Comic Relief? The Puzzling Function of Political Humor Online

By Marta Zarzycka

The most terrifying movie I have ever seen, no doubt, was Funny Games, written and directed by Michael Haneke. In the movie, a sheltered bourgeois family’s reality transforms into a nightmare at the hands of two sadistic captors in immaculate golf whites and gloves. There is nothing “funny” about the situation, which, in hindsight, renders the title misleading and cruel.

A similarly ominous congruity between the “funny” and the violent is glaringly present in the right-wing register of the internet. The mix of satire and political ideology drives platforms such as Breitbart, AltRight, or Daily Stormer (which recently resurfaced on the dark web).

“Funny” loses its benevolence in alt-right memes, photographs, and slogans. Its tactics may include grotesque representations of the body of the “other,” as in the case of the hate campaign against Leslie Jones, situational comics where the members don gladiator or super-hero costumes during protests, or pun-based language. Cartoons and memes harness and exploit popular medial tropes — a proclaimed TV series, a Marvel comic, a celebrity’s face, coalescing their recognizability with the values professed by their audiences. All share one incentive: the irreverent discrediting of social norms. Milo Yiannopoulos — infamous Breitbart explainer of the alt-right — equates the movement with transgressive fun: “there will always be a young, rebellious contingent who feel a mischievous urge to blaspheme, break all the rules, and say the unsayable. Why? Because it’s funny!”

Image from Conservative Humor Gone Awry Facebook page

How to make sense of humor as a political missile today? Effectively weaponized, sarcasm and satire have become a worldview, a central political and economic logic. Donald Trump’s bullying extroversion, his relentless one-upmanship, and the insatiate narcissism are explained away as a “joke” by his surroundings and his alt-right base alike. From his wife brushing off of his sexual predatory as jovial “boy talk,” the downplaying of his anti-CNN re-tweet of a train running over a CNN reporter just two days after a Neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville and killing Heather Heyer, to Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissing his inflammatory remarks inciting police to use violence, Trump’s malice and fury are often explained away as humorous. During a recent speech in Phoenix, the crowd standing behind Trump reacted with somewhat bewildered laughter to his banter, threats, and grievances, all served up as jokey anecdotes and veiled sarcastic hints. Yesterday I watched several Republican senators try to explain President’s retweeted video depicting him bashing Hillary Clinton with a golf ball as “humorous” and aimed at “stuffy” liberals. As such, violence disguised as humor has come to shape our democracy more than truth.

 

From Ephemeral to Stone-Hard

Let’s pause and consider the term itself, as well as its historical and social workings. An umbrella concept, humor is comprised of satire, a critical distortion of the familiar hegemonic narratives; parody, which is at once likeness and menace; irony, a communicative act that expresses the opposite of what is literally said, and sarcasm, commonly used to mock or convey contempt. Philosophers, writers, and theorists have long seen humor as fleeting and elusive, its meaning meandering and shifting in time and context. According to Georges Bataille, humor takes us abruptly from a reality that is firm and stable into a world where this stability is fragile and deceptive.

At the same time, humor’s intriguing coupling of criticism and idealism have historically made it into a tool of resistance of the oppressive system — a strategy taken from court jesters, clowns, and town fools. For many others, including Plato and Aristotle, Hegel and Freud, Hélène Cixous and bell hooks, laughter has been a sign of freedom from restraint, a powerful weapon in legal and political debates, a tool to embarrass and destroy the dialectic and ideological adversaries. Early feminists like Virginia Woolf or George Eliot applied satire to address contentious issues and criticize social absurdities, work that continues today through comedians like Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer, Jessica Williams, or Sarah Silverman. From Kara Walker to Chris Rock, black artists, writers, and comedians have invoked slavery-based images and themes and re-examined them in the present, often through the lens of comic imagination and grotesque, transforming trauma and suffering into cathartic laughter.

Growing up in post-communist Poland, I remember my parents’ home-printed editions of George Orwell’s The Animal Farm, a book famous for its tongue-in-cheek description of the oppressive nation-state. For my generation, born pre-internet, this humor was synonymous with the ability to question sources, deconstruct opinions, and dismantle ideologies, often in a subtle way undetected by the oppressor.

