, who also teaches and writes books about comedy, provided some advice for aspiring comedians on how to be funny: “Do something original that you don’t see anyone doing, that’s what breaks through.” Dikkers’ advice stems from The Onion being the first to combine satire with current events, which is why it broke through the competition.
The National Agenda Speaker Series will continue virtually throughout the semester with guests such as Homeland co-creator Howard Gordon, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered Mary Louise Kelly, correspondent of GQ Magazine Julia Ioffe, and more. For information and to register, visit cpc.udel.edu/nationalagenda.