But used another way, humor gains a hard, vicious quality that solidifies beliefs and systems, and consolidates emotions as impermeable, unchangeable worldviews. Ridicule, caricature, mimicking, and mockery now normalize the extreme: white supremacy, isolationist nationalism, racism, men’s rights, anti-feminism, alliances between KKK, Neo-Nazism, Christian Identity groups, conspiracy theories, and Holocaust denial. Online trolling presents a daily dose of Schadenfreude and ditches fleeting irony to bring home hateful messages and help them travel beyond alt-right websites and enter into the mainstream media narratives. Irony coalesces with the values professed by their audiences, serving further polarization of political viewpoints. Humor moves beyond rhetoric, going hand in hand with street violence and hate speech. There is no longer anything frivolous about it: it is in your face, and it is here to stay.

 

Against the Gravity of Liberal Tears

The transformation of fear, anger, and hatred from crude emotions into humorous strategies is nothing new: racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and xenophobia have been veiled as entertainment throughout history. The Ku Klux Klan’s alliterative k’s, costumes, ritual names, code words, and phrases have combined both violence and self-mocking, tactics that mark their actions as allegedly acceptable. Racist anti-immigrant cartoons from the turn of the 20th century, posters ridiculing Jews in 1930s, plays and performances in blackface, photographs of lynching disseminated widely as postcards — all of these are tangible artifacts that are embracing both comedy and violence.

But present-day “comedy” with which the alt-right goes about fascism, racism, and xenophobia gains its power and traction through previously unavailable technologies, making it far more easily accessible, attention-grabbing, and viral-friendly. Technologies for producing, accessing, modifying, selecting, and categorizing humor on social networks have expanded the possibilities for our attachment to them and opportunities to display that attachment. Individual senses of what is funny and what absolutely shouldn’t be becomes a sharable portent of political attitudes — as a Trump supporter, you are invited and expected to laugh with others at “Liberal tears” memes. The impact of online humor, its clickbait quality, its templates and shortcuts, results in its commodification and quantification by social media algorithms, and consequently in further political polarization of the red and blue feed.

Another new development is that online humor by the alt-right is difficult to parse from “sincere” political objective. As intentions of internet users and their level of seriousness can be hard to gauge; humor creates a chamber of distortion surrounding the actual message. Neo-nazis, neo-fascists, and white supremacist spokesmen often imply that the underlying hateful sentiment is “ironic” rather than truly malevolent. The poster child of the alt-right Richard Spencer has claimed his calls for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” together with his “Heil Trump” chant at a post-election rally, were done in the spirit of irony. Similarly, the founder of The Daily Stormer, Andrew Anglin, responding to allegations of inciting violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, called himself and his followers “ironic Nazi, rather than neo-Nazi.”

This “just banter” strategy trickles down from openly fascist websites to “regular folk” Trump supporters. Its main aim is to trigger the Left, to skewer “liberal hysteria,” and to repeal its uptight, squeamish culture of overreaching political correctness, much in the offline tradition of “I was just joking” explanation when called out on a racist or sexist comment. Alarmed bystanders themselves are dismissed as oversensitive, ideologically rigid and, above all, humorless.

 

Humor — a Protected Category 

The ability to dismiss the gravity of a message makes alt-right humor particularly pernicious. Just as countless Americans ignored internet trolling as a serious political factor in the lead up to the presidential election in 2016, social media content moderators seem to give alt-right “jokes” an easy pass (a recent investigation into Russian troll farms seems to confirm that). A brief survey of the content policies of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube reveals that humor constitutes a grey zone between hate speech and legitimate political expression.

In the section on hate speech against “protected categories,” which are based on race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and serious disability/disease, the Facebook Community Standards “allow humor, satire, or social commentary related to [these].” The Twitter Help Center, does not mention “humor” as such, but rather refers to “Parody, newsfeed, commentary, and fan accounts,” all of which are clustered together in the rules pertaining to the requirements for marking one’s account as a “parody,” “fake,” “fan,” or “commentary” one, rather than the “real” one.

In the case of YouTube, humor is only mentioned in its Advertiser-friendly Content Guidelines, which state that content that is satire or comedy can be exempt from being considered hateful, though, “simply stating your comedic intent is not sufficient and that content may still not be eligible for advertising.” Amongst these rules, there remains a knowledge gap when it comes to humor’s potential to hurt, alienate, and divide, as well as to its intricate working in social media platforms codes of conduct.

Moreover, when it comes to content moderation policies, irony and satire often slip through the image-text gap. For example, Facebook moderation guidelines seem to consider words and images separately; they are geared towards either one or the other. When it comes to moderating visual content, non-consensual image sharing, graphic violence, pornography, body damage, sexual assault, self-mutilation, or child nudity seem to be the main triggers. The same goes for language content with words carrying emotional gravity (like “kill” or “hate”), and racial and misogynist slurs, which are red flags for moderators.

But humor is often located between the image and the words, functioning as context rather than content. That slippage is conducive to humor’s power but also contributes to its opacity, as the moderators gloss over the calls for exclusion, and degrading generalizations are served to users in jokey manner. It is no surprise then, that memes, where the images and words are jammed in fluctuating relationships, prove to be one of the most effective tools of alt-right indoctrination. In memes, neither image nor the text need to be particularly graphic — it is their convergence that delivers a message that might be harmful. Meaningful engagement with diverse ideas of what constitutes “funny,” and moderation policies that work toward systemic understanding of satire as intersecting workings of both text and image, as well as intent and effect, is highly needed.

As a result, while these companies hire massive numbers of people to delete curses, slurs, calls for violence, and several other types of attacks when they are directed at “protected categories,” satirical character of content often manages to counter the alleged “vicious intent.” Posts that could be seen as hostile or hateful circumvent moderation, disabling, geo-blocking, and removal on the basis of an undefined notion of “funniness.”

A recent example can be found on the Facebook page “Conservative Humor Gone Awry,” where essentially all of the categories defined as “protected” are nevertheless being targeted, albeit in a satirical manner. A recent op-ed from ProPublica suggests that Facebook’s internal rules for censoring hate speech are biased to favor both the right-wing “sarcastic” content, as well as eliminate content that is less playful and more emotionally charged. The latter often attacks heads-on issues like racism, police killings of racial minorities, or frustration with current state of US administration. Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado’s account has been repeatedly disabled by Facebook for her heated messages, which raises the question of whether this would be the case if she chose a “lighter” approach to convey her message.

 

The Other Side of Laughter

It is important to state that my disenchantment with humor and its digital footprint concerns both sides of political spectrum. The rise of cable TV sit-coms, late-night comedy, online cartoons, stand-up, sketch, and improv as widespread news sources keeps drawing record left-wing audiences. TV hosts like Samantha Bee, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, or John Colbert are seen as journalists rather than comedians, their humor backed by solid research and investigative practices to point put the absurdities of Trump presidency. Dry witticism of online platforms like The Other 99% and Occupy Democrats shares some characteristics with its alt-right counterpart through aggregated links, captioned images, and short videos. The other day, I found myself moved by a video of a tuba player trolling KKK marchers with a goofy music at the South Carolina rally. While I laughed watching it, I also felt sadness for the vulnerability of a big, awkward instrument in the midst of angry white male bodies, for its contextual absurdity.

To audiences like me, firmly situated on the left side of political spectrum, the tone of political humor in “our” media – CNN, NBC, New Yorker, Mother Jones, Jezebel — is often less intense. It seems more conceptual than activist, more intellectual than violent. Although late night shows keep us entertained, humor that does not revolve around the core ideas of white males, patriarchy, nationalism, and race, and that does not speak to the centrality of violence and threat, reverts to a rhetorical, rather than political level. Irony and satire often do not coincide there with a civically engaged citizenry and active democratic participation — even worse, they sometime provide normalization and rejection of accountability — recent example is Sean Spicer rolling up on his podium at the Emmys this weekend. Spicer’s redemption tour, including an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel show, is largely based on humor rather than political or ethical transformation; he is invited to become his own version of Mellisa McCarthy.

Meanwhile, in far-right media and pro-Trump media spaces, humor continues to blend with violence, becoming an apparatus for ideological scaffolding between citizens. In the wake of Charlottesville, an event that cuts right through laughter, right-wing groups and individuals on Facebook and Twitter, rather than mourning, continue to spew racism. Alt-right “funny games” are games without catharsis, in which, just like in Hanneke’s movie, the villains win, the “good guys” die, justice is never served, and we — online bystanders — are compromised in our complacency.

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